The Downside of Looking Good

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I've written extensively about my time working in McKinsey's New York office. However, today I will share with you something I learned outside of work while walking the streets of Manhattan.

I grew up in San Diego, CA. It's a warm city where temperatures range from 15 to 23 degrees C (60 to 75 degrees F) during the day, year round.

When I first moved to New York, I experienced my first winter. For the first time, my body was chilled to the bone.

I remember one winter the temperatures had dropped to -7 C (20 degrees F). I'd never been so cold in my life. I pulled out all the warm clothes I had -- long underwear, big warm coat, scarf, hat -- and I was STILL cold.

Normally I try to wear a somewhat fashionable winter hat (if that's even possible), but it was so cold I bought one of those super fluffy hats that generously covers your ears, heavily-insulated and padded. They're terrible unfashionable (even for me!), but wow are they warm. So at -7 C (20 degrees F), I gave in.

I didn't care that my head looked like a well-insulated elephant. I wanted to be warm (or at least less cold).

I remember walking down the streets of Manhattan and seeing these couples walk down the street for a night on the town. That didn't seem that unusual to me.

What really shocked me was how some of these women were wearing mini skirts without a full-length wool coat or fur coat of any kind. The women looked really good -- Manhattan Chic -- but they were shivering too.

That was the year I came up with the concept that I call "vanity temperature." Your vanity temperature is the temperature threshold where you stop caring what you look like and what others think, and you focus purely on what you need to wear to stay warm.

So -7 C (20 degrees F) had long since surpassed my vanity temperature. For the high-fashion women of Manhattan, that wasn't cold enough to cross their vanity temperature thresholds.

Which approach is right?

That decision is always a personal choice. However, what I want to point out is that there's always a price to be paid for looking good -- especially if you're trying to look good to impress others or maintain a certain social standing.

Regardless of the reason, there's ALWAYS a price to be paid.

The question is: At what point is it no longer worth it?

At what metaphorical "vanity temperature" do you stop caring what others think, and do what you need to do to take care of yourself?

(I'm not talking about the weather anymore. I'm talking about work, career, money, prestige, relationships, family, marriages, children.)

Some people have no limits.

They will do anything needed to be "successful" or to maintain a certain social standing -- run their health into the ground, ruin every relationship they have, and damage their lives in many ways (often in a way that's not obviously visible to others).

Where are your limits?

How much is too much?

Those are personal questions and choices. However, I will say this:

If you have no limits... If you will do anything, say anything, sacrifice anything to be "successful," then what kind of life will you have left when you're finally "successful"?

Share your thoughts with me below.

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47 comments… add one
  • Dr. Vandana Jan 14, 2016, 9:43 am

    Brilliant Article Victor! As always. I can somehow co relate to this one as I am going through the situation now. Look forward to your articles!!

  • Ravi Jan 14, 2016, 10:00 am

    Hi Victor,

    I am a regular reader of your mails and they are truly inspiring.

    For the “vanity temperature” topic I would say it is right to be focused and strive for success, but you should always keep things, which are dear to you in life, very close to your heart. It is very easy to lose these dear things while mindlessly running for success. Kite flies as long it is attached to thread. The moment it tries to reach sky and detach from thread, it starts falling.

    I am from India and the holy book – The Bhagvad Geeta says “You came with nothing in this world and you would go leaving everything here”.

    Cheers,
    Ravi

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2016, 7:17 pm

      Ravi,

      I like that quote.

      -Victor

  • John LaManna Jan 14, 2016, 10:02 am

    Very true insights, Victor. The consulting firm I joined a couple of years ago puts a very high emphasis on our cultural values for that same reason. None of us is the world’s greatest consultant, and behaving as such – being destructively competitive, not sharing expertise, taking all the credit – would lead to a negative outcome for the firm and our clients. We want to foster individual and collective growth in the long-term, which means investing and sacrificing individual gains in the short-term. Our biggest opportunity is to raise each other up so that we can tackle larger and more profitable engagements together.

  • Mashal Alkharashi Jan 14, 2016, 10:06 am

    Not true.

    True masters of their craft can achieve maximum success while maintaining their pristine image.

