Real Recognize Real: Why "Being The Part" Is Better Than "Looking The Part"

“Try not to become a man of success. Rather become a man of value.” — Albert Einstein

“You never know who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out.” — Warren Buffett


On July 2, 1881, our 20th President: James A. Garfield was shot twice by would-be assassin Charles Guiteau. Yet, as history retells, the title of assassin was never truly earned by Guiteau. While the wounds from the bullet would lead to the President’s death, the shooter was not the ultimate culprit in this tragic story. What transpired between the assassination attempt on July 2nd and Garfield’s final breath on September 19th would turn out to be the ultimate cause of the President’s death, and it all stemmed from a doctor who cared more about his image of success than the real work of saving a life.

Dr. D.W. Bliss had a history of compromise in moments of uncertainty. From cowardice in the Battle of Bull Run, to being arrested for accepting bribes, to falsely taking credit for his role treating Lincoln after his assassination, to leveraging his fame to sell fake cures for cancer; Dr. Bliss was willing to do whatever it took to have others believe in his worth and value, regardless of whether that belief was ill-founded or not.

On that fateful day of July 2nd, the decision from Robert Todd Lincoln (Garfield’s Secretary of War) to summon Dr. Bliss to the White House would be the nail in President Garfield’s coffin, unbeknownst to anyone at the time. What began immediately upon Dr. Bliss's entrance to the scene was an incessant focus on maintaining power, control, and, ultimately, his image of superiority and renown. The combination of pride with ignorance, and a lack of expertise/skill relative to his title or perception, led Dr. Bliss to unknowingly kill President Garfield. Through massive amounts of infection from the doctor’s incessant probing (with un-sanitized tools and fingers) along with an entrenched insistence that the bullet was on the right side of the body (not even allowing other doctors the chance to evaluate for themselves), this systemic ignorance would prove to be Garfield’s true murderer. (https://nypost.com/2016/09/22/the-inept-doctor-who-killed-president-garfield/)

This is one extreme example of how much damage can be caused by focusing on “looking the part” instead of “being the part.” Yet it is an idea that isn’t reserved for the extreme, and I believe it’s more involved in our everyday lives than we might imagine...

Hitting Closer To Home

If you’re into fitness and exercise like me, you will know that there is a big difference between looking like you’re in good shape and actually being in good shape. After being a member at Gold’s Gym this past year, it’s fairly easy to spot who falls into what category… and no it’s not based on physique.

Developing the right aesthetic or physical appearance isn’t rocket-science. It usually requires eating less, and focusing on hypertrophy (working out in a way that focuses on specific body parts by themselves)—an oversimplified description, I know. The interesting thing about working towards creating a “beach body”, is that looking “in shape” and being in shape are hardly the same thing. One is external, the other is internal.

As a former professional athlete, I now train much more like a body-builder than I do like an athlete. When I was reflecting on why, it struck me that part of the reason is because it’s easier to train for an image than it is to train for a physical capacity or ability. The results for image usually come faster and have more intrinsic reward associated with them (especially when you look in the mirror) than results for your actual level of fitness. In many ways, creating an image of fitness is the easier path.

This also rings true in the world of golf.

As a golfer, we all admire the players with the “perfect swing” (*Adam Scott, Fred Couples, Ernie Els, etc.). Typically, as we try to improve our game we inevitably try to improve our swing, working towards the ideal image of what the perfect swing should look like.

In my own career, this was a path I definitely erred on. Part of the motivation behind it is to improve your overall game, but part of it is also in making your game look better. But, when it comes to performing well on the course and scoring better in a round, the area that makes a much larger difference is your mental strength—the toughness, resilience, and composure in situations when the pressure is amplified to the max.

In comparing these two paths, it’s fairly easy to see that creating the “perfect” golf swing is an easier thing to accomplish than cultivating a strong and resilient mind capable of performing in any environment. This was undoubtedly true for me, and much of my talent was unfulfilled because of a lack in the latter.

In golf, as in fitness, as in life: looking the part is always easier than being the part.

Why We Prefer To Look The Part

Our natural tendency, as humans, is to take the path of least resistance. Stated another way: when provided a shortcut, we will most often take it.

The question is, why?

One of the reasons underlying this disposition is the idea that our goal is to get to the destination as fast as possible. If life is a race, then we win by getting to the “finish line” faster than anyone else. This is a funny thought because it inevitably leads us to a place of disenchantment when we cross the line and realize there isn’t just one race in life. And, it can often rob us of the joy found from the race in the first place. Our obsession with the destination takes us away from the beauty of the journey—the very thing that life itself is.

The deeper layer is that there is, in fact, no “finish line” in life. Instead there are a series of finish lines that all lead us to the next race we must run. By confusing a momentary finish line with a final destination, we set all our hopes and dreams (and our identity) in reaching that “final” line as fast as possible. Hope is found from knowing that we will always be in-process.

