We have all heard of the expression “you can’t judge a book by its cover” which is another way of saying you cannot judge the quality or character of someone or something just by looking at them. 

Kevin's daughter's 1998 Nissan Pathfinder (Kevin Williams, Townsquare Media NJ)

However most of us would admit that without thinking about this we do it on a regular basis.  As I was driving my daughter’s 1998 Nissan Pathfinder yesterday I thought about an analogy I’ve used often when speaking to high school and college students about defining success.   

Many judge success in their initial observation of someone which could be based on things like the clothes they wear, house they own or car they drive.   So let me go back to the scenario I have played out in dozens of classrooms over the years:

You are driving in the center lane of a three-lane roadway when you come to a red light.  You hear a noise to your left and it’s coming from what appears to be a pretty old car. As a matter of fact it must be old because it’s a Datsun 240Z which was hot in the 1970’s but what you’re looking at now is badly-rusted and likely barely running.  You quickly look at the driver who matches his car in appearance and has a cigarette dangling from his mouth while listening to the Grateful Dead belt out a tune on his 8-track tape player. 

You then suddenly look to your right where a man driving a 2014 Mercedes S550 Sedan has just stopped at the traffic light.  He is impressively dressed in a very nice suit; you can see he’s sporting a Rolex watch while he’s engaged in conversation on his hands-free smart phone.

At this point I ask the students that based on their initial and quick observations of the drivers who is the more successful.  Most if not all don’t hesitate in identifying the driver of the Mercedes Benz because like we all do they are judging the outside and not the inside.  I then go on to explain that the seemingly more successful of the two is on the phone with his lawyer who is begging him to declare bankruptcy.  A business about to collapse, two bad divorces and three children who barely talk to him and oh by the way the Benz will be repossessed shortly. 

That guy in the old Datsun? Well he’s a talented carpenter who works when he wants to.  Today he’s decided to go fishing and with a six-back of Budweiser in his cooler he’s heading to the beach.  He’ll throw his line into the ocean and not really care if he catches anything because he’s got the warmth of the sun, a cool breeze and music from Jerry Garcia and “The Dead.” 

At some point he’ll call it a day and head home to his wife of 25 years and when the kids come home they’ll cook some burgers on the grill and talk about their day.

So who’s really more successful?  Remember you can’t judge a book by its cover.