    Meaning, you can get super warm in a cold weather while still looking good.

  • David Jan 14, 2016, 10:10 am

    This is SUCH a good question, Victor! Thanks for putting this before your followers to think about. I will definitely take this advice with me into my career as I transition out of college in the next few months. Thank you, David Heath

  • Glo Jan 14, 2016, 10:11 am

    The measure of success differs for every person, every professional, and every entrepreneur. Some do measure it solely through financial figures – how much they earn etc. However, I think true success requires a holistic approach to life. Meaning, one is not supposed to be considered as “successful” if he/she does not achieve success socially as he/she has done financially. To me, success is the ability to maintain positive influence starting from one’s own family, to friends to business networks. Money comes as a bonus medium. It is not everything. To me, impact plays a bigger role than a mere financial achievement in success.

    • Tugba Jan 14, 2016, 11:16 am

      Well said, Glo!!

    • Òscar Jan 14, 2016, 2:04 pm

      Hi, Victor. I really like the topics and approach of your letters. I define successful as “satisfied/happy with your relationships”. If these women dress like this to be more attractive (to both men and women) and improve their friend-making abilities. If they do it only to keep a social standing, because if they wore two coats and a scarf they would not be accepted… that should change (I’d never do it). (They could always show their dress once they are in a bar/club. Can’t they?) . I experience a similar thing. I have realised that when I wear glasses people perceive me completely different from when I wear contact lenses. They tend to find me more introverted. And there’s a recommended time limit. As for me health and comfort go first, I never exceed it.

  • FB Jan 14, 2016, 10:21 am

    I really like how you theorized and labelled “Vanity Temperature”. Definitely a concept I’ll advertize use during this cold winter!

    As for the generalization of this concept to life: personal standards & well being vs. other people’s expectations – I agree but only partially.

    Sure thing, “living for others” is most certainly not healthy.

    But at the same time, being solely focused on one’s own needs and well being (regardless of what others – including our dear ones- think) might turn up being just as bad.

    It’s all about finding the right balance:
    – What are the things that we want to do differently (than what others expect) to feel good (no matter who misjudges us on these life decisions)
    – Whose opinions/feelings matter in our life decisions?
    => I would say it’s a matrix: X-axis “Importance to us”, Y-axis “Importance to those whose point of view counts”

  • Ana Vasques Jan 14, 2016, 10:28 am

    Great input, Victor.

    It’s true, if you have no limits on the process of achoeving something, you won’t have limits afterwards either. I feel like this is an important test; what you have to sacrifice in order to get something might be what you’ll have to continuously sacrifice in order to keep it afterwards.

    Saying “no” and imposing personal limits is very important to have a healthy lifestyle.

  • Romer Benitez Jan 14, 2016, 10:34 am

    Hi Victor,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I find this very interesting as there is really no right or wrong on the different perspectives that envelope your main idea. There is a “Total Leadership” model discussed by Stew Friedman that integrates the different domains of your life in order to view these as complementary rather than a trade off. If we apply the model to your example, we can see that “looking good” adds value to the well-being of the person and thus, this promotes better health. In turn the person can be more productive and feel good about himself and the people around him. I think that the key here is to maintain the integrated and positive approach. The complexity here is when ‘feeling good’ becomes a struggle, maybe due to a different environment just like in your example, then you have to find the new equilibrium. In our analytical mind, the benefit of doing so should outweigh the cost. In our heart, this should be a meaningful and purposeful struggle to achieve your mission. This can be our compass to trust our decision.

    All the best and thank you Victor for your good work!

    -Romer

  • Bob Jan 14, 2016, 10:52 am

    Victor,
    Interesting that you originally chose a profession where success and unbounded commitment to the firm were the one and only criteria that mattered.
    You’ve developed into a remarkably thoughtful, inciteful , and well rounded human being in spite of it all. Thanks for sharing the genuine you.

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2016, 7:21 pm

      Bob,

      Thank you for the compliment. In my experience, consulting wasn’t a profession where success and unbounded commitment to the firm were the only criteria that mattered. My experience wasn’t that extreme. I think it was certainly a demanding profession and lifestyle — a choice that works for some and not for others.

