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I'm the founder of a start-up, so my days often look like this: first a major investor meeting, then a big sales pitch, next a consulting meeting, and finally, networking at an event with even more investors. I'm also a clotheshorse, but I've learned through painful experience that what I wear to these meetings does not matter. Here's my power dressing hack, and I swear it works: Get yourself a "major meetings" outfit and wear it to every meeting you go to.
I always repeat, "Spotlight effect! Spotlight effect! Spotlight effect!" like a mantra before heading out into the world.
Now, I love getting dressed up. I often find the moment when I look in the mirror before I leave my apartment the most satisfying part of the day. I fully believe in the transformative power of a good outfit. But on major meeting days, I'm out the door with barely a glance at my reflection. Sure, sometimes I'll pause in front of my shoe rack, wincing and wondering if I should change my shoes. But I always stop myself, repeating, "Spotlight effect! Spotlight effect! Spotlight effect!" like a mantra before heading out into the world.
The spotlight effect is the phenomenon in which you think people are paying more attention to something about you than they actually are. The truth is, if you think everyone's noticing the wrinkles in your skirt or the coffee on your collar, that's probably a statement of your own self-consciousness rather than a fact based in reality.
My experience with the spotlight effect is a memory that still makes me cringe more than two years later. Before my start-up, I ran a large network at a fast growing media company that we'll say rhymes with "MuzzWeed." My career had been skyrocketing, and I was closing bigger and bigger deals. After a major event where I had given a keynote presentation, I managed to get a meeting with one of the world's largest broadcasters. Attending would be the president of that broadcaster, several executives, myself, and the head of my company. No pressure.
Before the meeting I had been given detailed instructions by the assistant to my company's CEO: Meet at this time, the founder will be waiting for you in the lobby, you'll go upstairs together, etc. I was so excited.
So excited that the morning of the meeting I stood paralyzed and confused in front of my closet. What I had planned to wear just felt wrong—you know that sense you get when you just don't like your outfit. It's illogical, but I was insecure and felt that my clothes would somehow solve the problem. I quickly changed my dress. And then my shoes. And then I changed my shoes again, and again, for twenty minutes.
I quickly changed my dress. And then my shoes. And then I changed my shoes again, and again, for twenty minutes.
Now I want to stress something: In most meetings your feet are under a table. No one will ever notice your fucking shoes. And in 99% of cases, no one will ever make a decision to buy a product or close a deal with you based on whether you have on Prada or Payless.
But there was no reasoning with me that morning. The result? I got to the lobby of the building at 8:17am. I was supposed to meet the founder at 8:15am. And I should have been there at least 15 minutes earlier than that to make sure I was the one waiting for him, not the other way around.
And so I stood in the lobby, getting more and more worried that we were going to be late for the meeting and blow our chances with the aforementioned worldwide broadcasting network. I emailed the assistant. I emailed the founder. I called the assistant. And then suddenly I got a curt, one-word email from the founder: "Upstairs." He had gotten there before me, and when he saw I wasn't there, he immediately headed up to the offices.
A note for your future: Executives never wait around.
When I got upstairs, panting, the founder of my company was on the couch talking to someone. They both got up when they saw me, and he said, "Let's go." I had lost the privilege of pleasantries. Momentum tends to continue in the direction in which it was set, and as the meeting went on, everything got worse and worse. My computer wasn't compatible with their screen. The screen was having issues. The tech team had to be called. Twenty minutes after the set time, we finally got started.
A note for your future: Executives never wait around.
A few days after the meeting, in a one-on-one with my manager, I was told, "You were late, and you forgot the dongle."
"What you need to connect a Mac to a PC."
I hadn't even known what it was called. I was so focused on how I would appear in the meeting that I hadn't thought about how the material would appear on screen. Two months after the incident, I watched a position I wanted at the company go to someone else. Was that person more or less qualified? It was irrelevant. I had shown I wasn't reliable in the small ways that count on a daily basis: being on time, being thorough, etc.
And the reality? I'm never going to be perfect at those things. It's not my personality type, but I do have other strengths. But I made a promise to myself after that day that I would never let my own self-consciousness exacerbate my weaknesses.
Hence the uniform: A Clover Canyon pencil skirt, a silk white button-down from Zara, and a blazer I treasure from a Maison Margiela for H&M collection. In the summers, I'll wear one of two dresses with the same blazer. It's done without thinking. Two sets of shoes: one for warm weather and one for cold. Always the same make-up routine. Hair goes back. Second guessing is not allowed.
And I feel the difference. Now, on the mornings before big meetings, my mind is focused on my intention for the day and the pitch I'll be making, not the contents of my closet.
I know it's my work, and not my wardrobe, that has allowed me to build my career. And now, as an entrepreneur, I'm able to let the spotlight shine on what I produce, rather than what I wear.