Yes, You Can Be Smart and Still Care About How You Look

by Debra Bednar-Clark

There’s an underlying belief that style and substance don’t—or can’t—go hand in hand. It’s almost as if we’re subconsciously programmed to think that when you look stylish, you’re not smart, and vice versa. Some of the smartest people I know consistently feel guilty about loving style, solely because they think they’re supposed to be indifferent to fashion, beauty, and appearance. They’re thought of as two different worlds, and if you live in one, then you can’t live in the other. But the truth is, the idea that style and substance are mutually exclusive is nothing but a myth. And it’s one that I’m going to shatter right now.

No matter what you’ve heard, it’s smart to think about style. Style is the essence of who you are, manifested in how you look and act during each moment of every day. It’s a constant form of self-expression that brings your “inside”—your substance—to life for everyone to see. There are so many dimensions to who you are, and you want people to zoom out and see the connective tissue of your identity as a whole.

Style offers that window for others to see and understand who you are and how you feel, and you’re at your best when you accurately represent who you are through what you wear and how you act. There’s a cycle that I like to call the Style Snowball Effect: When you look good, you feel good, and when you feel good, you do good. When you walk into a room, is your head held high? Are you making eye contact? Are you being attentive and mindful of your facial gestures? Style encompasses all of those things, trickling down to the font on your resumé and the way your desk is organized. It’s inextricably connected with your identity, and because it’s the first thing that people notice about you, it can say a lot.

By neglecting your outward appearance, you put yourself at a disadvantage. You open yourself up to a whole world of possibilities that have undesirable outcomes. Here are two of the most common:

  1. You can miss out on valuable opportunities.

    A manager isn’t going to bring you into a major client meeting if you’re not polished. They want stakeholders to work with an employee whose style and substance are aligned. I’ve been in a number of meetings with executives who don’t talk about style publicly. They’re afraid to mention it to someone directly, fearing that they’ll say the wrong thing, hurt someone’s feelings, or wind up with an HR violation. In private, though, style is actually important to them. We’ll often discuss how someone doesn’t have leadership presence—meaning that they have the “substance” but just don’t look the part.

  2. You may be misjudged.

    Everyone wants to be judged based on substance—character, intellect, values, beliefs, skills, intentions—and at the end of the day, you were hired to deliver results and be exceptional in your role. But if people can’t quite put their finger on what your style is, they may misjudge you or worse yet, they won’t know what you stand for. When your image and identity aren’t aligned, you lose trust in the relationship. All of this makes people doubt your capabilities and question what they’re getting in return. You want people to have confidence that you can deliver!

Perception is huge—how you look, what you say, and how you act has a profound impact on how you’re perceived. When you combine great style and great substance, that’s when you open doors to receive promotions, respect, credibility, and leadership roles. You just need to know how to use style in a smart way. Authenticity is key here, because in order to have real impact, your image needs to align with your identity.

Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde

To figure out who you are and how that translates into your signature style, ask yourself these two questions:

  1. What 3 words describe me (i.e., represent the essence of who I am)?
  2. What 3 words describe my personal style?

I’m coaching one of my male clients on this topic, and he describes his style as “lively and friendly, but also business-minded.” Those also happen to be three words that he uses to describe himself as a person. His style scales to what he wears (Adidas Stan Smith sneakers and Tom Ford cologne) and how he approaches people (remembering colleagues’ birthdays and abiding by an open-door policy). His bright and cheerful personality shines through in his wardrobe and leadership skills, and he remains focused on getting the job done. All in all, his style is true to his authentic self—and he’s taken seriously and respected as a result.

In addition to staying true to your authentic self through style, you also need to understand and be mindful of your environment. Every company has its own culture, and it’s important to respect that. When I’m walking in to coach a group of medical practitioners at an inner-city healthcare start-up, I’m not going to wear the same outfit that I wore last week to a meeting at Goldman Sachs. I never lose sight of my true self, though. Everything in my closet is aligned with who I am, and each piece is a direct reflection of that. No matter what I wear, it’ll be authentically me.

Does your style match your message and your environment? Consider these questions:

  1. Who is my audience and what is the environment?
  2. Does my look align with my audience, environment, and me?

You’re off to a great start just by thinking about these things, using your head (substance) to create an aesthetic (style) that inspires and is sensitive to others. It’s a great first step in determining whether or not your style and substance are aligned—because despite what you may have thought before, they very much can (and should) be.


For more advice on how to reveal your whole self in your career, subscribe to my newsletter and/or follow me on Instagram @debrabednar

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