Several years ago I remember watching a documentary show (I actually forgot what the documentary was about, I just remember this one tidbit from it). It featured an interview with John McAfee, the genius software developer and creator of the McAfee antivirus program. What was interesting about the interview was that it was conducted not in a quiet room, but instead with the interviewer and McAfee walking on a beach.
Perhaps in keeping with the "beach" vibe, McAfee was wearing a t-shirt, cargo shorts, and sandals. His hair was long and he had an unkempt beard. He certainly didn't look like a multi-millionaire genius computer geek, he looked more like a beach bum that would teach a yoga class (he has actually written books on yoga, so that could very well be true).
The main reason I wanted to share this is because looks can be deceiving. As humans living in the 21st century, we develop certain mental short cuts for how things look. If I asked you to imagine what a millionaire businessman looks like, you might picture a stiff looking, clean cut gentleman wearing a suit. You probably wouldn't picture a guy in a t-shirt walking on the beach.
Now, in our 21st century world, this is beginning to change. In the technological sector especially, there is a growing trend of genius, eccentric, young entrepreneurs. With this comes a change in appearance of what "successful" looks like. This was no doubt popularized by the likes of Steve Jobs and some of the other computer pioneers, who wanted to assert a more "rebel" image in the face of corporate giants like IBM. This is also probably coupled with the fact that tech savvy people have a notoriously bad sense of style (I know, because I am one).
Why You Should Care About Your Image
"Wait, the title is that image isn't everything, why should I care?" Well, because, for better or for worse, people care. In fact, you care, even though you may not realize it. And that's really the crux of the matter, it all happens in the subconscious mind.
It all has to do with the psychological effect called "priming". To put it simply, priming is when something enters your subconscious mind (i.e. when your brain is on auto-pilot) that affects your decision making in the future. This might be weird to grasp, but it makes sense when you understand it through some really common examples. My favorite is the fact that grocery stores put the produce section as the first thing you see when you walk in, and there is frequently an aroma of fresh bread. The reason? Both the sight of fresh fruit and the smell of fresh bread give you the feeling that the store contains fresh, high quality items. These sights and smells enter your subconscious mind when you walk in thinking about getting milk and eggs, and you end up buying a bunch of other stuff because you were primed to believe the store has a bunch of high quality items.
That's just one example of priming in real life, but there are countless others. One that is important for the image argument is that your image is the first thing people notice when they meet you. We can't look into each other's souls, so we rely on the senses available to us in order to form opinions about people. Before you converse with someone and allow your brain to make "logical" assessments of their character, you saw them with your eyes, touched them (likely in the form of a handshake), and perhaps even smelled them (usually not a good thing). All of these senses were activated before the conversation even happens, so they should certainly not be neglected. Sure, we are taught from a young age to not judge by appearance, blah blah blah, but the fact of the matter is that we are programmed to judge by appearance. We can make all our best efforts to fight it, but it will always be our natural instinct.
So, for perhaps the most classic example: if you walk into a job interview wearing a t-shirt with a sarcastic and profane statement on it, how likely do you think it would be for you to get that job? I hope you know that the odds are slim. Now, I won't deny that there could be a possibility, but a lot of things have to go in your favor. Firstly, the company you are interviewing with would have to be fairly open-minded, perhaps a start-up type place. Secondly, the interviewer would also have to be fairly open-minded, and not let his first impressions influence his opinion on how right you are for the job. Thirdly, you would have to really knock the interview out of the park (assuming of course that you aren't asked to leave upon entering the building).
The previous hypothetical example illustrates the importance of priming and image. Sure, maybe you are super smart and talented and you have full confidence that you could knock the interview out of the park, but those first two conditions have to be met, and you have no control over them. First impressions matter, and depending on the individual, they can be vital. People are always looking for little indications of character. Sure, everything coming out of your mouth may be gold, but if you look like an irresponsible/incompetent/anti-social person, others will naturally project those qualities onto you without really thinking about it.
And guess what, you do it too. If your doctor walks into the exam room wearing a Bob Marley shirt and sandals, you may be hesitant to take his medical advice (or you may think he is the coolest doctor ever, who knows).
My point with all this is that yes, image does matter. That being said, it is possible to overcome a negative image with charisma, intellect, etc. but you will basically be fighting an uphill battle. It's like your favorite sports team steps onto the field already losing before the game has even started. Maybe they can win in spite of it, but if the game is really competitive then the early deficit may be enough to guarantee the other team a victory.
In many of life's battles, you don't want to be losing at the start. You will need any advantage where you can get it, so don't let your image lose the game for you.
Now, I of course don't want to imply that you have to be a physically beautiful person in order to get ahead in life. Let's not kid ourselves, it does help, but there are a lot of ways you can change your image while keeping the same face and body: mainly clothes, hair style, persona, etc. A little can go a long way in these categories.
Hold On Now, Don't Put All Your Faith in Your Image
Yes, image is important, but it is just the start. Ultimately, we are judged by our character, so if your character is lacking, then no amount of positive image will fully make up for it.
Now, the degree to which a good image can make up for your character is dependent both on how good your image is and how shallow the people you are trying to influence are. Maybe you can get away with it, but more than likely others will see through you eventually.
I say this because there are a lot of people in the world who harp the "image is everything" mantra. Back to the sports example, a really good image can create the effect of your favorite sports team winning by a decent margin before the game even starts. That's certainly good, but they still have to play the game. If they are a really bad team, then they will still lose even with the early advantage.
You can show up to a job interview wearing an expensive suit, a clean and nicely pressed shirt, a stylish and well shined pair of shoes, an excellent haircut, and a clean shaven face, but if you start stammering during the interview or are unable to answer simple questions about the job, then you probably won't get it. Now, in this case, the interviewer may give you the benefit of the doubt. Because you appear competent, they may be led to believe that you actually are competent, and could very well give you a second chance. This is also, however, out of your control, so don't bank on your image saving your character.
So Which One Is More Important?
I didn't want this post to sound snobbish, but I also didn't want it to sound too "it's the inside that counts." If I had to put numbers to it, I would say that your image makes up about 25% of the way people judge you, with character making up the other 75%. That's of course, not a hard stat, I literally just made it up, and it will vary widely based on the individual. Some people get past a bad image or first impression more easily than others.
The biggest question is, of course, what do you want your image to be? Do you want to look like a successful businessman, do you want to look like a rebel without a cause, do you want to look like a nerd? Keep in mind that you don't have to have the same image for every situation, in fact you should probably change it as you see fit.
My goal with this was really to get you thinking "what image do I project?" Are you happy with that image? Try to perform a mental exercise of seeing yourself the way a stranger would see you. Facebook stalk yourself and pretend that you are a potential employer, a potential romantic interest, your significant other's parents, etc.
If you have a hard time doing this honestly, look over the shoulder of someone doing it, not of your profile, but of someone else's. Observe their honest response to this person's online persona, and try to imagine how they would respond to yours. If they are a really good friend and you think they would be truthful, have them assess yours. You will probably find that people don't look upon you the way you look upon yourself.
Hope this helps get you thinking. Sometimes little changes can make the biggest differences.