The Pros and Cons of Being an Insider vs. Outsider

A striking section of Elizabeth Warren’s memoir is about advice she says Larry Summers once offered her:

After dinner, “Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice,” Ms. Warren writes. “I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.

This gets at one reason why powerful people tend to become less intellectually honest as they accumulate power: they begin protecting fellow insiders instead of speaking truth.

At various points of my life, in various contexts, I’ve been an outsider and I’ve been an insider. As an outsider, I relish the opportunity to think independently and speak my mind. But as Summers suggests, my outsider status relegates me to the margins of the “conversation.” As an insider, I tend to feel muzzled — i.e. countless blog posts drafted and then deleted. But I have the most impact on the world when I’m on the inside of a power structure, exerting influence.

Tradeoffs, tradeoffs.

7 Responses to The Pros and Cons of Being an Insider vs. Outsider

  1. Chris Yeh says:

    An additional nuance is the distinction between “core” and “peripheral”. You can be an insider, yet still be on the periphery, or you can be an outsider, and form the core of a band of outlaws. Let me illustrate with some (somewhat) amusing examples:

    Core Insider: President of the United States
    Peripheral Insider: Secret Service Agent
    Core Outsider: Cult Leader
    Peripheral Outsider: Cult Leader’s 22nd Wife

    The key question is whether it is better to be a Secret Service Agent or a Cult Leader. The answer probably lies in your own need to dominate, or as another friend puts it, “be alpha.”

    Reply
    • DaveJ says:

      Also known as “big fish in a small pond vs. small fish in a big pond.”

      Reply
  2. DaveJ says:

    Any examples of “un-siders” – people who somehow manage to walk the tightrope between the two?

    Reply
    • Ben Casnocha says:

      Only in different contexts/sectors — not at the same time. At least none that I can think of.

      Reply
    • Steve M says:

      Plenty try. Rand Paul comes to mind. He is trying to keep the outsiders (Libertarians) his dad cultivated while appealing to establishment republicans (Insiders). For a while the Republican press (Fox, etc.) gave him a lot of attention and it looked like he could possibly succeed. Now, however, he is not doing so good. This seems to be the year of the outsider. Maybe he should have stuck to his dads strategy.

      Reply
  3. Thiago Ribeiro says:

    OK, I understand that insiders have their taboos and their etiquette, but is “don’t criticize other insiders” really “an unbreakable rule”? Is Krugman an insider? Isnt/wasn’t George Bush? Isn’t Cameron? Isn’t there a lot of intellectual insiders–intelectuals powerful people listen to– criticizing other insiders–politcians as well as fellow intelectuals?

    Reply
  4. ann moriarty says:

    yes, maybe Ms Warren & Mr Summers are correct, except I see the criticizing insider as a leader if she has justification

    Reply

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