"Well, how did I end up here?"
“Well, how did I end up here?” But seriously, this picture has nothing to do with the rest of the post.

Imagine that one day, you decided to be slightly adventurous and decided to spontaneously dine at a new restaurant. While you were reading the menu, the restaurant’s two chefs somehow decided to introduce themselves to you. One of them is on the chubby side, and the other is slightly underweight. Now, let’s say that the two chef’s cooking skills are equally top-notch, but you, being a new customer, do not know of this yet. First thing on the top of your head, if you could choose, which chef would you prefer to prepare your meal?

Chances are, you may answer the same way as I did. I would have probably picked the chubbier chef. Why? Is it because I automatically associate body size to passion for good food? And if this is so, what caused me to have such an association in the first place?

I do not have empirical evidence on how people would choose in the above scenario. But my point is, each of us have our own biases, some more subtle than others.

I very much like to think that I am a very rational person. I would like to think that all my actions and reactions are products of clear and logical thinking processes, and that I am deliberately acting on my own free and unbridled will.

But the rational side of me is also rational enough to remind me that I do have an irrational side. I do have my own share of cognitive biases and mental shortcuts. Not all of them are necessarily bad; some are probably ingrained in me as part of my survival instinct. For example, let’s say I am alone in the forest at night. Suddenly, I hear a rustle from the bushes in front of me. The first thing I would do is probably run away from the bush at such a speed that even Forrest Gump would be shocked.

But logically, the chances of something sinister causing the rustling are actually extremely low. It is probably 99.9% caused by the wind, or by a hedgehog scurrying around, or something that is completely benign. But on the off-chance that it is a bear, tiger or whatever, running away on the sound of rustling would have an infinitely better payoff than just standing there. Because all it takes is just one opportunity for this to happen, I would be dead. Just one opportunity. Just one.

Yeah, okay, fine. Everyone has biases. And not all biases are necessarily good or bad. But how is this relevant to engineers?

The simplest example would be the way we are perceived by the way we dress and groom ourselves.

There’s probably some stereotype that engineers (or at least, engineering students) dress very casually. A simple T-shirt and jeans would suffice. They are comfortable, versatile and utilitarian. What else would an engineer/engineering student need?

But where we disregard the need for fancier articles of clothing, we are complete suckers when it comes to the latest technological toys and gadgetry. We would do anything to have the latest and flashiest wearable technologies; we want the latest phones; we adorn our laptops with stickers of technology companies; and for those who can afford, we want our cars/motorcycles to be the coolest things that ever grace the streets.

To someone who does not come from such a background, we may be perceived as geeks and nerds, simply from the way we dress and carry ourselves. It came to the point when a random stranger can come up to me and say, “you look like you know your way around computers. Can you help me fix my computer? It won’t do what I want.”

Seriously? Okay, I am flattered. But you concluded that I was good with computers just by looking at me?

This image that we have is so strong and so entrenched to the point where Peter Thiel, a billionaire and the person who co-founded companies like PayPal and Palantir, employs a unique investment strategy. Whenever a startup asks him for money, he assesses competency by the way they dress, as can be summed up in an excerpt from his book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future (emphasis mine):

The most obvious clue was sartorial: cleantech executives were running around wearing suits and ties. This was a huge red flag, because real technologists wear T-shirts and jeans. So we instituted a blanket rule: pass on any company whose founders dressed up for pitch meetings. Maybe we still would have avoided these bad investments if we had taken the time to evaluate each company’s technology in detail. But the team insight—never invest in a tech CEO that wears a suit—got us to the truth a lot faster. The best sales is hidden. There’s nothing wrong with a CEO who can sell, but if he actually looks like a salesman, he’s probably bad at sales and worse at tech.

So, here are my takeaways:

  1. We are all susceptible to biases. Logical thought processes are not always the norm.
  2. Some biases are good, some are bad, some are neutral.
  3. Because of these biases, when you want to sell yourself or your product, always, always, always take the time to know your audience.
How biases shape our lives, or Are we truly rational?

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