      -Victor

  • LM Jan 14, 2016, 11:22 am

    I think of the vanity temperature in terms of how much of my physical health and mental well-being will I sacrifice for my job. As I grow older it has become more and more since I have more responsibilities (home, family) and I can no longer rely on being in a big city and having a great resume to just “quit and find another job” like I could in my 20’s and early 30’s.

  • Kim Jan 14, 2016, 11:37 am

    I am very happy that you brought up this issue as it seems to be an inherent flaw in our modern societies at large. In my opinion, the paradox of proving oneself to others despite no real tangible benefit (if one is to exclude ego and other constructs of the mind) does appear to be quite silly, but simultaneously important to the majority of us. However, drawing from one of your previous newsletter and the late Steve Jobs, I would argue that the fact that we all share the same destination should cause us to rethink this paradox at an individual level if we are to achieve a truly happy life defined on our own terms and not of a society that would make a woman feel obligated to wear a miniskirt in -7 C weather.

  • :) Jan 14, 2016, 11:48 am

    “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
    ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭16:26‬ ‭NKJV

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2016, 7:21 pm

      Great questions.

  • Jason Jan 14, 2016, 12:00 pm

    After growing up in the Northeast and spending several years in Chicago, I’ve held a similar view in regards to the “vanity temperature.” Although I may have been willing to compromise to the 10-15 degrees (F) mark.

    Two years ago was the worst winter on record in Chicago- multiple days had HIGHS in the -10 to -15 (F) range, which was unfathomable. In all seriousness, I think I wore my base layer ski bottoms for over two months straight. My office had a casual dress code unless you had a client meeting. I wore a similar hat (as Victor mentions), a heavy down jacket, and when I arrived at work, my hair was usually disheveled from my “hat head.” Every morning, as I waited for the next “El” train to arrive, it was easy to take notice of how people chose to brave the elements. While many were bundled up (as I was), it was common to see those who looked more professional, wearing wool overcoats (over their suits) and just ear muffs.

    My question is, do you think some corporate cultures place such an emphasis on appearance, that employees would not dare dress for extreme cold weather? So use the example of wearing a wool overcoat and ear muffs in the dead of winter, versus wearing a much warmer hat and down jacket? Or would this be on the individual, preferring to showcase their buttoned-up or professional-at-all-times image? If these individuals are putting their image first, it’s not much different than the 20-somethings who are wearing next to nothing, freezing, waiting in the bar/night club line…which boils down to maturity and insecurity.

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2016, 7:23 pm

      Jason,

      I think it’s both. I’ve known people who work in the fashion industry and it was customary to spend all of your income to look “good” (aka like you have taste) and save no money.

      While some cultures promote these values, ultimately all choices are up the individual. You don’t have to participate. It is choice.

      Finally, some people imagine the culture to be more restrictive that it actually is. The only way to find out is to do what is right for you and see what happens.

      -Victor

  • Ken Jan 14, 2016, 12:47 pm

    Interesting thought.

    But let me rephrase that question. What kind of life do we want to have left if we never get to be “successful”?

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2016, 7:27 pm

      Ken,

      Many options remain — a happy life, an emotionally well connected life, a spiritual life, a care free life. There are many dimensions / facets to life beside being successful.

      There are also many roles in life that don’t fall into the successful / unsuccessful paradigm. I am a father. Am I “successful” at being a father? The question feels awkward to me. I am a friend too. Am I “successful” friend? I wouldn’t even know how to measure success in the context of a friendship.

      I’m also a human being rich with my own humanity. I’m connected to everyone else on planet earth through the common experience of being human. Am I successful human being?

      In the U.S., when 9/11 happened, we were all just human beings. Successful or not didn’t matter one bit that day. Being human did.

      -Victor

      -Victor

  • Andrew Jan 14, 2016, 2:33 pm

    Great article Victor.

    That is very thought provoking and great for reflection.

    I wanted success and achieved it in getting a job I wanted after completing my MBA in 2012. However, since then my role has changed and I am now working 200 miles away from my home, my friends and fiancée.

    Like you and others say, it is a balance between happiness, finance and more importantly health. I will get the balance right but I am mindful of “at what cost” in the medium term.

