Style first, substance may be: the giant vortex of superficiality

One of the most interesting paradigms of our society is our obsession with style over substance. Few great beings are immune to this pervasive trend. I’m talking about an obsession with looks, lifestyle, kudos, status, glamour and doing things because it is the thing to do rather than for itself.

First, let me say I am as guilty in being complicit with this movement as anyone else, though there are some areas where I see no logic and draw the line and I’m recently making a conscious effort away from superficiality. The superficiality cultural paradigm affects every sphere of your life: career, romance, friendships, personal development, and may be even family life. Thankfully, personally I find my family life to be a respite from the superficial madness of our global civilization, and I think many people do and that’s one of the real beauties of family.

In this blogpost, I try to put some words on this amorphous topic and challenge us all to transcend this small way of thinking where we can, or at least just observe the absurd ways we govern our lives and the lives of others.


“Dress for the job you want” and “Dress for success” are common mantras. Women and men spend good dollars on business clothes. Yet, here’s the fundamental question: Should it matter? Should what you’re wearing, beyond a basic professionalism, really influence people’s perception of how good you are at your job?

Are you a better investment banker in a crisper suit? Are you going to be a better scuba diving instructor if you have a six-pack? Are you a better airline hostess if your eyelashes are longer and more curled?

Yet these are the types of superficial qualities people are judged on all the time. It leads people to spend more time on things like these than on actually being better at the core skills required in their job.

That’s level 1 superficiality. Level 2 is more subtle. Level 2 involves characteristics like voice, tone, confidence.

I’ve been in so many business meetings where some senior businessperson has said something completely content-less or worse, even obvious (“We should focus on the customer”, “We should aim to be world-class”), and everyone has nodded and applauded as if it was a great insight. I’ve been left sitting in the meeting thinking “Well I guess I just didn’t realize they didn’t know they should be focusing on the customer”

If someone says something in a deeper voice or with more certainty or has a more prestigious title, does not mean you should not probe further, challenge them, question them or provide them feedback that it was obvious and you’re more curious on how to implement that recommendation etc.

There’s also the obsession with working in brand-name firms: the PE houses, the investment banks, the consulting firms. Whether you actually learn much from working there or not. You might learn a ton more working at a small unknown start-up, but then you wouldn’t have this badge on your resume. This is another form of pervasive superficiality. I remember a conversation with a friend working at a prestigious investment bank who said he’d basically learnt nothing in his 10 months there – he’d just been doing work like inputting numbers from annual reports into spreadsheets. I’m NOT saying that’s always the case. Indeed sometimes you do learn a ton, and I’m always impressed with PE peers at business school. But there is an upwards bias in perception of how well prestigious organizations train you, simply because of the brand name they’ve established. Sometimes the training is actually minimal. And sometimes your success is due to you being smart rather than them making you smart.

Another one of my bugbears is how the private sector has come to represent everything that is efficient and cut-throat, whilst non-profit work is considered ‘soft’ or not as efficient. There’s likely some truth to the stereotype BUT there are also tons of smart people having a much greater impact on the world through non-profit work. And anyone who’s worked or experienced private-sector companies knows there is a ton of waste and inefficiency in those organizations too. So I wonder if some day, people at my stage in their career will be able to follow their heart into working on conservation or a cause they really care about straight away, and learn and grow and develop on the job, without having to do the mandatory 10 years or so in the private sector just to gain some respect from people. “I learnt from the private sector and applied it to the non-profit sector” has become such a mantra. But can’t a person learn from an efficient non-profit and apply it to the wasteful large enterprises we see in the private sector? Just saying…There’s a superficial, sometimes unfounded, bias towards the private sector.

The wider theme here is the use of heuristics and signals rather than first principles case-by-case reasoning when evaluating candidates for jobs.

Oh and the whole money thing…I could be happy on a decent salary. But then I can’t afford to go on luxury cruises with my rolling-in-the-dough friends who can’t understand they need to sometimes adjust their lifestyle downwards to be more inclusive. Superficiality and the desire for money to fit in is affecting and will affect our career decisions sometimes more than it should.

The first in a series of paintings at HBS I will present in this blogpost. I classify/interpret these paintings in the theme of superficiality. (Not sure if the artist intended that).
The first in a series of paintings at HBS I will present in this blogpost. I classify/interpret these paintings in the theme of superficiality. (Not sure if the artist intended that).

Romance & friendships

Let’s talk then about how relationships start and which ones don’t…

One of my friends is a hobbyist match-maker. She has a whole database of single men and single women. And many of them continue to be single and continue to turn down people she suggests they meet for coffee. The reason? They don’t like the look of the person she suggests and therefore reject people on the basis of their Facebook profile picture. Confession: I’ve been one of those people. Not outright reject, but like I couldn’t really be bothered to meet the person because I’d decided that that’s not the genome code I want to mix with mine. In the spirit of candor, I also know I’ve been rejected on such grounds many times.

This is how men and women think. Whether they want to confess it or not.

An entertaining aspect of this superficiality is that even if one is not attractive oneself, one wants someone who is. If I had a dollar for every time someone overweight turned down someone else who is on the basis of ‘she/he’s just not in good shape’. Ultimately, most of us converge on some understanding of our ‘league’. Look around at the couples you know – there’s not that much of a delta between their average attractiveness where attractiveness is a function of a number of characteristics including money. Unfortunately, money is weighted much higher in the male function of attractiveness than for women. I can testify to this because women drool over Harvard Business School men, whereas for women it’s something you better hide on the dating scene until you have to say it. But the point is there are so many societal pressures that will prevent you from going out of your league – whether it’s the type of activities your or his friends do; the money involved; or just the feeling of ‘not winning’ if you date ‘below your league’. It’s like relationships have become an ‘attractiveness’ maximization equation, constrained optimization with your own ‘attractiveness’ as its bounds.

A number of male and female friends often ask me whether I think someone they’re considering is ‘pretty’ or ‘hot’. TBH, I usually answer in the positive even if I don’t think they are! Because ultimately it doesn’t matter what I think. If you like them, go for it.

The ‘league’ itself might be a manifestation of superficiality. There is this optimistic school of thought that leagues do not exist, and it’s all in your mind. I agree it’s all in the mind, but if it’s enough minds it’s as real as anything else. Confession: there have been guys who I have absolutely adored, thought were awesome, and not pursued because I felt like they’d never be serious with me because I’m not that fashionable girl that all their friends would expect and it just didn’t feel like it could be sustainable. I’m not going to wake up early to straighten my hair or wear make-up every morning. Not me.

On the other hand, on my own judgment of others, I’ve also had the good fortune of meeting guys who are outwardly nothing special but who have such a charming depth and passion to them, that you just don’t care what anyone else would think. It is possible…just so rare.

The worst is when superficiality extends beyond romance into friendship as it increasingly does these days. There are certain people who it is ‘fashionable’ to be friends with. And there are certain people who it is not. And the correlation coefficient between degree of fashionableness and degree of actual enjoyment hanging out with the person is less than 1. Probably positive, but less than 1.

That’s a pity. It’s a pity when we need to hang out with good-looking people, rather than good-feeling people.

Painting hanging in HBS
Painting hanging in HBS

……Part 2 to follow tomorrow with some deep-dive observations into particular examples from my life and questions to ponder over…..


One thought on “Style first, substance may be: the giant vortex of superficiality”

  1. The world would be a better and more interesting place if we didn’t judge people by their appearances so much! That’s why we prioritize appearance, because we can’t help but judge and be judged. Thanks for the great post!

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