“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool.” ~from the movie Almost Famous (2000)
Think about all of the time you've spent in your life trying to be cool.
Being cool might mean something different to each one of you.
It could mean being popular, wealthy, clever, beautiful, stylish, intelligent, successful, funny, unique, or aloof. Or any combination of these. Or something else entirely.
Our definition of cool morphs over time. What was cool in high school might not be the same kind of cool you want to be right now. But whatever our definition of cool might be, we've spent a lot of time trying to achieve or maintain it. And it comes with a price.
At the recent World Domination Summit, Dr. Brene Brown spoke a lot about our efforts to be cool. She equated it with the effort to pull on Spanx and keep wearing them day in and day out, no matter how uncomfortable. It's a lot of work to keep unsightly things stuffed in, bound up, and looking good.
Being cool requires us to be hyper-vigilant, keeping a constant eye out for where we might slip, where we might fail or look bad. It is bound up in fear of judgments and feelings of unworthiness if, for a moment, we look vulnerable, weak, lesser-than, or ridiculous.
Oh what a lot of work it takes to be cool.
I am reminded of seeing teenage boys around Atlanta who have decided it's cool to wear their jeans way down around their hips. The crotch is around their knees, making it impossible to walk normally. And often they aren't wearing a belt, so one hand is constantly occupied in keeping their pants from falling to the ground — the ultimate in uncool.
Seen from the perspective of other teenagers, perhaps this is a totally cool look. Maybe it is making an important statement, one that old farts like me don't understand. (God, I'm sounding like my parents!)
But seen from my perspective, it appears sadly funny and impossibly difficult — like a one-armed penguin wearing funny pants. These guys can't walk fast, much less run. They have normal use of just one arm, and then there's the constant concern that their pants might fall off. Is coolness worth this?
Being cool is a rite of passage for teenagers. I certainly had my own version of low-riding pants when I was in high school and college. I think my prep time for a night out with friends was 2-3 hours. As teenagers, being cool is a matter of survival. Ask the uncool back then. Many of them (us) still bear the scars.
As a young adult, I viewed my quirky, often troubled family as decidedly uncool.
I looked around and set my sights on what I thought was a cool lifestyle that would remove me from my very uncool upbringing. I glommed on to that like white on rice.
For me at the time, it was morphing into a “young, upwardly mobile professional” — fondly referred to as a “Yuppie.” When I married and had children, the focus was on living in a nice house, driving a nice car, wearing nice clothes, sending our kids to good schools, and enrolling them in the “right” activities.
There's nothing wrong with these goals per se. In fact, they can be positive and productive in many ways — unless they become your Spanx or low-hanging jeans. Unless not living up to your own standards with these goals leaves you feeling worthless or bad. Then it becomes the hyper-vigilant work of keeping up and then covering up when you falter. Because you always falter at some point.
So much of our desire to be cool comes from three sources:
- Our own self-imposed judgements about how we should behave and who we should be, even if that's not who we really are.
- Hanging around other people who hold those same judgments.
- Buying in to what contemporary culture tells us is cool.
This life of cool becomes a gerbil wheel whereby we work to impress those who share the same fears and doubts around impressing us. We are all just faking it for each other.
So what happens when we are deeply entrenched in a life of cooldom?
At first we feel like Masters of the Universe because we've succeeded in reaching this desired state of perfection (we think). But then our arms start to get tired. We wobble. We falter.
It isn't as fun as we thought it would be. It doesn't feel real or natural, let alone peaceful and happy. We've shoved ourselves into a tight, stretchy garment that is stifling and uncomfortable. It stifles joy, creativity, authenticity, and spontaneity.
To my mind, there are only two ways to get off this gerbil wheel and ultimately embrace uncoolness.
You are shoved.
Jumping takes courage and fortitude. Jumping off takes a huge “ah ha” moment when you realize that cool is not cool at all. Cool is suffocating you, reducing you to someone you are not.
When you jump, it might mean you decide to . . .
- simplify your life
- find a new circle of friends
- alter your lifestyle
- spend less
- work less
- be ok with looking foolish
- be ok with failing
- be ok with who you really are
But it is the rare person who jumps off voluntarily. Most of the time we are pushed off by a life event or circumstance that rocks our world and forces that “ah ha” moment to the surface.
We can be pushed off by . . .
- a job loss
- the end of a relationship or marriage
- a business failure
- a death
- a depression or other serious illness
- a mid-life crisis or existential crisis
- a major disappointment
- an unexpected opportunity
When this happens, it might be totally scary and disconcerting — especially if you are still striving for cool. At first you might struggle even harder to remain cool and in control.
But at some point after you've been pushed off the wheel, it will dawn on you.
You are vulnerable.
You are flawed.
You don't have control.
You are uncool.
And it hasn't killed you.
In fact, when you finally embrace your uncoolness, you finally come alive. When you accept your uncool self, you no longer have to posture, stuff it in, stay in control, maintain a facade.
You are free.
The floodgates open, releasing years of pent up creativity, silliness, gratitude, and joy. You no longer have to worry about how you appear in life — you can just go live it.
Yes, being uncool does make you vulnerable. It opens you to criticisms, judgements, and exposure of your flaws. But as most of the uncool will confirm, these things don't matter so much any more. For the most part, you stop caring what other people think of you, except perhaps those who truly care about you.
Being vulnerable allows you to experience life more deeply and fully, unfiltered by your Spanx or low-slung pants. Yes, you will experience pain more deeply too but without the resistance and struggle that comes with maintaining control.
For me, becoming uncool has meant . . .
- re-framing my ideas of success
- detaching more from material things
- releasing some people in my life and inviting others in
- pursuing an unconventional job
- allowing my children to succeed or fail on their own
- letting go of the need to be right and admitting when I'm wrong
- working to see situations from the other persons perspective
- facing and embracing the truth
- adopting a learner's mindset
- seeking adventure and new experiences
- not always wearing make-up in public
- accepting aging gracefully
I'm not saying that I've succeeded 100% in all of these. Being uncool is a work in progress. But with each effort toward uncool, you realize that you won't die and that the judgements of the world can't harm you. Then you experience a rush of freedom like no other.
Being uncool doesn't mean letting go of your values, living without goals or aspirations. It means living without shame, living according to your own personal operating system, living according to the person you are finding yourself to be.
If you are still striving for cool, I invite you to step over to the wild side. Test the waters of uncool. Taste the freedom of being vulnerable. It will be the coolest thing you've ever done!
How have you been uncool? Please share in the comments.