What Millennials Could Learn from Cary Grant

Written for Acculturated

November 29th, 2016

While the world ponders the brutal legacy of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who died over the weekend, it’s worth recalling a very different sort of man, one who died thirty years ago today. The New York Times featured an article on the 29th of November, 1986, about something that was never supposed to happen: the death of Cary Grant. The silver screen legend passed away in Davenport, Iowa, while he was warming up for a show he was doing later that day. “Cary Grant was not supposed to die,” the Times wrote. “Cary Grant was supposed to stick around. Our perpetual touchstone of charm and elegance and youth.”

Eighty-two years earlier, before he was famous enough to merit an obituary in The New York Times, before he was famous enough to be in Davenport as a part of a national tour called “Conversations with Cary Grant,” and before he was even Cary Grant, the silver screen legend was born Archibald Leach in Bristol, England. He was born into poverty, to an alcoholic father and a mentally ill mother who was institutionalized when Grant was just nine years old. He didn’t do particularly well in school, and seemed likely to remain in the poverty to which he was born, which makes what he made of himself all the more incredible. Grant started at the lowest rung of society, yet transformed himself into a cultural icon, the very epitome of class. His journey from obscurity to fame is fascinating, and like all success stories, it presents us with some lessons about life. If there are any takeaways from the life of Cary Grant, it is that great discipline is required to maintain one’s reputation, and that the importance of elegance and manners in everyday life should never be underestimated.

As you would imagine, Grant’s transformation from working-class boy to society’s “perpetual touchstone of charm and elegance and youth” was difficult. When he started out, he didn’t know anything about table manners, spoke with an atrocious Cockney accent, and couldn’t tell you the first thing about evening wear. But young Archibald Leach was incredibly ambitious and knew he wanted to make something of his life, so he worked to transform himself. He changed his name. He arduously studied fashion and manners. He listened to film audiences to learn what they found funny and what they didn’t. He only wore suits that met his exacting specifications, and if his suit lapels were off by even a fraction of an inch, he’d send it back to the tailor. He’d even practice things as small as lighting a cigarette.

Grant’s attention to detail bordered on the fanatical, and many people in his life failed to understand why he was so focused on it. He gave his reason in one quick, pithy statement: “It takes 500 small details to add up to one favorable impression.”

Grant’s quote might seem slightly superficial to our fast-casual age, but studies have shown that it’s actually spot on if you want to make a good impression. It takes only a tenth of a second for first impressions to be formed, and that impression colors all future interactions with the person in question. In that tenth of a second, we take in the clothes a person wears, how they carry themselves, their facial expression, and everything else about them. It may not be the best way to judge a person’s character, but whether we like it or not, subconsciously our first impressions are based almost entirely on how a person looks.

The good news is that we have a significant amount of control over how we’re perceived. We can alter how people treat us simply by altering how we dress. We’ve all heard the advice, “dress for the job you want, not the one you have.” If Cary Grant’s life shows us anything, it’s to take this adage to heart. He didn’t just dress for the job he wanted, he dressed for the person he wanted to be, and the image he wanted to project to the world. Eventually he became that person and the image he wanted to project became part of who he was. As he said, “I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me. Or we met at some point.”

Considering how important first impressions can be (they affect everything from job interviews to first dates), adopting Grant’s detail-oriented approach to appearances (and manners) is a sound idea that the millennial generation in particular should consider embracing, not just because first impressions matter, but because we should all want to leave a lasting impression, as Cary Grant did. Thirty years have passed since Grant died, but his legacy of charm and elegance still lives on.