    Finally, I know people who “have it all” on the outside, but behind closed doors are either very unhappy or have long standing issues. That makes me reassess what is important in life.

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2016, 7:29 pm

      Andrew,

      I know of many businesses and business owners that seem one way publicly, but the insider view is very different.

      I know of many marriages that seem perfect from the outside, until the truth reveals itself years and decades later.

      You can NEVER judge another person’s life from the outside. There is just too much you never see.

      My take is don’t focus on other peoples lives and whether they are good or not… get you own life in order based on the values important to you.

      -Victor

  • John Kang Jan 14, 2016, 2:47 pm

    Hi Victor,
    Thanks for the great article. I think in life it is helpful to understand the roles/responsibilities I have. So for me it would be husband, father, employee, member of a community, etc… Trying to keep all of those in tension is difficult and requires short term sacrifices at every turn, but in the long run if I can foresee difficulties I may have to change up the responsibility.

    For instance, if my wife is not feeling well and cannot watch our two children, I will take a day off of work. I am sacrificing some of my responsibility as an employee to fulfill my role as a husband/father. Another example is when I was thinking about my post-MBA job. I was attracted to consulting, but thought that it would be too much time away from family, so I decided not to go into consulting. I think that sacrificed some career success for family, but I am ok with that.
    John

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2016, 7:30 pm

      John,

      Most choices involve a tradeoff. The key is to make choices that work for you and it sounds like you have.

      I agree that consulting is a demand profession. Whether that tradeoff is worth it, is a personal choice. The fact that a tradeoff exists is simply being realistic.

      -Victor

  • Ahmad Jan 14, 2016, 4:01 pm

    Hi Victor,

    That was a good article. I have a follow up question. Typically, one finds his/her “vanity temperature” threshold after the fact. Eg: In a relationship, a man/woman (who was spending long hours at work to earn a promotion and neglecting their significant other) would realize they crossed their threshold limits in a relationship only after the other person has given up on them. So how can figure out our threshold limits beforehand in order to avoid such unfortunate events?

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2016, 8:36 pm

      Ahmad,

      To find someone else’s threshold limit, try asking them. Another way is rather than operate under the paradigm of how close can I get to the edge of the cliff before going over, take a different approach.

      Figure out what’s important to you, and prioritize your calendar and mental energy accordingly. That which takes up the most time slots on your calendar is what is often what is most important to you.

      If you spend 100 hours a week at work and 1 hour a week with a spouse or child, at a purely mathematical level your work is 100 times more important than that person. While there are some practical constraints to that way of thinking, it’s still a useful thought exercise.

      -Victor

  • tricia Jan 14, 2016, 4:11 pm

    Wow! HolyMack! Excellent Post!!

  • Paul Jan 14, 2016, 5:28 pm

    Interesting way to put it, the concept certainly rings a bell.
    For me, the turning point (professionally) came when I got my current girlfriend and decided it’s been enough. I’m 30 years old, want to spend more time with her, and less time on the road. It’s not worth it anymore. The time I’ll spend with her is not vanity time or a Veblen activity (Veblen good: buy things you don’t need with money you don’t have to impress people you don’t know), but has intrinsic value for both of us.

  • Koyelia Jan 14, 2016, 10:21 pm

    Hi Victor,
    Firstly Happy New Year. I am a regular reader of your emails and I find them really insightful.
    You are right there should be limits to my wishes or else we have to pay dearly.
    Maintaining the balance is what is difficult , at times.

  • Maulik Adhia Jan 15, 2016, 1:44 am

    Hi Victor,
    Its a question for everyone what are your vanity limits… I guess it all derives from the situation you have come through. If you had hard times in your early life and having money was always a challenge then probably having money at any cost would become the ultimate goal. If you have seen somebody having a great happiness because of the success then that becomes probably your ultimate goal and you could go at any stretch for achieving it… so basically its the situation that creates a mindset/ goal and that probably derives the vanity point for a person.

    The philosophical / spiritual world has already answered this question that the ultimate point to reach is God and no matter how much you fight for the materialistic achievements it won’t last longer. Let me know your views on this.

