#TBT: Subject to Revision

Happy #TBT. To celebrate, we’re sharing an oldie-but-goodie post from Jim: Subject to Revision.

As in, your views of things should always be “subject to revision.” To explain, I’ll tell you a short and slightly embarrassing story.

Some years ago, I was a speaker at a conference, and it was a conference in an industry that’s more formal than the internet.

I didn’t really know many people were likely to be there, so I decided that I would wear a suit. And not just any suit. A really, really nice tailored suit. The one I used to call my “running for president” suit. It’s a suit whose outstanding qualities would (or at least should) be obvious at a glance.

So I wore it, thinking it was that kind of occasion, and while my presentation went well, something happened afterward that permanently revised my thoughts about how to dress in a business setting. As I stood in the exhibit hall of this conference, wearing my president suit, a conference attendee (who obviously hadn’t seen my presentation) approached me to ask a question, which had been happening somewhat regularly since my talk, so I smiled and expected him to stick out his hand to shake mine.

Wearing a suit has gone from being a high status marker to a marker of being in a position of service. Photo Credit: "Waiters," © 2012 David Tan, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license.

Wearing a suit has gone from being a high status marker to a marker of being in a position of service. Photo Credit: “Waiters,” © 2012 David Tan, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license.

Instead, he said, “When will lunch be served?”

It took me a second to realize that he thought I was the caterer or the hotel manager. And I realized that this was because I was wearing a suit. In fact, the hotel staff were all wearing suits, and only a smattering of conference attendees were.

Somehow in the last decade, wearing a suit went from being a high status marker to a marker of being in a position of service. By the way, I want to stop and say that I don’t for a second devalue the work that people in these roles do. My point is that they are explicitly service roles, which I believe has come to mean that someone in that role has to “dress up” while those being served are free to dress down.

Anyway, that was the day that I revised my view of proper business attire, not just because of that one comment, but because the more I dug into it, the more it was clear that society itself had changed on this issue. Even Branson agrees with me.

Over the time that followed, I literally and metaphorically tossed out my old views of what to do in this area and installed new ones. The assumptions about clothing for business that held in the first 10 or 15 years of my career no longer hold, so they had to be revised.

But you know what? They might need to be revised again. In 10 years, we might all be wearing suits again, every day, even in the internet. (Probably not. Gosh, I hope not, but you never know. I’m going to struggle with that one if it happens.)

This is just one tiny area of life and business, but it’s true everywhere: Your assumptions are the window through which you see the world. If your window is the wrong one or it’s clouded by inaccuracy, your view of the world will be wrong and, consequently, your actions will, too.

I say stay subject to revision, but Thomas Jefferson said it better: “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

And that’s why he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and I might have to serve lunch.

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