The Downside of Looking Good

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 terribly 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 miniskirts 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
  • 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?


    • 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.


  • 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.

  • 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

  • Priti Jan 19, 2016, 1:17 pm

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

  • 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


      You’re right, defining success is profoundly significant.


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