Mighty Life List
Mar 19 2014

What it Means to be Cool


Image by Juan Ignacio Videla

A while ago, my friend Greg Knauss wrote an essay about what he calls The Empathy Vacuum. An excerpt:

“A few years ago, a photo made the rounds. It was taken from the back, its subject unaware. He was a fat guy wearing a jeans-jacket, and on the back he had stenciled the name of his heavy metal band. It was a sloppy and amateurish job. The photo earned a lot of mocking comments in my circle, including from me. Ha ha, look at the fat guy with the rock-and-roll pretensions. Look at him. Looooook.

And then someone said, ‘I think he’s awesome. He’s found something he loves, and he thinks it’s great enough to share with the world. This guy is a hero.’”

This is a change I’ve been feeling in myself for years. Admiration for people who are deeply enthusiastic, and less interest in the detached nature of “being cool.”

I think there’s a cultural shift happening toward enthusiasm and away from apathy. Our team at Go Mighty even has a term for it that I’ll talk about more next week. For now, I’m curious about whether your notions of cool have shifted too.

This concept was part of my entrepreneurship keynote at Square’s Open for Business. I’ll be fleshing out more points from my talk here over the next couple of weeks.

21 Responses to “What it Means to be Cool”

  • Mai Le Says:

    Don’t think I noticed when being “super into something” (a.k.a. nerdy) became synonymous with cool. But I dig it. Of course, I’ve always been on the side of nerdy. :)

  • Allison Says:

    This is what I like to call “Bandwagon Cool”. Great hordes of internet people mocking people who have something in their lives that they love. Example: Twilight. Because of the bandwagon cool effect, to like Twilight was to be mocked. Now it’s Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift. Why can’t we just let people like who they like without mocking them? Thank you for this blog, it makes so much sense!

  • Asha Dornfest {Parent Hacks} Says:

    Pollyanna Power! That’s what I’ve always called it and it has served me well all these years, even the UC Berkeley 80′s where cynicism reigned.

  • Stacy Says:

    One of the best parts of growing old is the realization that passion and excitement about something is far more meaningful than sniping or mocking. Kindness multiplied is far more useful than most anything else and I try mighty hard to act according to that principal. Thank you for the reminder of its power.

  • Amy Says:

    Here’s one of my favorite quotes, from English actor Simon Pegg. I work with young adults in a college, and I posted the quote on my library’s Facebook Page because I think it’s one of the most important lessons to learn – and the sooner the better!

    “Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.”

  • Sarah Says:

    I have found such a greater appreciation of people who know who they are as I have grown wiser. My father was that kind of man. He didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought and he navigated his way brilliantly through corporate America being true to himself. I am still working on it but I have found muscled saying more and more, “Fuck it. I like it.”

  • melissa Says:

    This shift is more a product of getting older and honing in on what you find is cool and actively manufacturing it for yourself, independent of external validation — Rather than receiving it passively from an outside source (others/groups/media), and needing constant validation of the coolness like one might do when younger.

  • Megan Says:

    I think this is one area where the internet has been a positive force for good– people who once felt isolated because the liked things (bands, activities, fashion, art) that was outside the mainstream now have an easy way to tap into their respective jam, and can find others who not only agree, but who support and further that interest; this has lead to more knowledge of, and therefore acceptance of, things previously thought “uncool,” or “weird,” or stupid. It’s a little bit of a cyclical effect, building each time something “uncool” (Anime, Bronies, what have you) gradually becomes less so, and those people begin to support everyone else’s enthusiasm for their own interests. I’ve been a teacher for 13 years, and have seen this happening on a micro level in my high school classrooms and environments, and on a macro level in many aspects of society.

