What it Means to be Good Looking

For most of my childhood, the only person who told me I was handsome was my mom. She would tell me that I would be such a heart breaker.  Then I ventured out into the real world and found no such validation.  Occasionally a girl would have a crush on me, but it was never one of the pretty or popular girls.  As far as my friends were concerned, all they knew was that I had a big nose.  I really had no idea of knowing whether I was good looking or not.  I wanted to be… few things were more obvious than the advantages of being good looking.

After high school, I was more focused on building myself up than what I looked like.  I was confident that women were more attracted to character than looks… how else do you explain Jay Z and Beyonce?  So I focused on building character.. integrity.. honesty.. honor.. intelligence.. humor, etc.  I proceeded to date 3 of the most eligible women at my university.  One of them was non-superficial that she could’ve dated a burn victim.  Another thought I was really good looking, but her ex was… rather plain, so not a great measure.  The third was really into the body-builder physique (of which I was not), and that led to some lackluster physical chemistry.  Coming out of university, I knew I had the ability to date beautiful women… but still no clue if I was good looking.

A few years after university, I dated a girl who seemed to be grateful and appreciative of everything in her life.  Even her most significant accomplishments, she would dismiss as good fortune.  It was foreign to me as I’ve always been one to celebrate work ethic.  She was extremely grateful for her looks, and said that I should be too.  I told her that I had given up on trying to understand whether or not I was good looking.  She told me that was ridiculous, and that to deny that I was good looking was to be oblivious of the privilege it afforded to me.  Perhaps she had a point.  Instead of exploring that point, I told her it just wasn’t something I thought about very much and I was pretty happy with the results.  It was the first time someone told me I was basically an asshole if I didn’t think I was good looking.  Well then…

Over the last couple months, I’ve probably been called handsome or good looking more than any other period in my entire life.  As someone who was trying to get back into the dating scene, one would hope those compliments would be coming from interested women.  Wishful thinking.  Almost every one of those comments came from older men in my professional life.  Something to the effect of, “you’re a young, good looking guy, the world is your oyster”.  There was an older Asian guy at my local tech summit who probably told me about 10 times in one conversation that I’m handsome, have a great smile, and should be doing business development for Intel.  He made sure to spell Intel for me.. Pretty sure he was several drinks in.

While it’s easy enough to laugh off, maybe there’s something worth observing here.  Am I good looking?  I’d say that depends on who you ask.  I’ve been told by friends overseas that if you were to drop me in a place like Japan, China or Korea, I’d be like catnip.  Put me in a place like California or New York and probably much less so.  So there are cultural factors at play.  I know facial symmetry makes for bonus points…  A full head of hair…  Good genetics… but  what about personal preferences?  When I was young, I spent a lot of time crushing on girls who just weren’t into me.  There seem to be elements of attraction which are general, while others can be highly individual.

So beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yes?  Seems like an easy out.  But maybe there’s yet another level to this.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but eyes of the beholders tend to follow similar algorithms.  I think it starts with good genetics.  When you mix genetics from diverse gene pools, you end up with great looking kids.  When you let a brother and sister get it on, there’s a 50/50 chance you end up with a cyclops.  We have instincts that pick up on good genetics and we perceive that as physical attraction.  In reality, we’re just instinctively trying to diversify our gene pool.

Good health is perhaps second on that list.  We seem to be in an interesting time where people who are unhealthy and overweight want to be perceived as attractive in the same way that someone healthy is.  In reality, we’re physically attracted to good health and there are different ways we pick up on that.  Are you fit?  Do you have good skin?  Good teeth? Is your hair falling out?  Something I’ve found interesting is that whether it’s a 5’0″ gymnast or a 6’3″ power lifter, I’ve always found a healthy woman to be attractive.

So based on these parameters am I good looking?  Probably.

My genetic background is Scottish, Irish, Jewish, and Austrian.  Not the most diverse gene pool, but certainly not kissing-cousins.    My face is largely symmetrical from what I can see.  I have a full head of hair and mostly straight teeth.  While I take liberties with my health and fitness from time to time, I’ve been a competitive athlete my entire life.  If I had to guess, I would say that I am above average looking.

Great.  Now what?

My concern before was that if I figured out that I was good looking, I’d let it go to my head.  I liked being oblivious to it because it kept my focus on what I thought was more important.  Now that I’m conceding, what changes?  … Nothing…?