  • Damilola Jan 15, 2016, 4:40 am

    Never really looked at it this way before, especially the looking good part. But so true. Totally believe it.

  • Supriya Jan 15, 2016, 5:34 am

    I follow your posts with much interest ! They are insightful as they are thought provoking. The question on “Vanity Temperature” is an interesting one – one that most of us grapple with, both in professional and personal lives. In my opinion, deciding the important things to focus on in each situation without compromising values can help decide what to keep, what to forgo. Sure it will be a struggle doing this and it is never going to be easy. Negotiating the way to reach this fine balance is the art of a life well lived.

  • vinesh Jan 15, 2016, 5:51 am

    Victor,I’ve always enjoyed reading your articles;They’re power
    packed and I’ve saved each one of them.As a Management Teacher,I share your thoughts with my students and they love
    them.
    Keep up the good work.
    Cheers,Vinesh

  • Fernando Jan 15, 2016, 8:30 am

    I’m really glad that I got the opportunity to read this while young. Thanks, Victor.

  • Lukáš Jan 15, 2016, 1:18 pm

    What does it mean to be successful? I think we can be wrong even if we think we know it. I have started thinking about this recently, after reaching much success without happiness.
    Perhaps, people should firstly deeply analyze themselves to better understand what success means to them. Without doing such analysis we might be easily side-tracked. It is like solving a case without structure.
    It happened to me. After being one of the best students and receiving stipendia and got back from internship, I was not happy. Now, I am focusing on who I am rather that to be successful.

  • Ilya Jan 16, 2016, 3:50 am

    Fully agree. As I understand, it depends partly on the age and maturity: in the beginning of career you are full of aspirations and great goals. But after certain time you may start realizing there are other valuablr things in your life. And by this time you may possess enough experience to switch your activity to more comfortable pace and work life balance and devote yourself to other things (like family, or hobby).

  • Clinton Jan 16, 2016, 8:52 pm

    Hi Victor

    I really enjoy reading your articles and view you as a mentor. My own limits especially when it comes to achieving success in my career center on the time I get to spend with my loved ones. I once read this guy’s recount about how one of his close family members passed away while he was slugging away at his office inside an investment bank at 11pm. It’s a scenario I want to avoid.

  • Yang Jan 17, 2016, 12:09 am

    Thanks for sharing, Victor. The question at the end of the article seems to raise a rational thinking, I think it will be very interesting if we do use consulting method to analysis this problem.
    Our ultimate goal should be maximum our welfare, and let’s assume that only comes from two factors – Good look (Career success) and Health (Others, like family, friendship…), the equation would be:
    Personal Welfare
    = Welfare from good look + Welfare from health
    = level of good look * Utility per unit of good look + level of health * Utility per unit of health
    Level of good look and health could be measured relatively reliably, however, utility is a subjective stuff. It is based on personal belief, resulting from one’s experience, education, living environment… and affected by the law of diminishing returns. Thus, different personal utility would make people chose different level of good look (success) and health (others) to maximum their personal welfare. Both heavily emphasis on good look and health could be rational. With the change of personal context and their belief, the utility per unit of the two factors would change (also affected by law of diminishing returns), and people may need a new “optimal solution”. That’s part of the reason why many people may regret when they “grow up”.
    So, my understanding is that there is no “right” way or “optimal balance” in life, it’s all depends on your beliefs. “Having no limits” in a certain period of time because of specific utility parameters is OK. (Surely it’s hard to believe some people will keep that utility pattern for their whole life.)
    In fact, I believe personal belief dominates a lot of stuffs in our lives, from ethical issue to business decision making. So, there are almost no truth, but just beliefs. I got that thinking in my bachelor degree, when I studied Politics.
    Sometimes, we were asked to analysis different governances in different countries. Many democratic states have similar structure, but they are quite different in detail policy. America enjoys freedom, encouraging free market and the pursuit of wealth; some European countries, however, prefer “Welfare State”, sharing wealth with all people in the country, which, to some extent, is not good for wealth growing. (People who work hard may just earn as much as people who do nothing.) When you compare the two, could you tell which one is better? Or, the first question should be answered, why there is such a difference? The difference, I believe, should come from the different beliefs of the people in these countries. Some European people believe that a real developed state should be a place that everyone on the land would receive a good education, healthcare and working opportunity, that’s why they vote for a “Welfare State”. America, as the “New World”, is a place to purse wealth, fame and success, people are not really come here to share their welfare with others. Those different beliefs result in different governance and both are perfect. (Surely, the real situation is more complex and things change. No one continuously follows a certain pattern, because the context and people’s belief would change. But that difference does exist and is observable.) The states have different choices, so do us. There is no best governance, neither a best way of life.
    What I hope is, all of us could really understand ourselves (some say this is the hardest part), find our personal “optimal solution” and keep working hard to follow that. No need to hesitate, even if there will be a change ahead. You never know what will happen before you really be there.

