“Popularity was fickle and elusive, like trying to catch fireflies in a jar. You were either born with it or relegated to wallflower status according to the mysterious and unknowable workings of the universe.”—Melissa de la Cruz, Keys to the Repository
Coolness is mystifying. As a teenager, you labor to crack the code. You attune yourself to subtle changes in fashion, you stay on top of musical trends, and you use hip slang, but it still slips away from you at crucial moments. There seems to be something fundamental, even constitutional, about being cool. You either have it, it seems, or you don’t.
But having it isn’t entirely straightforward, either. Essential to our view of coolness is the experience of love-hate, because at the same time we admire the cool kids, we recognize their paradoxes—pretty and snobby, irreverent and rude—but the coolest kids are never too snobby or too rude. They seem to know just how heavy their foot should rest on the gas.
Why We Admire Coolness
Researchers have tried to unpack the paradoxes inherent in coolness, and have focused in particular on the importance to it of violating, or setting oneself apart from, certain dispensable norms. According to the author of a study of cool kids in Japan: "Cool has a brittle cultural logic. It is a residual code that has turned itself into an emergent code. Its performative style is based upon and derives simultaneously from the symbols of both disaffiliation and association." (Maher, 2005)
Being cool, then, means breaking the rules, but only so much. According to one researcher, "The way people and things are cool is if they seem autonomous—they do what they want to do to regardless of what other people think. But in a way that is appropriate, seen as valued or efficient; it’s different, without being harmful or worse." (Warren, 2014)
In a sense, coolness mirrors self-actualization. Self-actualizers are people (though rarely teenagers) who think for themselves. They don’t conform to fit in. They’ve evolved beyond basic needs to higher-order needs. Instead of valuing things like belonging, they’ve come to value higher principles like self-sufficiency, beauty, and justice.
Maslow describes self-actualizers as autonomous, standing apart from their culture and environment in important ways. They might break or reject the rules that don’t make sense. They might be detached or asocial at times. They "are not dependent for their main satisfactions on the real world, or other people or culture or means-to-ends, or in general, on extrinsic satisfactions. Rather they are dependent for their own development and continued growth upon their own potentialities and latent resources." (Maslow, 1973, 188)
The self-assuredness of cool kids looks like self-actualization. This is probably a big part of why we admire it to such an extent.
Where the Cool Kids Go Wrong
However, new research reminds us that while coolness may mimic self-actualization, it’s really something different. Cool adolescents are cool, in part, because they seem older. They reference a state of being that’s years ahead of their peers. But this maturity is superficial. Instead of actually being years more evolved than their peers, the "cool kids" might actually be behind them in certain crucial ways.
The negative outcomes for once-cool kids support this idea. A longitudinal study tracked 184 13-year-olds, following up at ages 14 and 15, and again at ages 21 through 23. It found that, as young adults, once-acknowledged "cool" kids had more difficulties in friendship and romantic relationships, were at greater risk for alcohol and drug abuse, and engaged in more serious criminal behavior than their “uncool” peers. They also seemed more immature, often blaming others for relationship problems and breakups, without taking responsibility for their own role (Allen, Schad, Oudekerk & Chango, 2014).
As Maher suggests, coolness seems to have a shallow quality to it. It’s a performance experienced at some distance from any coherent internal reality. Self-actualization, on the other hand, is a place that you get to through struggling with belonging, self-esteem, and intimacy in a genuine way.
In other words, coolness is like a game you appear to have won (having skipped many messy stages of development), but will ultimately lose (emerging into adulthood without the coping skills you would have gained had you actually passed through those awkward stages of development).
It might be gratifying (for some of us) to know that some of the kids you admired most in high school didn’t turn out as well as you did, and to realize that the years you struggled with belonging and self-esteem were developmentally essential. A 13-year-old who seems to have it all figured out is worthy of suspicion. As Maslow argues, self-actualization can’t be like taking an “escalator to the top of Mt. Everest” (Maslow, 1963). It comes through self-exploration, through spending some time in the wilderness, not just the center of town.