Who do you think you are? Thought leader, ha! Who asked for your opinion?

This is the self-doubting commentary I have struggled with and continue to struggle with from time to time. Some of us have no trouble standing up, speaking out, and throwing our ideas and thoughts into the world. For a long time, I was not one of them. What was I waiting for?


I never believed I had it.

What is it?

Supposedly, every community is composed of both thought leaders and non-thought leaders. Each individual community member knows whether or not she is willing and able to construct and articulate a unique thought.  Yet, this is private information that only she knows. How does a community decide whom to listen to? How does it distinguish thought-leaders from non-thought leaders?

One way to distinguish these two types is by using a screening device – costly rituals.

Two things are required for a ritual to be an effective screening device:

  1. The two types must differ with respect to their tolerance of emotional and physical discomfort
  2. The two types’ relative willingness and ability to endure a ritual is credible evidence of their willingness and ability to construct and articulate a thought.

Also, rituals must be sufficiently costly but not too costly. The thought leaders must find it worthwhile to endure the rituals.  The non-thought leaders must find it worthwhile to be identified as such. This leaves the community with an easily identifiable set of thought leaders.

Examples of costly rituals include:

  • Taking AP courses in high school
  • Scoring high on the SAT
  • Getting accepted at a top ranked university
  • Becoming a Rhodes Scholar
  • Doing graduate study at a top 10 program
  • Landing a professorship at a Research I University
  • Learning Secret Knowledge like how to tolerate classical music, swirl and sniff wine, use Latin on just the right occasions, and pull off wearing tweed

Enduring these rituals (and many others) makes you a thought leader.


So, what is pedigree?

Pedigree is a giant colander. Pour in all those with a voice, unique thought, and a desire to share (that’s all of us), turn on the tap and shake vigorously. Pedigree is bestowed upon those who endure the system of interconnected and costly rituals.

Pedigree is permission to stand up, speak out, and be heard in our culture.

Those of us who fall through the holes are told to be the audience.

Pedigree is not only valuable to those who possess it is also valuable to the rest of us. The marketplace of ideas is more crowded than ever. As consumers of ideas we have scarce time, constrained attention spans, and limited incomes. Pedigree is a time-saving device. Pedigree is a short-cut. Of the myriad of blogs, books, and papers, pedigree helps us choose what to read.

Pedigree is a poke in the side to pay attention.  We have been conditioned by our media outlets to turn up the volume, lean forward and pay attention whenever a story leads with “Yale professor finds…”

Pedigree is a paid membership fee to an exclusive club. Costly rituals not only help a community identify its thought leaders. They also help thought leaders identify each other. Those who pay the fee are rewarded with privileged access to information, opportunities and of course to each other.

I used to view pedigree as a stronghold, a castle, a protected lair with moats, walls, and towers whose occupants monopolized thought, dictated discussions, and shaped the course of our culture.

I was sure that my future (a better future) lay in finding a way to breach the walls of this fortress and get inside.


Not so interested anymore.


Yes, there is great stuff happening inside those walls. However, I realized that all the time, effort, and energy I had dedicated to the pursuit of pedigree was time, effort and energy that could have been dedicated towards building my own community, my own castle, my own table.

For years, I was in awe of their fortress. I was cowed by their moats, walls and towers. I was waiting for someone on the inside to notice me, drop the drawbridge, and invite me inside. Once inside, I could break my silence, realize my voice, and act on my agency.  Now, I realize that I have been a co-conspirator in my own passivity. I gave their moats width. I gave their walls thickness. I gave their towers heights.

I realized that I had pedigree all along. I just had a different kind:

  • I attended a high school that (for the most part) prepared students to get a job at the local Monsanto plant.
  • I scored so low on the PSAT that I got called into the Counselor’s Office.
  • I earned straight C’s and D’s during my first year of college.
  • I was a Landscaping Scholar right out of college
  • I got rejected by every PhD programs I applied to on my first try
  • I found my soul at a Teaching I University.
  • I learned secret knowledge like how to tolerate Dwight Yoakam, swirl and sniff Little Kings on the banks of the Ohio River, hoot and holler on the right occasion, and pull off wearing a 10 gallon Cowboy Hat.

I realized that the really interesting action (the future) is taking place on the outskirts of the castle walls. Out here pedigree is defined any way you want to define it.

I realized that the whole time that I felt tethered, held back, and tied down by powers outside of my control that I was the one holding the rope.

Now, looking at the rope in my hand, who knows what’s going to happen…


If you enjoyed this blog, you may enjoy my Halftime Speeches monthly email.

Thanks. – shawn