My struggles with “looking the part”


My paternal grandfather was a professor and an author . His favorite gift to me always used to be a nice pen – a Hero fountain pen . Unfortunately and to his significant disappointment I also have lost all of them as quickly as I got them . In any case, he would often tell me that a good fountain pen is the lone “must have” item for any learned man .

My father also loved pens – Cross pens – ball points – were his favorite . I had a bunch of hand me down cross pens from him – which again I lost fairly quickly . Unlike my grandfather , my dad realized quickly that I don’t value pens as much and stopped giving them to me 🙂

Eventually I got my first job and I wondered if I should get a fancy pen for myself . It didn’t take me more than a minute to decide that would be a waste – and I stuck with cheap ball point pens . My handwriting is pretty horrible – and no pen is capable of making it look good . Easy decision and never had to agonise over it very much .

Some years later, I became an Associate Partner . I never wore a suit – not even a blazer – to work . I still used cheap ball point pens . Did not wear a fancy watch either – and would carry around an old backpack with an SAP logo on it . It didn’t take long for me to be coached by the good people watching out for me that I should “look the part” if I were to be considered for an executive promotion .

Their advice was solid – and I spoke with several people senior to me and they all confirmed this was a big deal and that I should not fight it . I had no intention to fight it either – just that I was too lazy to comply . My family had urged me to work on “the looks” too . The compromise in my mind was that I will switch to looking like an executive the moment I became one . Long story short – not having the right accessories didn’t hurt my chances and I did get that promotion .

Well, I was not going to wear a suit and tie regularly . The backpack was just way too convenient and I couldn’t bring myself to switch to a leather bag either . So that left me with two options to upgrade – Watch and pen . I made the leap and spent some serious $$ getting myself a nice watch and pen each . And then about ten days later, I had a chance to gently move my shirt sleeve to glance at the date on my watch , and sign my name on a contract with my fancy monogrammed pen in a conference room at my client’s office . It felt really good ! That feeling lasted till two hours later when I realized , sitting inside a plane ready to take off , that I had left my pen in that conference room 🙂

So that was that – I didn’t want to buy another nice pen ever again and switched back to the cheap ball points .

I am not exactly sure whether not looking the part conventionally has hurt my career – may be it has – but not sufficiently for me to make an active effort .

Then came a weak moment two years ago where my family convinced me that I needed to upgrade – mostly by making the case along the lines of “age appropriate accessories”. I caved and I got myself a leather bag, a monogrammed pen and a fancy watch . I signed a contract with it in a client conference room again – and then remembered to put the pen back in my pocket . With age comes wisdom – and more value for hard earned money 🙂 .

I even got some lovely compliments on my “taste” from colleagues and clients who actually have good taste in these things unlike me . I was too vain to tell them that my mother in law selected the bag, my wife selected my watch and my daughter selected my pen . Even my mom was impressed that I didn’t complain about wasting money on all these things .

That lasted about six months at best . Along came Covid and that meant no more reason to wear a watch or lug a leather bag on a flight . I honestly don’t know where the watch or the bag are kept today – I am sure it’s safe somewhere in the house but I don’t know where exactly . The fancy pen is my every day pen now for note taking – and I actually like writing with it . It’s certainly not doing anything to make me read any better when I glance at the notes I take – but I like how it feels in my hand when I scribble notes .

I will finish with a short story on “looking the part”. About two years ago, I walked into a meeting a few mins late – wearing jeans and with a backpack over my shoulder . During the lunch break, an older gentleman from Europe walked up to me and offered me this friendly advice “I liked your presentation and I think if you wore formal clothing and got rid of that backpack – you may be able to get promoted to an executive” . I thanked him profusely and told him my wife agreed with him too !

Published by Vijay Vijayasankar

Son/Husband/Dad/Dog Lover/Engineer. Follow me on twitter @vijayasankarv. These blogs are all my personal views - and not in way related to my employer or past employers

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