“How did you become so cool?”
A friend of a friend at a bar, to me, last night
OK fine, I’m cool. How could I not be? I’m obsessed with cool. I listen to cool music. I seek out and collect cool people. I do cool things. I like being cool and I like being perceived as cool which probably isn’t cool to say, but it’s true. In fewer than 100 words, I’ve already broken so many rules of cool. If saying “I’m cool” is uncool (which it is), writing a whole essay about it is definitely not cool.
So let’s talk about the opposite of cool. And that is earnest.
Earnest is not caring what’s cool. It the radical act of being yourself without trying to be something else or seeking approval. It’s surprising that earnestness is so rare, because it seems way easier than being cool. You don’t have learn what’s cool, so that’s a time saver right there. And even if you do know; you needn’t act on that information. Earnestness is acting as if you don’t know what cool is. That’s what makes it the opposite of cool.
For some folks, earnest means maudlin. Schmaltzy. Sentimental. These darts miss the mark; the essence of earnest is sincerity. Ted Lasso is earnest. Earnest is wearing your heart on your sleeve, a metaphor that conveys leading with emotion. And so we reduce earnestness to sentimentality. Cool, meanwhile, is not sentimental. It’s intellectual.
Which means earnest isn’t always the “smart” choice. Even knowledge-armed citizens of the world make choices deemed not cool. Like the man who likes a certain fast food restaurant because it’s what his mom would get him and his sister after soccer practice when they were kids. The salt, fat, spices and heat spark memories of youth and of his mother (schmaltz alert), and he can’t help that. He also knows that that same fast food restaurant has donated money to organizations that oppose same-sex marriage, a cause he does not support. And yet he chooses the sandwich. Because he likes it and it makes him feel good. And that’s OK. Earnestness sometimes proceeds from deep truths that aren’t always rational, explainable, or Cosmically Just.
And that’s because earnestness comes not from the head. But from the heart. And while you can try to silence the former, you can’t stop the latter. Not without dying.
Earnestness is sometimes anti-social. Like the woman who admits she doesn’t care for a well-loved pop star and doesn’t see what the fuss is about. She doesn’t mean any harm, it’s just an unpopular opinion. But in the panopticon of cool, it’s easy to write off earnest beliefs as misguided, wrong, contrarian, iconoclasm, or simply, uncool. Ironically, coolness pretends to be about the individual, but it relies so much on what a group thinks.
I used to be earnest. I loved music you could sing and dance to. I would beg my parents for HK (a hug and kiss) every night. (I can’t even admit that without plopping in this Cool Sentence distancing me from it.) I used to wear bright colors. I used to see my dad drinking or yelling at my mom and I would say “stop that” and “you shouldn’t do that.” I used to know in my guts the difference between right and wrong. I told people I liked them and smiled at strangers. I showed up on stage. I was sincere.
Then I became cool. Not all at once. I started to see my parents as uncool, even though they were just being earnest. I had to hide my love of musicals and disco. I gave up on my dad, and with that, people in general. I scrawled “hell is other people” on my Trapper Keeper. I turned convictions into intellectual problems (see: my philosophy degree) to poke and prod at my traumas without engaging them. I moved from being a performer, to a gorger of TV and internet. I wore black.
I’m describing being goth aren’t I?
It didn’t stop in high school. As you get older, you become increasingly self-conscious and judgmental of others. This aptitude is critical when pursuing a degree in cool.
You must also learn how to read others’ perceptions of you. “Do they like this me or that me?” You will take those perceptions and bend, like a bonsai tree, into the shape of cool.
You must also build yourself into an approval seeking machine. A heart seeking robot. Sound familiar? Social media is turning us all into heart seeking robots. Bleep bloop love me. An infinitely focus-grouped, endlessly ephemeral, two-dimensional version of you. Cool.
You must also forget what sincerely matters to you. That is the coolest move of all.
I wanted a cool job and a cool apartment in a cool city. I wanted to eat cool and buy cool and be cool and live cool. Fascinating that we associate “coolness” with youth, but I was never cool as a child. I was so earnestly my own self. Coolness is something I built with adult hands, adult money, and with the approval of other adults.
And you know the wildest thing of all? In the reckless pursuit of cool, you’ll meet scores of people that love you, that support your ideas, that supply you with your much-craved approval and do so in earnest. The road to cool is paved with earnest allies who lead with their hearts and exist in the world without hesitation or reservation. They are the kind of people who deign to ask you, in a crowded bar, even though they’ve only met you twice, “How did you become so cool?”
In the moment I answered, “practice.” (So cool.)
This morning, at 3am, I realized to my horror how that answer was true.
I’m so grateful for earnest people. I love them. And they have repeatedly saved my life in this world. Earnest people have reached out to me when I needed someone. They write stories that keep me going. They persist and speak truth even in a world that increasingly punishes and mocks us for trying.
(If at this point you’re thinking, “maybe this is a language problem. We should extend the meaning of Cool to be more inclusive of Earnestness,” I fear you have missed the point. To challenge binaries we must acknowledge them. There is both
A and there is
not A. We investigate both to integrate both. The heart seeking robot redefines concepts for maximum approval. In other words, cool cares about saying what’s right; earnest is about doing what’s right.)
I love earnest people precisely because they are uncool. And in saying so, I am ready to join their ranks again.