 

I think that at this point, it’s unlikely to go to my head.  I’m appreciative for where it’s helped me, indifferent to where it didn’t, and hope that this baby face ages gracefully.  I’m also understanding and accepting where it may have created unearned advantages for me.  While it may have helped in my dating life, it probably wasn’t as big of a factor as some may believe.  Where I think it’s actually helped me the most is in my professional life.  Just about every person that’s hired me or considered me for a role has referred to me as good looking.  I think that early on, I just saw these compliments as innocuous or inconsequential.  Why does being good looking have anything to do with my performance in the work environment?  I know I look good in a suit.. maybe they were just saying something nice.  But I don’t think it’s that simple.  I think that things like facial symmetry, good skin, good hair, and good teeth make a difference in the willingness of strangers to trust you.  Match that with being presentable and well-spoken, and you’re able to earn trust faster than others.  In the world of business, that’s a very real advantage.

Are there any disadvantages?

I often see a duality around privilege, and good looks seem to follow that pattern.  While I’m grateful for my looks, I’m more grateful for that uncertainty while growing up.  It encouraged me to put my efforts and focus elsewhere, and not everyone is so lucky.  Think about the prettiest girl in your high school.  Was she more likely to be headed to university on a full scholarship or date the captain of the football team?  Was she more likely to get recruited out of school to the field of her choice or more likely to be working as a bartender?  Does she stand a better chance of accomplishing things on her own, or being accessory to someone else’s accomplishments?  From a certain perspective, being good looking provides an easier path than most.  But since when is easy a good thing?

A duality.. and a reality of our world.  At the end of the day, physical attraction has a rather functional purpose: visual markers of good genetic and good health that help you find a mate.  But I can’t help but see the tail wagging the dog a bit.  Rather than understanding how physical attraction plays out among several other factors like personality, resources, intelligence, and group-membership, we talk about it like it’s magic.  We often treat it like something that can’t be explained, and that even if it could, it shouldn’t.  That it would take the romance out of things.  I disagree.  I find the truth to be more romantic than any lie.

I think there’s a fair bit of magic in having an honest understanding of what we’re seeing and why we enjoy it.

 

 

Duality of Privilege

When you apply the concept duality to privilege, it creates a rather interesting perspective.  Consider example A:

John is the child of a wealthy family.  His grandfather did very well, and John’s parents never had to work.  John grows up knowing that he won’t have to work either.  John’s parents lead a lavish lifestyle and give John is given everything that he asks for.

As a result of his unique circumstances, John has a unique perspective on life.  In that environment, I could see it being extremely challenging to develop qualities like a strong work ethic, perseverance, or the ability to deal with scarcity.  I could also see it being difficult to develop healthy relationships with others for a variety of reasons.  This doesn’t sound like a life of privilege to me.  Consider example B:

Jane is the daughter of two working class immigrants, and is raised in a rough neighborhood.   Jane grows up admiring the work ethic of her parents, knowing how their sacrifices let her grow up in a better place than where they were from.  Jane doesn’t have much growing up, but she appreciates what she has and learns how to work towards the things she wants.

In that environment, Jane was given several obstacles and challenges which John would be unlikely to face.  I’d like to think there are two ways to look at this.  You could say that John is privileged to not have to work for anything.  Or you could also say that Jane is privileged to have learned a great work ethic when she was young.  Perhaps there’s a key difference between these two though, in that Jane earned her work ethic while John didn’t earn his family’s wealth.  While that may be true, neither Jane nor John earned their circumstances – in this case, their family.  Had Jane been born to John’s family,   would she have turned out any differently?  Had John been born into Jane’s circumstances, would he have developed Jane’s work ethic?  Who’s life would you rather be born into?  If you’re like me and picked Jane’s life because it would probably lead to a more balanced, fulfilling, successful, and healthy life, wouldn’t that be the more privileged life?

When you think about our greats, from Muhammad Ali to Connor McGregor, from J Lo to Jay Z, from Abe Lincoln to Narendra Modi, from Indra Nooyi to Oprah Winfrey, from Ben Franklin to Steve Jobs, and from Charles Dickens to JK Rowling, you start to see a pattern of overcoming a more challenging set of circumstances from a young age.  You know who I don’t see?  I don’t see the children of billionaires.  How often do we see the children of wealthy families behaving as inspiring leaders that move the world forward in a positive direction?

I think that inheritance doesn’t exist in a meritocracy but that aside, I genuinely don’t have any issues with someone inheriting a fortune and then settling down and living a comfortable life with their family.  I just know that’s not the best environment for producing good human-beings.  It looks easy, and nice, and better, but it lacks the struggle, and it’s the struggle which defines us.

The most challenging moments of my life directly preceded my most significant moments of personal growth.  If this pattern stays true for others, is adversity not to be embraced as the fuel of progress?  If so, perhaps privilege represents someone who’s arrived at the destination without having made the journey.  If so, perhaps there’s an argument to be made for an empathetic approach to this whole ‘privilege’ thing.  If we’re lucky, it might be contagious.

