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Learning From the Dingy Undershirts In Your Dresser Drawer

plain white tee

“You’re only as fashionable as the oldest white undershirt you still wear.”

Many years ago, I read this quote as part of a fashion piece in my favorite magazine, Men’s Health. Rifling through the clothes in my dresser on a recent Saturday, these words came racing back into my conscious mind.

While I can’t say that I typically spend a lot of time examining the white undershirts in my dresser, there was something insightful that came from taking the time to look at these tee shirts through the lens of the Men’s Health quote.

I discovered that over time I had let it become normal to have and use old yellowed shirts. Without ever making a conscious choice, I’d come to accept dingy shirts that didn’t reflect how I wanted to dress or present myself. Not cool. It was downright embarrassing looking at some of the shirts in my drawer that day.

But as I started to throw the tee shirts away, a great sense of satisfaction came over me. I’d finally taken the time to observe something about myself, discover something I didn’t like it, and take action to change it – plus give myself a brighter look. And it felt great.

But this isn’t about tee shirts. It’s not about image, fashion, or looking professional – whatever that means. It’s about getting rid of the toxins in our life that erode our future successes in unpredictable ways and eat away at the confidence and clarity of today. These toxins are often the product of mental accounting, where we grant ourselves exceptions in one part of our life thinking that negative traits won’t spill over into other parts of our life.

Sorry, friends. It’s simply not possible to be a disciplined professional while being undisciplined in other aspects of your life. Maybe it will take time for the negative impact of holding yourself to a lower standard in one part of your life to creep into your professional life….just like the dingy tee-shirt in the drawer. And maybe the negative impact will finally appear in your conscious mind when you “suddenly” miss out on the big deal with a must-have client or you narrowly miss out on that next promotion. Regardless of timing, make no mistake about it, a lack of discipline in your life will come back to bite you.

The days of having a separate approach to your work life and your personal life are over. Kaput. Gonzo.

Yet the tired old arguments that support this belief are still in existence. And these old myths get in the way of both near-term and long-term success.

Maybe one of these sounds familiar:

  • I know my house is a mess, but I’m really organized at work

  • Sure, I’m late for a lot of personal things….but I’m always on-time for work

  • I’m just a totally different person at work

Rationalizing your behavior doesn’t help. It just creates yellowish tee shirts that you come to accept in your life. All of us live one life and as much as we like to tell ourselves that we can be different people in different parts of our life, it’s simply not possible – at least not without huge pitfalls.

If your house isn’t organized, it’s impacting your work. Maybe you’ve been late to work because you spent extra time looking for your keys. Maybe you find yourself calling your insurance company during work hours because you lost the form that was sent in the mail and customer support is only provided during the hours you’re at work. Or maybe you’re exhausted at work because you stayed up late last night fixing an appliance that would have been working just fine if you’d done the proper maintenance. The negative impact on your work might show itself in different ways and it may take a long time to surface, but if you’re not disciplined at home – make no mistake about it – it’s impacting your work.

But it’s not just about cleanliness or organization – it’s about how we focus our time and energy in everything we do. When I start to see yellow tee shirts in my life, here’s what I do:

  • Wake up early

  • Hit the gym

  • Clean my car

  • Spend time with good friends who I haven’t talked to in too long

  • Identify the piles of paper or clothes in my life that I’ve become too comfortable with

  • Write down the behaviors I need to change

  • Plan a weekend for myself, where I simply catch up & rest

  • Write in my journal

  • Re-visit my priorities for the next week

  • Clean my desk

  • Buy new clothes (sometimes I even go past tee shirts)

  • Organize a closet or drawer

  • Go for a run with my dog

  • Breathe deeply and consciously

You’ve heard of the Butterfly Effect. You understand that small changes in initial conditions can result in large differences in a later state. Yet if you’re like most people out there, you don’t think about how small behavioral changes in one area of your life can make a huge impact in a different area.

Maybe it’s time to change that.

Successful people have one set of beliefs and behaviors that guide their life. They exhibit the same disciplined approach in everything they do. This doesn’t mean they are rigid in their approach with different stakeholders in their life, but it does mean successful and disciplined people feel more confident and deliver greater results thanks to a consistent core belief that guides their approach to life.

Just like an amazing suit deserves more than a ratty discolored tee shirt as a foundation – a strong disciplined approach to your professional work deserves a consistent disciplined approach in the rest of your life.

So – what’s the old undershirt in your life that’s holding back future successes? Why not look critically at the parts of your life that aren’t consistent with who you want to be and throw them away like old shirts?

Maybe you’ll find a more confident self. Maybe you’ll develop clarity by ending the confusion created by being torn in multiple directions for different artificial versions of yourself. Maybe you’ll change the trajectory of your career without even realizing it.

And you’ll definitely look better wearing bright white tee shirts.


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