Quit Chasing the Cool

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One of the worst creative moves a person can make is to try to be cool. 

I was listening to a podcast conversation between David Chang and Michael Schur- the guy who created The Good Place. Towards the end, the latter went off on a mini-spiel about how trying to be cool is one of the worst ways for creators to focus their efforts.

He definitely isn’t the only person to have given this advice. Famed ceramic artist Grayson Perry famously said “coolness is a straight jacket for creativity.” As a gender-bending ceramic artist, he has never fit anyone’s expectations for cool and his work has benefitted as a result.

On that same note, vulnerability champion Brene Brown sometimes leads an exercise where she has everybody assume their “cool position,” usually a legs out, arms in front, confident pose. Then she nudges everyone to move out of the position, shedding the emotional straightjacket.

So this idea is far from new and far from original, but it’s one that I still find valuable to be reminded of. Here’s the problem with trying to be cool and what to do instead:

Being cool forces you to compare yourself to others.

The comparison game is a great one to play if you want to stifle creativity. It’s a fantastic way for you to make sure you don’t develop your own voice.

Looking to other people for inspiration or connection is one thing, but if you start to obsess over what other people are making, you’ll end up unwittingly trying to do what they’re doing but in a way that won’t be true to anyone’s real experience- yours or theirs.

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Instead, stay focused with what you’re doing. Believe in it. Let other people’s great work inspire you to be more like yourself, not more like them. Don’t get distracted from the work you know you need to make.

Being cool stunts your emotional intelligence.

If you want to move and inspire people, you need to have a powerful emotional connection. You need to make them feel things, and that calls for emotional intelligence. Coolness often shuts down this part of your brain.

On the surface, coolness is often associated with detachment, being too self-important to care. A cycle of cynicism and apathy seem to run on a loop, and this is the opposite of what invites people. The most exciting and convincing creative works more frequently come from a place of sincerity and earnestness. 

Being cool tries to please people instead off trying to connect with them.

Chasing cool means constantly thinking of how others view your work. This leads to self doubt, which Picasso called the enemy of creativity.

This isn’t the same as empathy, when you’re trying to make work that others can relate to. This also isn’t the same as good editing, which involves thinking of how things will come across for the sake of your audience.

This is thinking of their perception in an ego-driven way. So much truth, beauty, and art has been cut off from the world because of self doubt. Don’t let this happen to the great works you have inside of you.

Being cool is a vain pursuit.

By that I don’t just mean it’s a self-centered goal, although it is. I mean that it’s meaningless and short-lived. Cool is a moving target, and once you’ve been deemed cool, time inevitably makes you uncool when other things come into fashion.

Instead, if you use your creativity to build bridges towards your audience, you inspire loyalty. This is far more timeless. Think of music careers whose careers have spanned decades versus those who remind you very specifically of 1998, 2004, or 2012.

If a crew as diverse and creative as Michael Schur, Grayson Perry, and Brene Brown are all “anti-cool” it seems like a reasonable suggestion. Don’t chase relevance, chase realness, and you’ll do yourself a much bigger favor.

Philippe Lazaro