My Thoughts on Privilege

 

A few years ago, a girl I was dating told me to check my privilege.  It was tremendously frustrating for me as I couldn’t understand what she was actually trying to say.  She went on to say that as a good-looking white male, I had all kinds of advantages afforded to me which weren’t available to others.  I reflected on that statement and it still didn’t resonate.  From my perspective, my path had not been easy and both my opportunities and successes were well-earned.  I figured a good place to start would be with a definition we could both agree on.  So we looked it up:

 

Privilege: A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available to a particular person or group.

 

That sounded rather general to me.  By that definition, if white privilege existed, then so did black privilege – and every other kind of privilege for that matter.  Tall people are privileged to reach things off high shelves while short people are privileged to not bump their heads on low ceilings.  If privilege is simply referring to the advantages held by some and not others, aren’t we just talking about people in general?  Maybe.

It would be easy for me to say that white privilege doesn’t exist because privilege doesn’t exist.  I would go on to give an example:  Would you rather be a black man being pulled over by the police in Alabama, or would you rather be a white guy getting pulled over by freedom fighters in West Africa?  Then I’d remind us that while we all share a common blueprint, we all vary in our own ways and those variations provide inherent advantages and disadvantages depending on the circumstance.  If circumstance is the variable that determines if we experience an advantage or disadvantage, then does privilege really exist?  Like I said, it would be easy for me to say that white privilege doesn’t exist because privilege doesn’t exist – but I would be wrong.

 

Everything that I just said is valid to an extent but I think that there’s another layer to what’s going on here that better represents what we’re looking at.  I think if we explore this a little further, we’ll find some clarity

A granted privilege seems to be simply be an advantage given from one person to another.  What I find curious here is that the word granted offers the possibility of earning your advantage.  Consider a student who has good grades in high school and then is ‘granted’ admittance to a top-tier university – we’ll call her Priya. Now consider someone who had average grades, who also made it into that university after their parents made a significant donation – we’ll call him Bryce.  I think most people would blow the whistle and call a privilege foul here on the latter, but what if the Priya was at a top private school with unlimited tutoring funded by her parents?  What if Bryce’s parents grew up in poverty, worked hard, and were simply making a donation to their alma mater?

This is a rather interesting topic for me because in the context of a social conversation, privilege is what I would consider to be a poorly defined topic.  It’s like we know that there’s something wrong but we’re not exactly sure how to articulate it.  As in many other cases in society, we think we’re dealing in issues of fairness but in reality we’re dealing with issues of efficiency.

Let’s revisit the earlier example in a different context.  Let’s say for the sake of simplicity, Priya is unprivileged and Bryce is very privileged.  Both are admitted to a top-tier university and both approach their degree as an independent effort.  Now they’ve both graduated and while Priya continued to work hard and earned good grades, Bryce worked harder and earned better grades.  Now imagine that in 40 years, we’re reflecting on their life’s work and there’s a clear winner – Bryce.

If this were a real world example, what we commonly define as privilege could’ve led to the discrepancy in university grades and the career but that’s the point.  What if it wasn’t?  It’s certainly possible that Bryce did better because he had more resources at his disposal, but what if his circumstances we’re simply better aligned with his own personal strengths?  What if Bryce simply wasn’t motivated in high-school, but once he had the autonomy and challenge that came with a top-tier university, he was motivated to perform?  And what if his personality and degree were directly in line with his career path?  And what if Priya who worked hard and got good grades her entire life had the genetic blueprint for a world class chef, but became an accountant as a result of her academic focus?

In reality, what we’re really upset at is a series of systems which are inefficient at allocating resources and creating value.  The system we have currently is a ‘fair’ entry system predicated on prior academic performance and extra-curricular activities but it’s also the same system that would see Priya become an accountant and see Bryce not gain admission.  It’s largely a level playing field, but perhaps it’s time to prioitize making sure people are suited up for the right sport and playing to their full potential.

With the progress we’ve made in understanding our genealogy and psychology, along with advances in our ability to collect and analyze data… I smell a revolution in how we determine fit.  Imagine everyone being given the freedom to explore their options, while also being given the information to understand what they’re likely to be best at.  Now imagine everyone having access to the same information and how much more efficient we’d all be… at everything.  The goal isn’t to make privilege against the rules, the goal is to have a system in place that makes the use of privilege seem foolish and counter-productive.

If I were to offer up my best definition of privilege, it would be an applied, circumstantial advantage.  When circumstantial advantages are used to further the collective interests (efficient), people seem not to mind.  When circumstantial advantages are used to further self-interests (inefficient), there’s an issue.  Our issue isn’t with having different strengths and weaknesses from one another.  Our issues aren’t even with those who apply their strengths when competing.  Our issue is those who take the short-sighted approach of putting their own interests ahead of collective progress.  Our issue is with those who use their resources to create inefficiencies in the larger system at play.