We Do Judge a Book by Its Cover

During my undergraduate experience, most of my friends took business. Of those, one went on to massively outperform the rest of his peers in terms of commercial success. Once earning his degree he worked with a boutique investment bank for a few years. By his early 30s, he had started his own Investment Bank. Some years later he sold this to the Australian financial company, Macquarie, for a substantial sum. Along the way he owned interests in restaurants, a heli-skiing outfit, led a group to purchase an interest in an NHL team, was a representative for Canada at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, and much more. From a commercial perspective, he easily out achieved his peers by 50-100 times. He floated in the air well above the top 1%. He was soaring in the cloud of the top 1% of the 1%. As different as his career trajectory was relative to others, he was different from his earliest days as a University student. He showed up dressed for success from day one of school. If it wasn’t a suit, he sported dress pants, a shirt, and tie. Instead of slinging a backpack over his shoulder, he had an attache case. He stood out from the rest of his peers as a student. He had ambition and knew that he wanted more than a job. He took himself seriously long before the rest of the world did.

I’m not suggesting that dressing professionally as a student caused his financial success. However, as Robert Greene wrote in The 48 Laws of Power, “The way you carry yourself will often determine how you are treated: In the long run, appearing vulgar or common will make people disrespect you. For a king respects himself and inspires the same sentiment in others. By acting regally and confident of your powers, you make yourself seem destined to wear a crown.” If my friend wasn’t immediately affecting others view of him, he was definitely communicating to himself that he wasn’t here for just a good time. He was serious about success. Tanner Guzy author of The Appearance of Power writes, “Power has an appearance and appearance has power. Ideally those two would line up together.”

We should take care to be more aware of the influence of what we wear. Our clothing communicates, whether we like it or not. It communicates both to ourselves as well as to others. In a world where most of us have spent more time working from home, business casual attire has slipped into a new level of looseness. Some would suggest we should care about what we wear even if working at home, alone. Putting on some more professional clothes for work can help us as we transition from our “home” to “work.” Putting on “work” clothes while working from home becomes like the surgeon donning scrubs. It is preparing our mind for the task. We’re moving from the comforts of home to the contributions of commerce. Additionally, like our scrubs, our work clothes can signal to ourselves that we’re serious about our efforts.

Movie producer, Guy Ritchie, on a episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast, talks about dressing for ourselves. He rues “the death of the suit.” He suggests formal wear has been discounted and denigrated as being oppressive. We grudgingly put on shirt, suit, and tie because we’re obliged. The collar and tie constrict us like a dog on a leash as we drag ourselves to work. We see the suit as being imposed upon us. Instead, Ritchie sees the suit with great reverence. It’s a reflection of who you are, how seriously you take yourself. “You’ve got to want to put it on. It is owning it and taking full responsibility for being the boss of yourself.” Ritchie sees his suit as a suit of armor. Our dress impacts our impression of ourselves. Yes, we dress for function. As importantly, for mindset. Do you take yourself seriously? Are you paying attention to little details? What do you think about yourself?

Cornel West has been a public intellectual and civil rights activist in the US for decades. From his early days he consciously crafted his presence. His presence preceded his message and opened doors. What it communicated to himself was the main driver of his attention to detail. West, like Ritchie, sees his suits as armor. He’s noted, “It makes me feel good to put on my uniform because you’ve got to be ever ready for engagement and combat.” In his work, he faced criticism from many sides. West saw his suit as protective armor against the criticism cast his way. He also viewed it as a source for self-confidence. His fashion communicated to himself the seriousness of what he’s doing. West says, “Take pains to signal, in your appearance, a seriousness of purpose by attending to the details.”

Taking the time to consider what you’re wearing feels good. It supports confidence in your competence. In The Appearance of Power, Tanner Guzy writes, “Your work attire is your armor. It should make you feel invincible, not add to your insecurities. A polished, well-put-together look is what communicates you’re a person who is both respectful of colleagues and clients and is yourself worthy of respect.” This isn’t something that’s an after-thought. It requires attention to detail and intention. As Guzy observes, “To do and be your best, you must strive to look your best.”

Outside of communicating to ourselves, our appearance speaks volumes to those around us. There’s a connection between looking good and looking capable. If one appears professional, others are more likely to perceive one as professional. The converse is also true. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett writes in her book Executive Presence, “Poor grooming—dandruff on your collar, scuffed shoes, broken nails, runs in your tights, soup on your tie—compromises the ability of other people to see you as someone who’s going places because it says that either you don’t notice sloppiness or you don’t care enough to attend to it… Failure to come through on the grooming front signals either poor judgment or lack of discipline. Neither is good. Good grooming is not just about making a polished first impression: It’s about signalling to your competitors, and yourself, that you’re in total control.”

Ryan Holiday writes in his book, The Perennial Seller, “How you present yourself has an enormous influence over whether you will be chosen or ignored. It’s how you teach people that you are better. It’s how you separate yourself from others. It’s the face and the name tag you put on your work.” He goes on, “That saying ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover?’ It’s total nonsense. Of course you can judge a book by its cover—that’s why books have covers.” This is the truth in spite of the cultural trend to try and show ourselves as nonjudgmental as possible. The reality is we judge each other all the time. It’s biologically built in. Hewlett points out, “Colleagues size up your competence, likeability, and trustworthiness in 250 milliseconds—based simply on your appearance.” We’re making instantaneous judgements about core competencies based on appearances. Guzy introduces additional support for our built in judging noting, “my mind subconsciously scans the people around me for any perceived signals of a threat. Things like sex, age, gender, size, style, and behavior are all preprogrammed stimuli our brains use to help us determine who’s a threat, who’s neutral and who’s a friend.” Clothing is one of these factors. It influences what scientists call the Halo Effect. If someone notices a positive trait about something or someone, they are more inclined to see other characteristics they come into contact with of this person favorably. If we smell good or dress well, we’re seen as more persuasive, friendly, or capable. Appearance is one of the mental shortcuts we use to assess people. Guzy writes, “because it is our tendency to judge according to visual stimuli, we use physicality, body language, grooming, and clothing to quickly and effectively communicate who we are and how we want to be perceived.” We’re talking about influencing our image and other’s impression of us, not actual intelligence or skill. Hewlett offers, “we’re focusing on what we’re signalling rather than what we’re really accomplishing.” It may seem cynical and a sideshow, but it’s an inevitable reality.

