What Is “Cool”?

From the moment they enter school everyone wants to be perceived as “cool”. Every kid wants to be in the “cool crowd” and sit at the “cool table”. It sounds like something out of the movie Mean Girls, but it’s true. From a very early age, we all have the desire to be liked and accepted. But, what does it really mean to be cool?

A few days ago, I went to an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., entitled, “American Cool”. This exhibit features portraits of iconic figures over the past 70 years, each of which contributed to American culture in a special way. It included everyone from 1940’s Jazz musicians, all-time favorites like James Dean and Bob Dylan, to popular icons of today such as Johnny Depp and Missy Elliott.

At the beginning of the exhibit, a synopsis explained that “cool is the opposite of innocence and virtue. Someone cool has a charismatic edge and a dark side. Cool is an earned form of individuality.”

While “being cool” definitely has something to do with individuality and a “charismatic edge”, it does not mean the opposite of innocence and virtue. The “American Cool” exhibit seems to follow the world’s flawed view of “what cool is”, and thus completely missed the mark.

So, what is cool?

Many people would argue that “being cool” has nothing to do with a person’s character or virtue, and focuses solely on what others think of the person. But, this is not true.

The coolest people on the planet are the people who are virtuous and good, and in true human spirit have a charismatic edge and a dark side. In the words of Kelly Clarkson, everyone has a dark side. This is the struggle that makes humanity so amazing, complex, and beautiful. If you want to be cool, embrace the struggle.

The coolest people in the world are the rebels with a cause. The people who are confident in their gifts and talents, while also unafraid of their failings and mistakes. They take chances and are willing to risk it all for what they believe in. These are the true heroes in our world today, the coolest people – the revolutionaries who are going to change the world.

Be confident. Be passionate. And be unafraid to fight for what you believe in, even if sometimes you feel like you’re fighting against the grain.

One of my favorite quotes featured in “American Cool” was one by actor John Wayne. He said, “Mine is a rebellion against the monotony of life.” Life is meant to be an adventure, don’t settle for monotony. Take chances and strive for something greater.

Another “American Cool” feature was Steve Jobs, who famously said, “think different.” Jobs was successful because he knew who he was and what he believed in, and he fought tooth-and-nail for those beliefs. If you’ve read anything about Jobs’ life or saw the movie Jobs, you know that he was a man of integrity, but he was also far from perfect. But, it was his inner struggle that taught him to fight and to strive for greatness. He was cool not just because of his goodness, but also because of his failings, and the gritty honesty that these failings brought his life.

“American Cool” left much to be desired, as it missed a lot of true cool American revolutionaries, and included some who really had no business being in “American Cool”. Mark Wahlberg, Justin Timberlake, and Julia Roberts, were all completely ignored, amidst countless others. These are all people who have revolutionized music and film, and continue to do so. “American Cool” should have been filled with true American revolutionaries, not just a few.

If you want to be cool, embrace who you are. It is our individuality that makes us special, and it is our successes and our failings that we are formed into the person we are meant to become. If we are truly who we are meant to be, we will be “American Cool”.

Be a revolutionary, a rebel with a cause – you have the power to change the world.

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