Beyond the Suit: Can Clothes Really Tell You About Competence?

American economist Robert Frank once remarked, “The discernment of an individual’s aptitude can be gleaned to some extent from the sartorial choices they make.”

A financial luminary by the name of Fred Corbrick once found himself in attendance at a presentation. The convening entity was a corporation experiencing a phase of rapid expansion, with the presenter being none other than the CEO of said corporation. The affair was marked by an air of vivacity, and the CEO’s oration proved both infectious and compelling.

Following the assembly, Corbrick approached the CEO and conveyed his favorable impression of the company, intimating his inclination towards purchasing its stocks. However, as the CEO extended his hand to Corbrick in felicitous accord, the latter’s attention was suddenly arrested by a particular detail: the cuffs of the CEO’s shirt bore a conspicuous monogram of the company’s logo. Further scrutiny revealed that several other managerial personnel within the company likewise sported this emblem on their shirt cuffs.

“At that juncture, my desire to invest in their stocks waned,” Corbrick recounted, reflecting on the situation. “They were merely clothed in attire bearing the company’s insignia, devoid of any consideration for whether it truly befitted them, merely to curry favor with their superiors. How can such conduct inspire confidence?”

While Corbrick’s criteria might appear stringent, there exists a modicum of veracity in his discernment: enterprises espousing uniformly monogrammed attire tend to perpetuate a hierarchical structure, stifling the creative impulse among their employees. Such a culture would be anathema in the context of Silicon Valley.

As venture capitalist Peter Thiel opined, “One should never entertain the notion of investing in a tech startup helmed by a CEO attired in formal garb.”

Taleb, the author of “The Black Swan,” once posed a thought-provoking query: Suppose you are faced with the decision of selecting a surgeon to perform an operation on you. Two candidates, equally qualified, hail from the same department of the same hospital.

However, the outward demeanor and attire of the two physicians present a striking contrast. One exudes an air of competence, impeccably dressed, sporting silver-rimmed spectacles, possessing a well-proportioned physique, finely articulated hands, eloquent speech, and graceful comportment, crowned with meticulously groomed silver hair.

In contrast, the other physician resembles a tradesman, corpulent with hefty hands, and exhibits coarse mannerisms. Their attire is disheveled, with the shirt loosely tucked into the belt, notably featuring askew cuffs.

Faced with such a choice, how would one proceed? Conventional wisdom might incline towards selecting the impeccably attired doctor.

Yet, Taleb offers a contrarian perspective, asserting, “Were I compelled to choose, I would surmount the temptation to judge based on appearances and promptly opt for the surgeon who bears semblance to a butcher.”

Taleb elucidates his stance: If an individual, despite lacking the semblance typically associated with their profession, has persevered within the field for an extended duration, it suggests that they have surmounted greater hurdles than their counterparts. These impediments stem from the natural proclivity of individuals to form judgments based on appearances. The individual in question must have leveraged their exceptional medical prowess to counteract the unfavorable initial impressions, else they would have long been sidelined from the profession.

Dedicated practitioners, be they physicians or scholars, confront the exigencies inherent in their respective vocations with resolve. Time and empirical validation serve as arbiters, winnowing out those lacking in proficiency, indifferent to externals such as appearance or attire.

Truly adept individuals eschew reliance on attire as a signal of competence (as exemplified by Steve Jobs, renowned for his casual attire, and Academician Yuan Longping, who attires himself akin to a humble agrarian). This phenomenon is termed “counter-signaling.”

Thus, encounters with experts characterized by unassuming demeanor and casual attire often belie their formidable capabilities.

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