I spotted a technology executive walking down the street. He used to wear expensive tailored suits. Now he’s coming to work in high-end jeans and a polo shirt. Then it hit me. Jeans and a turtleneck or jeans and a polo shirt (or really jeans and anything) is the new innovation wardrobe. On one level, it makes sense because everyone wants to dress like Steve Jobs. But when you dig a little bit deeper, using Silicon Valley clothes as a status symbol doesn’t make any sense at all.
Business suits have always been linked to status, the modern business suit being descended from army uniforms. As you rose in the ranks, army uniforms would become more decorated, showing your status. This worked in companies too as the more senior people could afford the more expensive suits. But this dress code is falling apart now that Facebook and Apple are the most valuable companies in the world and their CEOs wear hoodies and turtlenecks.
So why did Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs dress in casual clothes, even wearing the exact same outfit to work every day? Because it wasn’t worth their time to focus on clothes. They thought it was more important for them to focus on getting work done. Along the same lines, I once asked a math professor “Why don’t you see very many well-dressed mathematicians?” He told me:
Math is different from other fields in that you don’t have to prove you’re an authority in math. Your math does it for you. You can solve the problems, they can’t. In English and the Humanities, it’s much more subjective, and so you need some extra way of establishing yourself as an authority figure.
This focus on meritocracy is a core value of Silicon Valley. Tom Wolfe writes that this comes from the Midwestern Congregationalist ethic that pervaded the early Silicon Valley. In his article on the founder of Intel, Robert Noyce, Wolfe writes:
Noyce’s idea was that every employee should feel that he could go as far and as fast in this industry as his talent would take him…. When they first moved into the building, Noyce worked at an old, scratched, secondhand metal desk. As the company expanded, Noyce kept the same desk, and new stenographers, just hired, were given desks that were not only newer but bigger and better than his.
All of this goes back to my original question. The point of taking off the trappings of a business suit and putting on regular clothes is to be judged on what you do vs. who you are. If people dress like they work in Silicon Valley, shouldn’t we be judging them on the quality of their ideas not the quality of their clothes? I can’t wait for that to start!