  • CAS Says:

    There’s actually a fantastic exhibit on the idea of cool at the National Portrait Gallery right now: http://npg.si.edu/exhibit/Cool/index.html

  • Sheri Bheri Says:

    I’ve thought about this too. Here’s my hope: that this generation that us old-timers mock for being “special snowflakes” turn the world around, so that everyone DOES feel like they’re special, and why shouldn’t everybody get a trophy? I’m hoping that we’re moving away from hyper-competitive and towards more empathy. I hope that this acceptance that not everyone should be measured by the same yardstick (you know, judging a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree) becomes “NORMAL”. And that these kids look at us, like we look at the racism, sexism, homophobia and etc of our parents/grandparents generation.

  • Natalie Says:

    I LOVE this. I met a friend in college who was just the definition of “cool” — and he was nice and interested in people to boot. Shifted my whole way of viewing people. I am forever indebted to him!

  • Camille Says:

    @CAS That is so awesome. Wish I could go!

  • CAS Says:

    @Camille – Runs through September, so maybe time to plan a DC getaway? Saw the exhibit a few weeks ago – definitely worth seeing if you can.

  • saraspunza Says:

    As I get older I find myself becoming way more appreciative for each person’s uniqueness, but sometimes I wonder if it is really just a form of “getting old apathy.”

  • Erica Says:

    I am such a fan and so, so thankful for this empathy shift and hope that it goes farther than just being a fad. That it would be embedded onto our societal DNA. I can’t even begin to imagine the good that would come with more and more people shifting their energy from spreading negativity to creating. Whether that be literally creating or creating something a little less tangible like joy and encouragement. Can’t wait to hear more of your thoughts.

  • Holly C Says:

    I love this. I can remember working retail in my early 20s, and I was singing during a slow time. A guy I worked with told me that- I can’t remember- I was acting like a geek maybe? And I told him that singing out loud for no reason was cool. When he disagreed I told him it was the cool people that were able to put themselves out there more. Maybe singing at work is a lame example of this, but it’s the same idea. The confidence to put yourself out there. It’s too easy to hide behind detachment.

    And, what Megan said. I can’t imagine how having the internet could have changed my high school experience. How it could have put me in touch with certain aspects of culture that I was seeking, but didn’t know it.

  • askbew Says:

    Reading this made me think of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, (it is a series of letters from a senior devil to a junior devil, about how to tempt people). The overall concept was that it was not the big, bad things that would get people’s souls in trouble, but the little, thoughtless things. (Put aside whether you believe in souls and their peril, for a moment). Seems that mocking people’s appearance and interests could fall squarely into that category of little sins that build up over time. Bring back the concept of souls, or simply of what is the right way to treat others…..and look at mockery through that lens. That guy is a person, and the people who mock him are made less in doing so. Embracing his enthusiasm, and giving him credit for his passion, on the other hand, would leave those devils as failures in their temptation, and your soul is improved.

  • Traci Says:

    Yes! Enthusiasm is what makes you cool, for sure.

  • Kate Says:

    I’ve had my share of being made fun of for liking Things, whatever those things are. I also have had my share of meeting people and finding their jam fascinating not because I love it myself but because they love it, and their enthusiasm makes it interesting.

    My younger brother has this wonderful fearlessness and talent around asking people questions. He will ask a waiter on a slow night when we’re out about good patron stories. He’ll ask doctors about their most interesting cases, and students about the projects they are working on. He can talk to anyone about anything, and because he’s interested, people talk back. That habit of his makes going out with him a really fun event. You never know what you will learn.

    I just think… this is not supposed to be a cultural trend. Interest in others and respect for their priorities is Basic Humaning. It’s connected to the fundamental respect for individual dignity we should all have for one another. If it is a trend, I hope it lasts.

  • Hamish Healys Says:

    I’ve got to agree. You find something you love and you feel it’s great enough to share with everybody. That’s cool. I know somebody who wouldn’t budge no matter what… in telling the world that rock and roll will never die. He continues to perform as a rock and roller!

  • Ana S Says:

    Great post. Gets you thinking about the real things in life. I call this to grow-up. You can be fifteen or fifty, but if you still mock others about expressing themselves and having their own opinion, you’re a child. I respect people who stand their groun.