Clay Shirky

August 3, 2010

It’s tempting to imagine that [you] could be forceful and self-confident without being arrogant or jerky, but that’s a false hope, because it’s other people who get to decide when they think you’re a jerk, and trying to stay under that threshold means giving those people veto power over your actions. To put yourself forward as someone good enough to do interesting things is, by definition, to expose yourself to all kinds of negative judgments, and as far as I can tell, the fact that other people get to decide what they think of your behavior leaves only two strategies for not suffering from those judgments: not doing anything, or not caring about the reaction. Not caring works surprisingly well.

Clay Shirky. In case you’re worried about what others might think of your manner of dress.

An addendum, because I am now on a computer with a keyboard:

Shirky was writing here about why people who are bold, without paying heed to the possible negative consequences, are successful.  Specifically about why men, who are less sensitive to social concerns, may be more successful in business and academia.  When he says not worrying about what other people say works, he means that it can lead to professional advancement.  He doesn’t mean emotionally.  It’s an interesting idea, and you should read the piece and listen to this great segment by our pal Brooke Gladstone at On the Media about it.  That’s not what I want to highlight about this, though.

A reader named Neil wrote to us something very thoughtfully on this subject:

It is possible to convey self-confidence without being arrogant or jerky.  I know because I see men dress this way, and I think “whoa this guy has his act together."  I agree that it is a difficult balance to strike, and there will be those who will judge you for wearing anything more formal than a crew-neck tee.  These people can make it tempting to stop caring what anybody thinks, but I urge you: this is not the answer.  People who don’t care what others think are doomed to dress poorly. Dressing for any occasion involves a consideration for those who will be in attendance, and if you ignore this truth, you are likely to look like a jerk – either by underdressing or overdressing – because it will seem like you don’t care about anyone around you.  Having style isn’t easy, but it is worth it.  You need to care to do it well.

Agreed.  It’s important to remember that all dressing is social.  It is certainly a balancing act, and I agree with everything Neal writes.  If I weren’t writing on my cell phone, I might have written something similar :).  That said, what I hear most often from readers is that they’re afraid to make any move towards dressing well, because they’re sure it will make them seem like a jerk.  Sometimes boldness is what gets you ahead in life, work, style and art.

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