How Do You Tell an ‘Achievement Beard’ From a Loser Beard?

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Does Karl Ove Knausgaard have a goatee of greatness? Photo: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/Corbis

Yesterday I heard the phrase “achievement beard” for the first time. It called to mind the beard of Zeus or Merlin or Karl Ove Knausgaard — the impressive beard of an esteemed man that signals having lived and accomplished. The facial-hair equivalent of a Nobel Prize or a gnarly face scar — a clear sign that this man is doing things and going places.

The New Yorker, coining the term, defines the achievement beard as “a marker of triumphant lassitude, the victory lap after a long job well done … It has become standard issue for an entertainer on the comedown from a high-intensity career …” They cite David Letterman’s post-career face-pelt as the achievement-beard ideal.

David Letterman's achievement beard. Photo: Ron Asadorian/Splash News/Corbis

Then I came across another beard article published online yesterday by The Hollywood Reporter, this time discussing the retirement beard. Surely, they must be different beard types, since two esteemed outlets spent several hundred words going over their importance and meaning. From what I've deduced, unlike the achievement beard, the retirement beard is grown to signal the end of achieving, or “When someone retires or a show is canceled or on hiatus, you can finally just relax and grow your beard …” They reference David Letterman’s post-career face-pelt as the retirement-beard ideal.

David Letterman's retirement beard. Photo: Ron Asadorian/Splash News/Corbis

How confusing! Is it that one beard signals esteem and value, while the other signals that a man is now in the position to buck all expectations of an office-appropriate face and say eff you to the man? How can Letterman have both simultaneously? How can a beard contain multitudes? 

All attempts to differentiate between the two have proven futile. I see no difference between an achievement beard and a retirement beard. And upon further consideration, each could just as easily be a neglect beard, a breakup beard, a historical-reenactment beard, a willful-rebellion beard, a depression beard, or an “I’ll make you ceramics in exchange for room and board” beard.

Be careful out there, friends: Who knows what kind of beard you’re really getting.