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
  • 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.

  • tricia Jan 14, 2016, 4:11 pm

    Wow! HolyMack! Excellent Post!!

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • :) 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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