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
  • Bob Jan 14, 2016, 10:52 am

    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


      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.


  • 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!


  • 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.

  • 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”

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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”.


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


      I like that quote.


  • 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!!

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