What makes a person cool?

I have a confession to make: in high school, I was totally not cool.

Not only was I not cool, I was completely oblivious to what cool was.  I had just come to LA from Tehran — a big, smoggy, sprawling metropolis just like LA, with a totalitarian fundamentalist regime, not so much like LA.  I had zero fashion sense, knew nothing about parties, swam on the swim team, minded my own biz, and did my schoolwork.  At lunch, I hung out in Mr Takagaki’s gov classroom with the small enclave of smart and occasionally nerdy kids.

See, in high school, cool was all about Where You Hung Out at Lunch.  All the cool kids hung out at the grove just above the football field or in the parking lot, around the brand-new Mustangs their parents bought them for their 16th birthday.  And after school, they hung out at Holmby Park, a stone’s throw from the Aaron Spelling and Hugh Hefner mega-mansions.

These kids were keenly attuned to the hairstyles, clothing and music that was fashionable at the day, and followed all of this stuff religiously.  They even wore strategically ripped jeans, which made absolutely no sense to me at all.  It basically made the kids look poor, even though their parents lived in Bel Air mansions. (Interesting how the paucity of imagination in the fashion industry results in the recycling of ideas which were mediocre even the first time around, but I digress.)

I’d be lying if I said I was completely unaware of their existence.  They were rich, good-looking, mostly WASPy and Jewish kids with their own little world of Westside privilege.  I even had a crush on Jen V, who was devastatingly cute if a bit dim.  But their world of football homecomings (to this day, I still don’t know what the hell a homecoming is — it’s not like they want on a campaign to conquer Carthage, geez), partying, alcohol, boyfriends and girlfriends, sex, cars, popularity and just plain inaccessible coolness was as foreign to me as a well-stocked supermarket is to a North Korean.

At the same time, I didn’t really want to hang out with them either, because they just weren’t all that interesting.  I wanted to hang out with my smart buddies in Mr Takagaki’s gov class and talk about stuff that mattered to me.  Like debating the merits of classical music over jazz with David (who ended up at Princeton, and Dave — if you’re reading, sorry, but I still don’t get jazz); get excited about the Nobel Prize for superconductivity; and discuss why Reagan was a flaming idiot.

For a lot of people, high school is hell.  All the jockeying for popularity, coolness, and fitting in; the obsession with sex as your brain gets bombarded with hormones while being incapable of doing anything about it; keeping up with the fashion in clothes and music; all while working hard to get good grades and keep up with your extracurriculars — it’s a tad much, really.

Well, congratulations my friend.  You’re out of high school.  And if you’re going to Harvard or a place like it, you’ll be on a whole planet full of people just like the kids in Mr Takagaki’s classroom — basically, a bunch of kids like you.  You are now insta-cool, if only because you’re not the only nerd in a 5-mile radius — you’re surrounded by them, baby.  It’s safe to be smart now.

But still, in college, a new transient hierarchy of cool coalesces.  This occurs no matter where you go; it’s what primates do.  So in this article, I want to talk about what really makes a person cool that has nothing to do with transience, trends, or opinions. I’m going for the timeless universal cool here, people — the thing that is immutable and results in your further growth and happiness.  In a hundred years, no one’s going to care which band you listened to, what brand jeans you wore, how pretty your girlfriend was or how fancy your handbag was.  Here are 3 things that really matter:

1. You are cool not because of what you consume, but what you create.

It’s always amusing when people are trying to get coolness points for their clothes, car, friends, neighborhood, or the merchants they frequent (restaurants, clubs, hotels, stores etc).  There is no art or skill in consumption — anyone can do it.  And if you spent $1000 bucks on a handbag that doesn’t hold your stuff any better than a $50 one does, you’re just honestly broadcasting to the world how much your ego needs propping up.  If you want to live well and indulge in luxury, fine.  Just remember that it doesn’t make you a better person, nor does it make you happier — scientists have shown time and time again that once your basic needs are met, more stuff does not make you any happier.

What does make you cool is what you put out into the world.  Sistine Chapel frescoes?  Cool.  A whole bunch of plays?  Cool.  Discovering radioactivity?  Cool.  Relativity theory?  Cool.  Mind-blowing string quartets?  Mega-cool.  Inventing the Internet?  Hyper-cool.  Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Curie, Einstein, Beethoven and Tim Berners-Lee will forever be cool.

Consumption is transient.  Creation leaves a legacy – and it feels good, too.  Psychologists will tell you that creating novel items out of sheer nothing is one of the most fulfilling activities you can engage in.

2. You are cool to the extent that you exercise compassion and perform service.

How does your work touch others?  Does it assuage a crying child’s pain?  Does it soothe a broken heart or mend a broken leg?  Does it help lift up someone beaten down by time and circumstance?  Does it create a pleasing space for an eye to rest upon?

Those are the things that make you cool, not the amount of money you make, your title, the awards you win, or the prestige of your employer’s name.  Beware of the media’s glorification of near psychopaths because they happen to be captains of industry making shit-tons of money.  It ain’t about the money, people — it’s about how many people you help.

A simple rubric is that if it’s just about you and your glory, it’s not cool.  If it’s about Us, it is.  Once again, scientists tell us that performing service is one of the activities that generates and sustains happiness in us most reliably.  So get in the habit of doing service, and aim yourself towards a career of service instead of say, becoming a soulless, rapacious investment banker.

