Why is it so easy to go in search of the wrong thing?
There are two reasons. First, cool is highly contextual. What is cool on one occasion will not be cool on another. Second, there are many ways of nearly understanding cool which look temptingly like explanations, but in fact fall short of being complete. The combination of such a fluid notion and so many blind alleys makes cool tantalisingly elusive.
Take one popular and instinctive view of cool that people often ask about in the class ‘How To Be Cool’, which I call the Contrarian View of Cool.
The Contrarian View of Cool is simple. Cool people appear to always be doing something ahead of and apart from the lumpen uncool mass. Could the simple rule of cool to just go against the crowd?
This does seem to align with the observation that cool is highly contextual. However, to see why this is so tempting but also so wrong we need to understand why it is the wrong response to the context.
The formula for cool action is simple. Cool actions are timely and effortless. For the purposes of undermining the contrarian view we only need gain a proper understanding of what ‘timely’ really means for being cool.
Being timely part means we must act in the here and now, fully aware and responsive to the situation.
To have confidence to stand out from the crowd, and to do so in a timely (and effortless) way, is cool. This gives us the icon of the cool outsider. If one chooses to stand out from the crowd by simply doing the opposite, by the law of averages, you will end up looking cool some of the time.
But not always.
What is more, sometimes, you will look very foolish.
For, sometimes the most timely thing to do is to not stand out, to be part of the crowd, to feel common cause with those around you and to go with the flow and not against it. Sometimes even the cool outsider must join in to stay cool. To be cool is to react to the situation, not to follow a simple rule of zigging when others zag.
To be timely and cool means not only being of the moment, but flexibly so. The problem with the contrarian view is that it is too rigid. So while it looks like a tempting short cut, it ultimately fails.
However, we should celebrate the complexity of cool, for it proves that cool is worth taking seriously and worth cultivating. The cool moments that make life rich and worth living come from our accomplishments, friendships, acts of courage and acts of generosity. Cool is far from a trivial and surface notion, but contained in the very attitude and response we take to living life. As such, the desire to be cool is remarkably akin to that first philosophical question – to discover how to live the good life.
Nick Southgate is a faculty member at The School of Life and leads our class 'How To Be Cool'. The next date is on Thursday 21 June, for tickets click here