To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Prioritizing utility over swag?

This article is part of an ongoing collaborative column by Gonny Nir and Jamie Trope. In this column, the authors explore questions big and small, worthwhile and worthless, obvious and absurd, all for the humble pursuit of knowledge, truth and sanity (or lack thereof). 


Greetings Gonny!


In one of our previous in-person discussions, you mentioned the idea of “prioritizing utility over swag.” I would like to take the time to expand on this idea. I define swag as an intangible amount of coolness gained by wearing a cool outfit or having an interesting personality. 


Utility has and always will be an important concept. How much benefit and personal enjoyment we derive from something has the ability to impact our quality and enjoyment of life. If something, say an outfit, has higher utility to us, we prefer to wear it over the other outfits in our closets. If we would prefer to go to the beach over riding a bicycle, we will go to the beach. We want to maximize our utility in all aspects of our lives. Does having swag negatively detract from our utility? I think not. 


Let me first pose the question: why do we want to have swag? Having swag is a sought-after trait, so having zero swag cannot be beneficial. Socially, it is important to have a certain degree of swagginess. There is the underlying assumption in “prioritizing utility over swag” that swag somehow detracts from utility. Literally, a swag outfit may not be as useful to someone out in the wilderness. Those earrings and platform shoes and pants may not aid your survival. But we as a species have moved past surviving and now can focus on thriving. Utility is not just how literally useful something is but also how personally useful that something is to us. An individual’s funky boots may not be literally useful in increasing speed or providing ankle support, but they may be socially useful in gaining respect and admiration from peers. Prioritizing swag may be more important today than ever before. 


Wearing a swaggy fit can boost self perception, as your peers are statistically more likely to compliment swag over slouch. In theory, swag could even promote more optimism. Having swag is not solely limited to outfits. It is a way of living your life to its swaggiest. If having immense swag gives you joy, should you not maximize it? Even if having a more swag outfit may not be the most practical outfit available to you, it may be your best option. 


I would like to argue that, in prioritizing swag, we are also prioritizing utility. Having swag results in boosted confidence and an ease of carrying yourself. Utility, by definition, is how useful something is to its user. A swaggy jacket may not give you personally much utility, and to its wearer, the exact opposite could be the truth. If swag is useful in modern day society, is swag itself not an aspect of utility? 


Maximizing utility does not mean maxing out the largest possible amount you can possibly acquire. It is therefore possible to have too much swag in such a way that negativity affects utility and enjoyment. Wearing a swaggy outfit every day of the week may require substantial time inputs to create the finished look, detracting from the enjoyment of one’s usual morning activities. Or maybe, one’s idea of what is swaggy may not match what the general population deems swaggy, resulting in feelings of isolation. In all cases, an individual should not put all of their effort into creating swag and should only put so much as makes them happy without compromising their days. There exists a perfectly optimized level of swag that maximizes one’s utility. 


To conclude, swag and utility are not mutually exclusive. One can derive utility from having swag.


Looking forward to your response on the matter.





Dear Jamie, 


Spoken like a true economist—my goodness!


Regarding your conclusion, I think you’re absolutely right in thinking that swag and utility are not mutually exclusive. I believe that it is entirely possible for one to promote utility and swag simultaneously, given the conditions of the modern world.


However, something I do find quite interesting is the value we give to these concepts throughout our lives. I’m particularly interested in how these concepts receive imbalanced amounts of our attention given the phase of our life that we happen to be in.


For one, in my high school years, I used to disproportionately prioritize swag (however that happened to manifest) over utility. Looking back now, older and hopefully wiser (all the while trying to suppress the tsunami wave of cringe), I seriously question how I made it out of my front door in less than 45 minutes every morning! Seriously, I caked at least three layers of makeup onto my face, wore elaborate outfits and managed to pour a cup of coffee into a to-go cup every single morning without ever being late to school. How? Time management is not a trait most high schoolers develop until their later years, and I was no exception.


What I’m trying to get at in this discussion is that I did all of these incredibly time-consuming things for no other reason than to claim a bit of swagginess. Why? Did I have nothing better to do with 45 minutes in the morning? Probably. But still, I could have slept! I’m such a big advocate for sleep now; I can’t even function without at least seven hours. Maybe I just had more energy back then? But high school was not so long ago, so I doubt that energy levels are the x factor in this scenario.


When I ask myself why I don’t pull these same stunts in my university years, my first instinct is to say that I simply don’t want to. Nowadays, you’re lucky if you happen to catch me with a tinted ChapStick on. I’ve traded heeled boots for Blundstones, elaborate bell-sleeve shirts for button-downs & crewneck sweaters, contacts for glasses—I could go on. Why? I don’t know. I think I prioritized swagginess for so long in high school, that now, I prioritize function over swag. I care more about staying warm in the bitter cold of Boston winters (the wind chill here… not for the faint of heart), than looking like Stevie Nicks’ love child every day. I’m not sure if this is because of a genuine rational choice to prioritize my comfort and health, or because of a desire to break from my former routine in high school.


Being the good Jamesian that I like to imagine I am, I would argue that the distinction doesn’t really matter all that much, as the result is the same. I’m still out here with minimal makeup and three layers of shirts, aren’t I? It doesn’t really matter whether I do so because of a desire to maximize utility or break from a former identity. But I do think it’s an interesting distinction to pick at, and I can’t help but wonder if I will maximize swag over utility again in my future.


In thinking about professional life, I imagine that sometimes, one must prioritize looking a certain way over feeling a certain way for the sake of a circumstance such as an interview or a workplace. Nevertheless, even in those circumstances, I think there’s a balancing act present. We don’t have to resort to one extreme over the other, I suppose Aristotle was quite right in thinking that balance is a virtue. Perhaps this is the key to our equation.


Maybe one ought to strike a balance between swag and utility in everyday life.


Yours affectionately,


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