Tuesday, January 28, 2014

HYPE!: We Choose Image Over Substance, Brand Over Value, Sizzle Over Steak

Perhaps you'd enjoy an advance look at my next Life Well-Led column in the Mensa publication, The Intelligencer.

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.


Maria Lopez said...

I think you are fighting somewhat of a losing battle here.

For instance, on clothes, the matching alligator shoes and attache would be considered excessive by most people. You cannot make anyone except perhaps a gold digger attracted to you by wearing overly flashy stuff.

However, there are deep seated biases towards folks who are somewhat young, have symmetrical features and are tall. I think that this comes from the fact that we want to be with people who could produce healthy children and who are likely to meet with success in warfare or hunting.

Also, even with clothes some biases have to do with meaningful things. Wearing a suit to an interview in companies where it is expected is sign that you are willing to submit to the rules.

Also, your ability to dress appropriately shows that you can read social cues and are less likely to suffer from severe cognitive problems. A weird dress style is likely to signal that you have different values than an interviewer or that you have some autistic symptoms or other problems.

Flashiness when you aren't interviewing for job involving clothes or accessories is actually a weird style of dress. Buying an expensive but understated suit is not.

Anonymous said...

That's all well and good, Marty, but tell that to the HR people. You either have to be best friends with someone on the inside or be a 'purple squirrel' just to get the initial interview. HR is waiting for perfection and doesn't understand why no one can meet their standards. So of course, people are going to be embellishing everything. Those high standards don't give people a choice.

Marty Nemko said...

In my first draft, I used a less over-the-top example of dressing to impress but the feedback I got was that it would offend too many readers, so it would be wiser to go with the alligator shoes/attache example. Also, while in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, such excess may seem unrealistic, in places like New York, LA, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami Dallas and Houston, there is a fair amount of that laughable excess going on.

Anonymous said...

"Can you do the job?"

All questions should be pointing to this. So what if the candidate isn't a social butterfly, has a slightly cheap suit, or has an eccentric hobby or two? People are there to work and earn a living not socialize.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon 3:25:

That's why it's important for job interviews to be focused around simulations/samples of tasks candidates will have to do if hired.

Anonymous said...

I tend to think of it this way: looks will draw people in, but authenticity will keep them there. Be sure you have enough flash to capture people's attention, but also the substance to back it up. You can have the best ideas in the world, but it doesn't mean anything if people don't want to listen to you in the first place.


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