What It Really Means To Be “Cool”
Every young sports fan dreams of hitting the game-winning shot. Sometimes, your dream comes true. Mine did. Okay, it wasn’t on a professional level or even on a collegiate level. Heck, it wasn’t even on a varsity high school team.
I was fourteen years old, and it happened at camp. I hit the game-winning shot at a camp-wide competition. I still remember it like it was yesterday.
That excitement of the moment petered out quickly. But the praise and adulation lasted for two days.
For the first and last time in my life, I was cool. Friends and peers looked up to me. The girls held their gaze for that extra split second as I passed them. Camp ended, and so did my “coolness.”
I wasn’t really cool for those two days. The excitement of the moment fooled people into thinking I was someone I wasn’t.
Cool people always play the part, even during the humdrum, day-to-day routine aspects of life.
What does being cool mean? Growing up in the 80s, I thought it meant having the right friends, wearing the right clothes, participating in the right activities and dating someone in your peer group at or above your “level.” The definition changed as I aged.
So, what is coolness?
Coolness is one of those things that’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. It’s the sum total of everything a person does boiled down into a gut feeling.
When you break it down into its atomic components, you’ll find that it’s a combination of eight different qualities.
Despite my lack of coolness, or maybe because of it, I have always paid close attention to cool people. I’ve tried to emulate their qualities, and have mostly failed.
Can we learn to be cool? We can learn to do almost anything else well. Why not coolness?
Let’s break down the eight qualities.
Status refers to your relative standing within a group. The group can be as small as your clique of friends or as large as a political party or religion. Most of us are members of many groups, and our status varies from group to group.
Status is always relative. The leader of the political party has higher status relative to other members of their party. That status means nothing to members of the opposing party.
The popular community resident has higher status relative to other members of her community, but that status means little to anyone outside that community.
The cool one’s peers admire her, and try to emulate her. She’s someone they should listen to and someone they should follow. We may not like the person in a position of status, but we respect them.
Status always fluctuates. We gain or lose status based on our decisions, actions, and inactions — and those of our peers too.
Status is unique among the eight qualities in that your practice of the other qualities affects your status.
Can you be cool but unlikable? No. You can act like your cool. You can believe you’re cool. But if you’re not likable, people will just think you’re an asshole.
Did you know one of those kids in high school? Everyone hated them but they hung out with the in-crowd. Only their friends thought of them as cool (and sometimes their friends didn’t like them either). The rank and file thought of them as self-entitled jerks.
We like cool people because they’re also kind, generous, fair and interested in other people — character traits that make them likable.
Cool people excel at something. They’re known for something other than being an all-around awesome person.
We like to think of the classic high school jock who excelled at a sport, but the cool ones who shine at an obscure or unpopular skill notch extra bonus points for their uniqueness.
It’s not enough to stand out at the skill. You need to wear it with quiet pride. Demonstrate your ability only when the opportunity arises, and never show off.
Cool people lead. They try new styles before everyone else. They take on new activities before anyone thinks about them. They’re the first ones to try new tech, or they shun tech altogether and lead the anti-tech crowd.
They volunteer before everyone else. They seek out problems and try to solve them while everyone else pretends not to notice.
When their efforts fail, they admit their failure and look towards the next challenge.
5) Gallantry — they look out for others
When I was in ninth grade, an older kid bullied me on an almost daily basis. He never physically harmed me, but he intimidated me. I took the long route to class, but he still managed to track me down each afternoon.
One day, the cool guy of eleventh grade walked past us while my nemesis bullied me.
The cool guy wasn’t big or strong, but he was popular and charming. Everyone knew him and loved him. Up to that point, I knew who he was, but we had never met. I couldn’t understand why he was so revered.
He walked passed us and casually, but firmly said to my aggressor, “hey asshole, leave him alone.”
The bully backed off and never bothered me again. I passed my savior in the halls later that day. He initiated eye contact.
“Everything cool?” he asked.
I nodded and forced out a response. “Yeah, cool.”
It was a way of checking in to see if the bully had bothered me since the earlier incident. I was embarrassed from the situation so I never officially thanked him.
Cool people aren’t afraid to do the right thing.
The only other time in my life where someone called me cool was during my days in hotel management. We worked in a hectic environment.
One night, the laundry company experienced an issue and delayed our linen delivery until the next day. This was a big deal for a hotel, a code red event. Everyone was freaking out except me.
I had some plan in mind to deal with it. I explained it in a calm, measured voice. A colleague remarked that I was cool under pressure. He found me a pleasure to be around in stressful situations.
The cool one rarely freaks out in moments of tension. They remain calm and poised throughout. If you want to see an example, check out this clip from Monty Python.
A self-confident person carries themselves in a way that exudes a certainty about their ability. You see it in their body language and posture.
There’s a difference between self-confidence and arrogance. The self-confident person trusts their abilities and judgment. They approach challenges with the belief they will succeed. The self-confident person also recognizes when they’ve reached the extent of their ability. They’re okay with asking for help or retreating.
The arrogant one pushes too far. They get flustered. When they become flustered, their likability and status suffer. The arrogant one might push too far and take unnecessary risks which worsen the situation.
The cool guy from high school protected me from a bully by letting me borrow his status. With him on my side, and by extension, his legion of followers, the bully backed off.
Cool people don’t hoard their status or seek favors in return. That would diminish their likability, and hence their coolness. They give unconditionally. They earn respect and loyalty in return, far better than keeping score of favors on a spreadsheet.
Can you learn to be cool?
You can practice and hone all of the characteristics that cool people possess.
Of course, most of us will not master all of those aspects. But don’t think of being cool as a binary measurement. Think of it as a continuum. When you demonstrate self-confidence, poise, leadership, mastery, generosity, and gallantry you improve your status.
You may not become the cool one that everyone clings to at parties, but you’ll become more desirable as a friend, peer, neighbor, and family member. You’ll set an example for others to emulate.