The Life Well-Led
By Marty Nemko
Choosing Steak Over Sizzle
It’s ironic that we claim to crave authenticity yet often succumb to hype, to sizzle over steak. Examples:
We tend to value people who are “nice” more than people who are good. For example, no matter how brilliant you are, if you’re not “nice,” for example, you’re pushy with your brilliance, you’re likely to be dismissed. We’re suckers for those friendly smilers even though, as Hamlet wrote in his tablet, “One may smile and smile, and be a villain.” Sizzle over steak.
It seems there are more exhortations to network than to build skills. That, of course, leads to hiring based as much on connections as on competence. Not the stuff of which a good world is built. Sizzle over steak.
Helen Gurley Brown, long-time Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief, said, “After a while, it all comes down to posture.” (Chin up, shoulders back, back straight, chest out.) Sizzle over steak.
If we can afford it and sometimes even if we can’t, we buy Yves San Laurent rather than the knock-off, even though it costs much more. We buy a $15 bottle of wine instead of Trader Joe’s “Two Buck Chuck” even though studies find that very few people can tell the difference let alone feel the taste difference is worth the cost. Au contraire, Consumer Reports rated Two Buck Chuck at the top of both its red and white wine ratings, over much more expensive wine. We buy Mercedes over Toyota, even though Mercedes costs more and breaks down more. We buy U.C. Berkeley over Occidental (President Obama’s alma mater) even though it’s more difficult to learn in Berkeley’s notorious auditorium-sized lectures taught by research-first professors who, in science and math, may speak English so poorly you can’t even understand what already is a difficult subject. Ah, but the name Berkeley: “It opens doors!” Sizzle over steak.
Is it hopeless? Is it stolid human nature to choose the easy way out? True, it’s easier to smile and schmooze than to do the hard work of becoming a more productive professional and better human being. True, it’s easier to impress with that designer label on your diploma and on your ass than by being substantively impressive.
But I’m not convinced it’s hopeless. Should you try to more consciously assess whether you’re giving too much weight to sizzle than to steak? A few examples:
If you’re deciding how to allocate your professional development time, should you focus less on networking and more on, for example, studying--perhaps with a tutor or mentor--to become a more competent professional?
If you’re a boss interviewing job applicants, should you be more skeptical of the candidate who obviously spent big money and effort to look “perfect?" How likely is it that s person spends a lot on self-packaging to try to obfuscate or compensate for lack of competence or work ethic? At least among my 4,400 career coaching clients and the other people I've come to know in my 63 years, most substantive people don't go to great lengths to gift-wrap themselves.
Before buying an item whose price is elevated because of its frou-frou brand, might you want to think harder about whether the extra cost is worth it? After all, beyond the dollar-cost, you may, ironically, pay a price in how you’re perceived. Many substantive people think less of you for having bought something whose price far exceeds its value. For example, think of how you feel about a person who's wearing a gold Rolex watch?
If we claim to crave more authenticity, to want a better world, perhaps it's worth being more vigilant to our and others’ attempts to prioritize sizzle over steak.