Looking vs Looking Good

When social signaling ends up hurting us

I’m walking down the street. Out of the corner of my eye I spot an attractive person. I don’t want to look like I’m checking them out, so I try to play it cool and nonchalant. I’m so in my head that I trip over a snag in the sidewalk.

I fall down in comical fashion. Desperate, I look across the street at the attractive person.

My hands reach towards them, pleading: “Please…I’m actually quite cool!”

Okay that last part didn’t actually happen, but maybe you can relate to this Seinfeld-esque moment.

Actually looking (paying attention) is more likely to lead to looking good (respect, doing the right thing)

Trying to look good distracts us from the present, and will more likely make us look bad.

The most extreme example? People dying from taking dangerous selfies.

But there are subtle examples of looking good everywhere:

  • Meetings: pretending to listen but not actually participating
  • Dating: trying to impress a date vs really getting to know them
  • Finance: keeping up w/the Joneses vs pursuing your own goals
  • Investing: sharing our wins but hiding our losses

We do a lot to try to fit in.

Social signaling is in our genes

For most of human history, being an outcast was a social death that might as well have been actual death. (Fend for yourself, Caveman Chen!)

So we’ve become status-driven animals who want to impress others.

Looking good serves a purpose. You want good wedding pictures and want to be seen as attractive when dating.

But looking good can often be a short term reaction that leads to bad long term consequences.

Imagine the kid who wants to grow taller and consumes dangerous growth hormones.

Or the student who pursues a major and career for the prestige, just to find himself miserable.

The one antidote to looking good is this pithy observation I picked up from reading too many self help books:

“Competence builds confidence.”

We build competence by focusing more on doing the thing than how we look doing it.

Any time I feel tension or discomfort in a social setting, it’s also being great to check in with myself with some questions:

  • Am I trying to look good?
  • Am I trying to avoid looking bad?
  • What social consequence am I afraid of?

Going through this quick checklist helps me relax and stop frontin’.

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Writing about personal finance OzChen.com and UX Design on UXBeginner.com