How to be cool

Black and white photo of James Dean leaning against a wall holding a cigarette looking cool

All through junior high school and the first part of high school I was obsessed with being cool, because the only way you could feel safe in school (much less become accepted or popular) was to be cool. Of course, I didn’t articulate it like that at the time. I just knew I had to be cool, and I felt that everyone else had already figured out how, and I was scrambling to catch up, and in the meantime I’d just have to pretend as best I could and hope nobody figured out that I was a fake.

It turns out that most people actually felt the same way I did in high school. If we all knew that at the time we’d all have been a lot happier, but of course nobody was going to admit their feelings of inadequacy to each other. That wouldn’t be cool. Or would it? What does it mean to be cool? If it were simple we all would have just gotten it and our teenage years would have been that much simpler. But it’s not simple. has a good definition of the word, “cool.”

“An adjective referring to something that is very good, stylish, or otherwise positive.”

“Cool” is about as diverse as the word, “fuck,” but we’re only going to focus on one usage of the word. What does is mean to be a cool person? The’s definition exposes why it’s so hard to say what a cool person is. It applies to two opposing lifestyles: good and stylish.

Let’s assume that the terms “stylish” and “cool” are interchangeable. “Style” is whatever is popular at the moment. Other than the fact that style changes daily this is an easy-to-follow formula that is very reliable. Just conform to the majority’s standards and the majority will accept you…in other words, sell out. If you want to be more than just accepted the trick is to pay close attention to what is going to be popular tomorrow and stay on top of the trends. The problem with this is that you live your life for other people who are probably as petty as you and their friendship is about as durable as a sun-dried toothpick. There are a lot of people out there willing to pay that price for safety and exaltation, and if you choose that path I can’t say I blame you, and I can’t say I haven’t done it before. But today I won’t have any respect for you.

I’ll introduce my next point with a quote from James Dean, the master of cool. He once said, “If you aren’t living for yourself then you aren’t really living.” The other version of cool is to be yourself regardless (and often in spite) of what the majority is doing. Having said that, it’s also important to point out that style and individuality are two extremes at opposite ends of a scale, and nobody is 100 stylish or individual, and you don’t have to be. It’s okay to be in the gray area. No, you will be in the gray area. You can’t help being shaped by your environment, and at any rate, no matter what you do, wear, or want, in a world with almost 7 billion people you’re inevitably going to be like someone else. And trying not to be like anyone else for the purpose of not being like anyone else is pointless. Disliking something just because it’s mainstream is ultimately the same as liking something because it’s mainstream. Either way you’re basing your actions on other people’s actions. The point is that when figuring out where you are on the scale it’s not important to measure how much you look or act like everyone else but why you make the decisions you’ve made. Did you do it for yourself or for someone else?

Consider sub cultures like goth, punk, gangsta, hippie, raver, etc. These “sub” cultures include millions of people world wide, which have entire fashion, music, decoration, and entertainment industries built around them to provide you the material goods you think you need to set yourself “apart.” Dumbass. Conforming to a subculture is still conforming. And the rules of subcultures are enforced just as harshly as the rules of mainstream culture. Don’t kid yourself. If you identify with a subculture you’re not the outsider you think you are.

The point is that it’s more important to be true to yourself than popular. It’s more important to have a sense of personal identity than social identity. And if you want to live for yourself then, yes, you will probably have to sacrifice some social acceptance for it, but if you do you’ll be free, you’ll be able to grow, and you’ll have self respect. But where does say a 14 year old get the strength to sacrifice popularity for individuality? Commitment to any mental endeavor like this are rarely done through raw, mental strength. It’s achieved through knowledge, which gives you a clear perception of the course of action you should take. Anyone who has great resolve to accomplish anything or live a certain way will always have a clear philosophy about why they’re doing what they’re doing. So in order to be yourself you have to see clearly the cost and benefits of popularity and individuality. I mentioned a few reasons why individuality is more important than popularity, but there’s another very important one that I haven’t mentioned. Think about the people you’re trying to be popular with. If their friendship is so flimsy that you’ll lose it if you don’t play the perfect little role they expect you to then they’re not really friends and not worth impressing. In fact, if you haven’t figured it out yet, most of the people in this world are complete douche bags. If somebody doesn’t like you then statistically you’re better off. In fact, you should hope people don’t like you and leave you alone.

ANYBODY who stands up for them self in spite of social pressure is cool. And in this generation nobody is more victimized by social pressure, and thus, nobody has to stand up for themselves more than nerds and gays. Agree with them or not, befriend them or not, but respect them, because they’re stronger and cooler than all the jocks and valley girls in the world. Don’t put words in my mouth though. I’m not saying we should all be gay nerds. I’m just saying that nerds, gays, and other unstylish outcasts don’t get the respect they deserve.

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0 thoughts on “How to be cool

  1. Or, as Ralph “Where’s Waldo” Emerson once said, “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

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