Essay / Jane Adams / November 2017

On Being Cool


Children don’t seem to care much about “being cool”—they have not yet fallen victim to such a false state of mind. They know what is cool: big bugs are cool. Bright colors are cool. Moving fast, yelling loudly, running, and jumping—those are cool. In their lack of self-awareness, they are free from the futile act of making themselves cool. Coolness is merely a descriptor for the exciting ephemera of life. Of course, children metamorphose into adolescents, and adolescents have a much different idea of what is “cool”.

It seems that while children define cool by what is extrinsically happiness-inducing, adolescents—in their discovery of new emotions—find ‘coolness’ in expressions of anger, sadness, and the unknown. In their explorations of these emotional complexities, they begin to ascribe coolness to each other: specifically, to those peers who demonstrate a toughness on the frontier of adolescent confusion. It seems coolness to adolescents is a way of identifying mentors within their peer group without betraying their own (very uncool) fear and naïveté. This is complemented by quickly identifying evidence of worry and uncertainty in others’ uncoolness, so as to elevate themselves in the hierarchy of cool. Of course, those at the top of this hierarchy are largely unconcerned with coolness, by virtue of owning some sense of confidence (or perhaps merely blind faith) in the challenging landscape of adolescence. Perhaps they are simply too busy to be fully aware of the “game of cool” being played all around them.

How, then, does coolness transition to adulthood? Some recognize the trick to the game, which is, of course, to stop playing it. Often, those at the top of the adolescent hierarchy of coolness become self-aware and in their attempts to maintain their status, lose it. Those who fill the vacuum of cool primacy—left by all those who have stopped playing—cement their fate in the endless struggle for coolness by maintaining adherence to adolescent values, while caught in an inconsolable desperation to pander to their adult peers.

It is these unfortunate souls who tempt the insecure echoes of adolescence in adults who have stopped playing the game of cool. In weak moments, the painful memory of the struggle for coolness re-enters the adult mind, and rational thought can be abandoned in nostalgic grasps for the illusion of cool.

I, myself, am not yet cool, for I continue to play the game, despite glimpses at its nature. I am beginning to learn, though, that if I must play a game (whether to entertain myself, or simply to stave off the soul-crushing abyssal depression of goal-less-ness) I may as well make up my own rules. In this way, I am not reaching blindly at what I suspect others’ criteria for coolness is—drawing evidence from their futile attempts at coolness, or researching media (whose aim is not to educate on ‘how to be cool’, but rather to exploit our illusion that the game is winnable, in order to produce revenue)—but instead I am reaching deep down (beyond the shadowy detritus of adolescent angst) to something long-forgotten: the coolness of childhood, in all its curiosity and wonder. In this way, I should hope that my five-year-old self might have found me cool today.