  • Isi Jan 18, 2016, 9:24 am

    Great article Victor!

    I am of the opinion that it all stems from the question “what is my definition of success?”

    If my definition of success is singularly focused on my career, then everything else becomes expendable. If I have a more expansive view of success that includes not only reaching the zenith of my career, but having meaningful relationships, good health and so on. Then the real sacrifice becomes knowing and maintaining a degree of equilibrium in pursuit of success

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2016, 8:39 pm

      Isi,

      You’re right, defining success is profoundly significant.

      -Victor

  • Priti Jan 19, 2016, 1:17 pm

    Happy New Year to you and yours! Keep up the good work, you are a great inspiration.

  • charles Jan 19, 2016, 11:56 pm

    the sentiment are true and correct, a number of times people want to maintain social standing which has been prescribed by the society which may or may not be correct. be guided by your conscious, your moral and ethical values
    each one of us to remember the Joharis window principle the part we know ourselves should guide us in our lives the part we don’t know ourselves we work hard to know it then life becomes much easier. the most important person to please is yourself others are secondary

  • Jonaid Jan 20, 2016, 6:21 am

    Brilliant article Victor! Consultancy aside I read your emails for such thought provoking questions. I myself am going through the scenario but I would rather not narrate my story instead focus on my opinion.

    For me every individual has different “vanity temperature” for different factors in life. In a way it is like priorities.

    My friend once jokingly told me that if he ever makes it to a big consultancy firm his wife would kill him. For him working 12-15 hours a day was compromising family life. He didn’t care about the huge pay scale and the prestige of being a big firm consultant because 12-15 hours of work far exceeded his “vanity temperature”. Others may not look at it this way or have a different set of priorities which would make their vanity temperature completely different.

    That said, for me the key to going any limit and running your life is the desire for prestige; if prestige matters a lot in one’s life then there is no “vanity temperature” to achieving that.

  • Erick Jan 25, 2016, 10:25 pm

    Victor –

    Excellent article, you are becoming more philosophical and getting out from mere business. You just need one more step to enter into religion ..

    In my opinion the “vanity temperature” concept could help to assess individuals. There are many people who might have been very successful, but maybe due to an internal holy desire to not look only after themselves but for others (family, children, spouses, friends, the homeless – as Mother Teresa) would not let them to achieve success. Would you say that Mother Teresa was successful?

    This concept separates superficially successful people vs genuine people who truly achieve something meaningful.

    Another way to see it is: This concept trades off the human soul’s virtues vs flesh desires, and it separates the conscious human person from the animal-like individual. The lower the temperature tolerance, like in your example, for selfish reasons, the more animal-like person or materialistic the person.

    They are just my thoughts. What do you think?

    Best,
    Erick

    • Victor Cheng Feb 10, 2016, 8:00 pm

      Was Mother Theresa successful?

      My answer: By what standard? (Which is the whole point about success — it’s one’s own definition that matters.)

      In terms of vanity temperature, I wouldn’t use it to make a blanket judgement about people whether they are good or bad, superficial or otherwise.

      I would use it however to assess compatibility with another person. If you’re marrying somebody or being employed by someone, you’d want to have a similar vanity “temperature”.

      In the work place, does your boss do what he thinks is right for the company (which may risk getting fired) or what he thinks will look good (and avoid controversy).

      If you and your boss are similar, all is good. If one of you is different, one or both of you will be unhappy.

      -Victor

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