John McWhorter in his recent book, Woke Racism, writes of the importance emphasized a couple of generations ago on fitting in with one’s dress. McWhorter writes, “In 1966, the Detroit branch of the National Urban League distributed little theatrical sketches showing how inner-city kids could get jobs more easily. In one, ‘Mo,’ who says ‘Uh-huh’ and ‘Naw, man,’ and dresses how he wants to, doesn’t get the job; he gets one when he uses standard English with the interviewer and dresses professionally.” When we dress to fit in, we’re more likely to be let in.

It took Hewlett several years to learn this lesson personally. She struggled to command attention and respect in her early career efforts. She slowly came to realize with kind feedback from mentors that a large part of her delay in accessing opportunities followed the way she presented herself. She didn’t have an image that signalled to others that she was a star or had what it takes. As a result, doors remained closed. Our dress may not help us pass a test, but it influences whether we’re invited inside to take the test. Hewlett writes about musical competitions. She notes the number of non-musical factors that influence the outcome of competition. “The way they walked onto the stage, the cut of their clothes, the set of their shoulders, the spark in their eyes, and the emotion that played on their faces. All of these things established a mood either of tedium and awkwardness or of excited anticipation.” It opened her eyes to the impact of image. Hewlett internalized, “How musicians present themselves creates an indelible impression. Judgements are made before the first note sounds in the concert hall. It’s no different in the workplace.”

What are some practical steps we can take to control what we can on the appearance front? As with our business strategies we should conform until we outperform. First, dress to fit in. Don’t dress to stand out. Hewlett notes, “No matter who we are and where we work, the workplace imposes norms around appearance, communication, and gravitas that we’d be fools to ignore if our intent is to thrive and not just survive.” Proffering a polished presence is built around minimizing distractions. That’s the goal of conforming. Our style isn’t about showing off, it’s about giving ourselves a chance. As Hewlett writes, “Your appearance should focus your audience on your professional competencies, not distract from them.” Like our musicians, before we’re heard, we’re seen. Hewlett encourages us to see our appearance as the medium for our message. “As such, it (our appearance) should neither distract nor detract from what you stand for and what you want to say.” She notes that “Anything that calls attention to itself rather than the message you’re giving is not the best.”

Once we’ve satisfied the conformance front, we can embrace the number one rule of fashion of “don’t accentuate your weaknesses.” Rule number two is simply, “remember rule number one.” Not accentuating our weaknesses involves trying to show yourself in the best light possible. We should seek clothes that fit the Goldilocks standard. We don’t want things that are too tight or too loose. We’re trying to signal fitness and wellness. Hewlett introduces us to an executive at GE, Deb Elam who notes, “Being physically fit gives people the confidence that you will take care of what you are asked to do, because you are taking care of yourself.”

A guiding principle to presentation is to look like you tried. In the surveys Hewlett and her team did, they found over 75% of senior executives consider signs of sloppy dress as influencing their perceptions of the individual negatively. Delivering oneself dishevelled is a distraction from the message of one’s skills and competence. Wrinkled or unpressed outfits, scuffed shoes, stains on shirts, improperly fitted outfits all detract from the message and reflect poorly on the presenter. It’s like showing typos and spelling mistakes on a resume. What should you wear? It doesn’t have to be something that is exclusive, expensive, or rare. It should be something that reflects that you care. Care about yourself, your audience, and your environment. Does it show that you’ve put in some thought and time in order to make yourself shine?

Here’s a hypothesis to test. Is there a positive correlation between office dress and E&O issues in a brokerage? Does poor grooming and dress reflect poor work habits? If we’re casual in our accepted dress, are we casual with our work processes? It’s true that you aren’t your appearance. Your character and competence are separate. However, our appearance has influence. It communicates who we think we are to ourselves. With what we wear we’re telling the world, Guzy writes, “who you are and where you’re headed.” Guzy acknowledges “Your clothing and style won’t ever create value for you. The best they can do is magnify it. Appearance, unlike morality, isn’t about right or wrong. It’s about effective vs ineffective. It’s about being able to have the way you look enhance your life.” It’s about helping to answer the question does it help? What we wear is a little thing that can make a big difference. Give yourself a chance and put on some pressed pants.

As Guzy notes, “The reality is, people are tribal. We want to spend time with those who act, look, think, and believe like we do. Everyone has a uniform. When worn in the correct context, a group’s uniform communicates status, respect and confidence.” We can choose to ignore it or we can try to influence it. In either case, our clothing does communicate about us. Guzy sums things up noting, “your appearance is either an asset or a liability, so why not make it the best asset it possibly can be?” Finally, let’s consider a suggestion from Dennis Prager writing in Think a Second Time where he writes, “That’s the reason to look nice—it’s selfish not to, because everybody else has to look at you.”