3. You are cool to the extent that you are curious.

Being curious is the opposite of being judgmental.  When you’re curious, you’re open to new experiences and ideas.  You accept people as they are, not as the way you think they should be.  Tall, short, pretty, ugly, gay, straight, liberal, conservative, Lakers fan, Celtics fan, European, Asian, African, white, brown, black, yellow, green, purple — you meet them where they are and seek first to understand, then to be understood.  If you do just this, everyone you come in contact with will love you.  And that’s kinda cool.  Not everyone does it because it’s hard to do.  I’m working on it every day myself.

Openness goes hand-in-hand with flexibility.  The more flexible you are, the more adaptable you are.  And adaptability, more than strength or intelligence, is the prime determinant of survival and success.  Chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching says:

Men are born soft and supple;
Dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
Is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
Is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.

So be creative.  Be compassionate.  Be curious.  If you do, I promise you’ll be the coolest kid who ever went to college.

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5 Responses to What makes a person cool?

  1. Marina says:

    I can’t tell you how much I love this post! Nothing could better assure that I will fit in perfectly at Harvard :)

    • Ali B says:

      Awesome, Marina! Glad it struck a chord. If you know of friends who could benefit from it (even at other colleges), feel free to spread the love.

  2. Julia A. says:

    ali, great article…but real harvard is at times a continuation of high school. shoes, bags, final club affiliation still play a huge role in a harvard food chain… schmoozing with professors and TFs gets one better grades. networking wit…h alums gets one better jobs…don’t see much merit in that…

    what is currently cool at harvard is to be an ibanker, go become a lawyer…teach for america is for idealistic kids (and (ethnic and thus usually economic) minorities who don’t have family connections to get a glamorous well paid job in Manhattan)

    what is cool is to be a son of x-leader of china or have a senate seat guaranteed in the next Pakistani election.

    science, math majors are seen on campus as nerds lacking social skills…premeds are seen as people afraid to make their own decision about their lives and living their lives to fulfill their parents’ expectations..

    those who go to grad school are perceived to be avoiding ‘real’ life…

    what i think you’re writing about is the greater philosophy about life…what makes one cool in the long term. but that’s not the view most college kids or harvard kids perceive. they are in college for 4 years. it’s all about the short term!

    and ps…in spite never having time to go out..i was still cool in high school. it’s all about how one positions oneself. and that’s true for life too i think…it’s all about the attitude. as long as you think you own it, people will respect you and look up to you…

    being an intelligent consumer is in my opinion very crucial. why to invent the wheel if it’s already there…people still judge by the cover…well why not to dress well when going to the interview? even if it’s for a non-profit….

    creating is important. but not everyone is creative enough to come up with new ideas or persistent enough to sell those ideas. we all need leaders, but likewise we absolutely can’t live without great followers…what if one just wants to work without changing lives? is that wrong?…what about just enjoying life? enjoying the moment?

    curious is great. but how can one not be judgmental. the more you learn, the better you understand that you dont’ know anything. at the same time you also realize that others know even less than you do…it’s hard not to make judgmental conclusions…

    • Ali B says:

      Julia A –
      Thanks for the letter because it highlights exactly what’s wrong with the conventional, ephemeral notions of cool. Being the scion of greatness is accident, not cool. Being a rich kid is another accident. Talented is yet another accident. What makes a human truly cool is what they forge with their own paws with the resources given them — hence, the emphasis on creativity. We’re going for universal, eternal values here, not stuff that evaporates as soon as you step outside campus.

      I also vehemently disagree with the notion that the world needs more followers. NO! Especially not at Harvard, which is basically a collection of valedictorians from all over the country. You have been chosen because you’re leaders, and Harvard is a training ground for leadership.
      What has sometimes gone missing from this training ground are notions of social responsibility, compassion and acceptance. That’s why I say being an i-banker is the furthest thing from cool. What does an investment banker create? They will say ‘market liquidity’ or some such nonsense. Try showing *that* trophy to your grandkids. How does he demonstrate compassion? Or curiosity? In my not-so-humble opinion, which many people share, being an investment banker is about as reputable as working for BP or Enron these days. Goldman Sachs is one of the most reviled companies on the planet these days. I guess it’s cool in a Darth Vader kind of way. No amount of money can whitewash that.

      In any case, the purpose of this HUGS blog and audiobook is to reinforce these ideas which give YOU power. Creativity, compassion and curiosity are things you can control 100%. Being the son of an ex-premier of China is not. I also sense a lot of negativity in this response, Julia. This blog and audiobook were partially inspired by stories like yours of students like you who had a real rough time of it at Harvard and had to take a leave of absence for circumstances that got out of hand. Can’t help but wonder how things may have turned out differently for you and some of your colleagues (including my co-author, Michael) had I introduced these ideas sooner.

    • Park says:

      julia, your comments seem to reject the value of diversity that harvard emphasizes but your reflection is nonetheless much appreciated.

      i read that someone went to harvard hoping to revive russia’s economy… you mentioned teach for america… did you hear about the homeless going to harvard? something tells me harvard may be the right place for idealists. as much as i believe in practicality and reality… i don’t think it hurts to have idealists balancing things out. a liberal arts education isn’t about well-paying jobs after all.

      creativity usually has little to do with selling ideas… i too think “enjoying life” is important… but do ibankers/lawyers have time to “enjoy the moment”? and i agree that “it’s hard not to make judgmental conclusions…” i suppose one of the ways people realize they’re “cool” is by challenging themselves.

      some of the “cool” people i know… spend hours baking cookies for others, inspire countless students with life lessons that matter, make a prom dress for a friend…

      everyone’s capable of doing something that’s “cool” in one way or another… so i think ibankers/lawyers have incredible potential to be “cool” too.

      ps i hope you’ll meet people who care more about relationships than shoes.

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