Dear Adam Smith: You're So Vain
Can Mr Smith resolve a bet between brothers on who's more vain?
Dear Mr. Smith:
My brother and I have a bet on which of us is the vainest. My brother is pretty handsome: thick hair, chiseled features, and a killer fashion sense. He even has a fan site where people admire pictures of him. What they don't know is that he spends four hours a day bench-pressing weights and talking to his mirror like some demented fairy-tale queen.
Unlike him, I focus on the important stuff. Quantum mechanics, Aristotle, Chaucer: you name it, I know it. I study even stuff I hate (like economics) so I can craft the cleverest memes. My brother says that's ridiculous, but my fan site is just as big as his. Unfortunately, my debt is also as high: apparently books are as expensive as blazers.
So who is the vainest of them all?
It is natural for young adults to want to be admired. Who doesn't want to be loved or to enjoy the advantages of beauty, health, and intelligence?
The problem with vanity is that it keeps you focused on what others think of you. Is it truly important to have strangers admire your latest meme or photo? Why are you trying so hard to impress strangers, even at the expense of your future wealth?
As I explain in my Theory of Moral Sentiments, the goal of an ethical person should be not simply being praised but becoming praise-worthy. Yes, society can help you see when you're doing the right things, but it can know only part of your situation. If you were acting according to your highest ideals, what would you do?
Ask yourself that question, but don't be too hard on your past mistakes. As I've written, "Vanity is very frequently no more than an attempt prematurely to usurp that glory before it is due." Wanting to improve yourself is a sign of aspiration that can lead to great things. In fact, once you focus on praise-worthy actions, you eliminate the stress of pleasing others and move closer to your goals and even tranquility, which is the foundation of happiness.
Verdict on your bet: it's a tie.