What results from this idea is a tendency to sacrifice anything and everything to win the race and get to the other side. Going back to the fitness example, this tendency can be illustrated by an athlete’s choice to use steroids. Simplistically, steroids amplify ability beyond capacity in order to accomplish the goal (reach the finish line) as fast as possible. In taking this shortcut, athletes inevitably compromise their bodies’ long-term health for a short-term result, and bring with it a host of side-effects that aren’t so easily undone. This is because the body is less able to produce and sustain the performance that they have synthetically achieved.

“Looking the part” sacrifices the future for the now. It exchanges the journey for the destination, all while forgetting that in life there is no final destination of arrival. And it fails (sometimes fatally,) to realize that by taking shortcuts to accomplish our goal, we will be less prepared and less able to sustain the place we aspire to be.

The Underlying Reality

This thought-process gets us to what lies beneath the surface, to what rests at the core of looking the part vs. being the part. It all comes down to sacrifices.

Looking the part says the moment is more important than the future. It sacrifices internal reality for external results. It says that what others think is more important than what others receive. It is giving the power of identity into others’ hands instead of taking ownership of it for ourself. It spends time building a house of cards instead of securing a foundation that will last.

Being the part sacrifices the moment for the future. It sacrifices short-term gain for the long-term reward. It says no to comfort to say yes to capability. It embraces the harder path as the path of most growth. It is willing to receive less praise along the way for the higher cause of providing more benefit to others down the road. It welcomes the journey in full embrace, and doesn’t try to move past it to some desired destination.

Life is all about sacrifices—what we are willing to give up for the greater good, or to gain something down the road. The path of looking the part often sacrifices for personal gain. The path of being the part focuses more on sacrificing for the goal of benefiting others.

Which sacrifice are you willing to make?

My Argument For Being The Part

I believe the powerful choice we must make is to commit to a life of being/living the part instead of just looking it. This is a powerful choice because it isn’t our natural choice, and it most definitely won't happen by chance.

Part of my conviction in this belief comes from my own personal experience from trying to look the part more than trying to actually be it. And honestly, this wasn’t always a conscious choice, it kind of just happened.

When I was competing as a professional golfer, I spent a lot of time examining and evaluating my fellow competitors’ games to see what pieces they had that I didn’t. I wanted to find the “missing link” that allowed them to post better scores than I did, even though I believed I had superior talent. The fallacy in this is that: having talent or being able to “look the part” doesn’t produce the lasting results that come from persisting through the years of effort needed to develop into one of the best golfers in the world.

The part I failed to realize early-on was: the way my golf game looked is way less important than the way my mind thought and operated. Making a golf game look better was fairly easy/straightforward. Making my mind more clear, confident, and resilient was a much harder endeavor.

Just as in life, the payoff for which path I chose looked differently. If I worked on making my golf game look better, then those around me would think more highly of my abilities sooner, even if the results didn’t change much. If I worked on my mental toughness, then nobody (and sometimes not even myself) would be able to see the improvements I was making.

The real work in life is the work done internally. The work done that doesn’t deal with externalities, but rather the internal wirings that end up producing better external fruit—and better for the benefit of others, above and beyond yourself.

My argument for being the part is that we will experience more joy, fulfillment, and blessing when we choose to travel down the path of internal development, of slow and sustained progress, of embracing the journey instead of the destination, of delaying self-gratification found in external praise for the self-fulfillment of internal work that produces external impact.

Of Course There’s Always Two Perspectives

Like any argument, there are two sides to this coin. And both sides serve a role and can have positive purpose.

While I believe we should prefer the longer path of being the part, sometimes the season we are in requires a different emphasis.

To connect this back to the prior examples of golf and fitness, once I made the decision to pivot into a new career path and trajectory, certain aspects of my life needed to take a new direction as well.

As a professional athlete, your goal is to be as optimal as humanly possible—because that’s your job. With 100% optimization being unrealistic, my goal was always 95%+ optimal. This makes sense when you are competing for a living, but when you are no longer a professional athlete, striving for 95% optimal is just selfish.

As a “normal” human (post-athletic career), I had to adjust my standards to being 80% optimal (give or take). This means, in the realm of fitness, I am choosing to take more of a shorter path than I used to. And, working part-time as a model, I am using the reduced time I spend on fitness to be more geared towards looking the part vs. being the part. A change of seasons often produces a change of emphasis, and that can be a good thing too.

While there are exceptions to the rule, I believe the rule should be trusted and pursued. Being the part will almost always serve you better than looking the part. But the more profound and powerful truth is that: being the part will always serve others better than merely putting on the appearance you want them to see.

Dr. Bliss did all he could to show off ignorance’s true colors. We would do well to learn from his example, alongside our own experience, helping us hold the commitment of: being the part instead of just looking it.

The world depends on you to fully be you, not just look like it.

“What you can be you must be.” — Abraham H. Maslow