Substance and signals

Mating rituals are central to the animal kingdom. The question of which male gets to pass on his genes is an important question. Rearing children in the wild is costly and risky. Therefore, the prize often goes to the winner of an intense competition.

These competitions, or mating rituals, can be based on signals or substance. Lions fight for leadership over the pride, while tigers battle for dominance in a territory. Giraffes wrestle with their necks. Several species of deer lock horns. All these rituals are shows of strength – of substance. But other species, especially tropical birds, perform mating rituals using signals. The peacocks with the most beautiful fan of feathers gets the peahens. Birds-of-paradise, with their flamboyant plumage, make for some of nature’s most colourful signalling rituals. Signals send an indirect message. These birds signal that they are strong enough to afford feathers that are an obvious burden, and therefore, must be suitable mates.

Photo by Jakob Owens

In the human world as well, there is always an interplay between substance and signals. When we apply for a job, our project portfolios and recommendations indicate substance. By going to an interview in an impeccable suit, we send a signal. Consultants and investment bankers dress in suits to show that despite their busy schedules, they have an abundance to spend on their appearance. Our degrees and qualifications lie somewhere in the spectrum between signals and substance.

In a world made transparent through technology we often see substance take the place of signals. Portfolios and recommendations are becoming more valuable than qualifications. The best salespersons no longer dress in suits and ties. However, signals would continue to remain relevant. We are likely to always underestimate the role of a signal, while overestimating the role of substance, just as we value the quality of a product higher than attributes such as packaging, design or branding.

But how do we make a distinction here?

One way is to use Peter Thiel’s guidance here. Signals ought to be used as a means to a substantial end. As an end in themselves, they can fall short. Thiel, in his book Zero to One, says:

“In the most dysfunctional organizations, signaling that work is being done becomes a better strategy for career advancement than actually doing work (if this describes your company, you should quit now).”

A signal can be an effective means to communicate one’s innate worth. But it is a jungle out there, and a cat pretending to be a lion does not last very long.

Suggested listening: Honest Singals – Akimbo, a podcast by Seth Godin

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