Hierarchical vs. Territorial

Hierarchical vs. Territorial

“In the animal kingdom, individuals define themselves in one of two ways — by their rank with hierarchy (a hen in a pecking order, a wolf pack) or by their connection to a territory (a home base, a hunting ground, a turf). This is how individuals — humans as well as animals — achieve psychological security. They know where they stand. The world makes sense.”
- Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

I spent this past week in Paris. While I was technically helping my wife show her handbags (Shameless Plug #1) for the first time in the City of Light, I was excited to have some time to release my mind and body from everyday life. Nowadays it takes work to unwind and just be. Life is so hectic, connected, and filled with noise that most of us expend all our energy just trying to keep up, and I for one don’t always remember how to take it easy. So this week I made an effort to do just that.


I slept late. I ate lots of baguettes, along with truffle camembert and foie gras with figs. I explored Paris by foot, and I read. One of the books I dove into deeply was The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I can’t think of a better book to read in Paris. It is a monumental worka must read for so many reasons. It makes you reassess your decisions, evaluate your processes, and it inspires you to greater action.


One of the key concepts in the book is the idea of working hierarchically vs. territorially. It deeply resonated with meso much so that I am going to go ahead and attempt to share the cliff notes with all y’all.


Since the beginning of time, humans have been organizing themselves in hierarchies. This is the default setting for organizing tribes and aligns perfectly with our commercially-oriented materialist society. A hierarchy is built on difference — someone has more and someone has less, whether it be power, money, or status.


For example, in a traditional corporation, a C-level executive has more power and influence than a vice president or director. Due to the expectations that come with these titles, each individual usually settles into their role in the organization and inside work relationships . When and if that role changes, or one receives a promotion or demotion, the person’s self-worth and happiness adjust accordingly. The same applies to high school, politics, religions, and the majority of social structures in our world.


Defining yourself hierarchically, while widely accepted, can be catastrophic to many — not least creatives, artists, and entrepreneurs. Why? Well, when you define yourself hierarchically…


  1. You will evaluate your self-worth and experience a level of fulfillment directly related to where you stand within the hierarchy.
  2. You will constantly be competing and comparing to those above and below you within the hierarchy.
  3. You will act toward others based on your place within the hierarchy.
  4. Finally, you will take actions based on how it affects your place within the hierarchy, as opposed to what will lead to your highest levels of fulfillment and best work.


For those of you that have read my book (Shameless Plus #2), or my sermons, you know that the hierarchical orientation is focused externally and that sustainable fulfillment can only come from an internal orientation. It can only come from within. Looking to external sources for your self-worth produces a life and work that is contrived, and any positive feelings you experience are generally fleeting.


The alternative to working hierarchically is working territorially. This style of work has an internal orientation and is defined in the following manner:


  1. Your sustenance comes from the act. A runner knows they will feel great after they put in their miles. A photographer will feel wonderful after they take their pictures. And an entrepreneur will feel fulfilled after nudging their idea one step closer to reality. When working territorially, the energy to do more work comes solely from the work—from continuing to follow your path. It is self-sustaining.
  2. When working territorially, no external input is required. Here’s a question to ask yourself: If you were the last person on earth, would you still do the work? According to Steven Pressfield, “If you are alone on the planet, a hierarchical orientation makes no sense. There’s no one to impress. So, if you’d still pursue that activity, congratulations, you are doing it territorially…. We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.”
  3. Your territory can only be claimed when you put in the work. You are not a writer unless you write. You are not a runner unless you run. You are not an entrepreneur unless you start a business. When working territorially, you get back what you put in.


When you are working hierarchically, your sustenance and security come from external energies, such as approval, power, or material wealth. But when you are working territorially, your sustenance and security come solely from within, generated by “the act itself, not the impression it makes on others.”


This is why it is so crucial for artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs to work territorially. You are in control of your fulfillment and not subject to the constantly varying input of external sources.

While I have always loved living in the United States, our current cultural climate feels oriented far more hierarchically than territorially. We are constantly looking at what other people are doing on platforms like Instagram and comparing ourselves to other countries like China. This focus on status and difference is a danger to our continued cultivation of innovation and thought leadership. One of the striking things about Paris is its embrace of homegrown cultural individuality. The French seem to have cultivated a more territorial orientation. Paris is one of the few places I have been recently that’s more concerned with its own heritage and distinct ideas than with adopting globalization like everywhere else in the world. Our country would benefit from spending a little less time worrying about the global pecking order and instead focusing on what we do best—creating the future.

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