Yesterday morning I was sitting outside at a cafe, when a group of college-aged young women walked by. One of them turned around, came over to me, and asked if she could take my picture. She explained that she was a fashion design student from Norway, and that she was assembling photographs of people she spotted on the street, to use in one of her projects. After she snapped my picture, I wondered whether she thought I was cool, when the reality is that I’m far from it.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when I realized the fact that I’m not cool. Although it might have been when I started sporting rather thick glasses around the age of 6, it was more likely a bit later, when I discovered that I had disastrously poor hand-eye coordination. This ended up making me the last one to be picked for teams in just about every gym class all the way through high school – meaning that I was decidedly NOT cool. Obviously, there was no way this poor, deluded design student could have known that, when she asked me to sit still and keep looking serious.
Following my experience as Norway’s latest fashion inspiration, I dropped by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery to view their new photography exhibition, American Cool. Among the pictures of men and women considered “cool” in their time, some were obvious (James Dean), some were questionable (Audrey Hepburn), and some were noticeable by their absence (Janis Joplin). There was even a bit of “geek chic”, in an image of Steve Jobs riding a Harley. Of course, certain Americans seemed to possess an almost eternal font of the elusive elixir of coolness as they aged: Lauren Bacall comes to mind, as does Miles Davis, both of whom were featured in the show.
What struck me, as I looked at decades’ worth of photographs of the anointed cool, was that the term “cool” itself was part of a fundamental change in how we value ourselves, and each other. Consider the evolution of American advertising over the course of the 20th century, for example. There was a shift away from the notion that maturity and sophistication are aspirational virtues, to a belief that being young and trendy – or at least, being perceived as such – is better than being old and established. Today commercials for cars, pharmaceuticals, and financial planning products aimed at the retiring Baby Boomers try to portray their target audience as still being hip, even if some of them now need hip replacements.
Today’s trend-setter may well be tomorrow’s has-been, but the desire to be thought of as cool is something which many Americans continue to factor into their daily lives well past adolescence and into adulthood. The desire to be cool can influence the choices we make about where to eat, where to live, what type of sneakers we wear, and so on. Something that others determine to be “cool” is often perceived as being better than the available alternatives, even when in real terms there is little or nothing distinguishing about it.
The risk for all of us is, that the pursuit of coolness can prove as shallow as it seems. It can take away from our opportunities to make the best use of the talents and opportunities we’ve been given, if we’re worried about how we will be perceived. It can also cloud our ability to form sound opinions based on substantive arguments, rather than on appeals to our vanity. We already see this problem emerging among heavy consumers of online media: why bother building a relationship with your neighbors, when the people in your online neighborhood seem so much cooler?
To be fair, someone who runs into me on the street may take issue with the childhood self-realization described above. After all, I’m just as likely to be wearing my favorite biker jacket, from the same company that made them for (the very cool) Marlon Brando back in the day, as I am the standard Washingtonian uniform of blue blazer and khakis. Of course as an adult, I know that there’s a time to wear the former, and a time to wear the latter, so that being perceived by others as cool is ultimately irrelevant to the task I’m performing.
I’d be dishonest if I said I wasn’t at least a tiny bit conscious of the fact that being thought of as cool is flattering, however ungrounded in truth that designation may actually be. Let’s face it: everyone secretly likes being told that they’re cool. It’s a social imprimatur, telling us that we’re relevant, noticeable, or influential in some way.
Yet in my own life, the coolest people I know are those who do what they love because they feel called to do it, not because others will think them cool. They look for ways to act for good on behalf of those whom they love, regardless of whether they receive any public recognition for those actions. They may not have all the answers, but they are willing to seek them out, while at the same time showing respect and compassion toward those who come into their lives. When it comes down to it, these are the people whom we ought to be emulating on the inside, whatever may be considered cool on the outside.
And if that means I’m still not cool, then I’m cool with that.