I still remember the feeling of putting on my mother’s leather jacket in high school. I felt automatically cooler, as if the material was somehow seeping into my very being and imbuing me with a sense of calm collectedness. My peers encouraged this perception, telling me that I looked so “cool” and “edgy.” For a long time afterwards, I instinctively associated leather with coolness. There were other external indicators of coolness that I was drawn to during high school, too: music from before my time–my choice of college. Wesleyan itself seemed to epitomize cool; through the lens of my experience at a Jewish day school in Brooklyn, Wesleyan was everything that I was missing, everything that I felt was different and unique. My peers at school again echoed these feelings, telling me that my choice of school was so brave and unique and, of course, “cool.”
When I got to Wes, my whole perception of “coolness” was quickly thrown into question. All of the interests that once seemed so unique and interesting were, in fact, just preferences that for many were normal–even “mainstream.” I realized that a leather jacket was just as much a symbol of animal rights abuses as it was of “coolness,” and that many of my peers had grown up listening to the same music as I had. Just like that, all of my previous indicators of coolness disappeared. I started to realize that things are really only cool in relation to other things; the types of music or dress or ideas that seemed cool in high school were only seen that way because they were not adopted by the masses. The moment something becomes popular, it just isn’t cool anymore. This trend is present even in more “mainstream” situations like the college application process: we all load up on extracurriculars and one-of-a-kind hobbies in order to appear “different.” It’s a relatively basic concept that we are all familiar with, but it started to worry me. If we were assigning value to things based mainly on their not being commonplace, weren’t we limiting our abilities to think critically about what we truly like or care about?
This question led me to wonder further: what’s so special about being special? The question might seem trite, but in thinking about it, it seems strange that we’re all so obsessed with being different. Of course, it’s validating to have an interest or a hobby that no one else has; it makes you feel as though you have a place in the world that is yours alone, and it doesn’t hurt that it also inspires the admiration of those around you. This concept also comes from a very healthy notion that conforming to the preferences of the crowd is not necessary in order for one’s actions or interests to have value; encouraging the value of uniqueness is essential for those children that are developing interests in physics or philosophy and don’t happen to see these interests reflected back by their peers. But is there also a danger to our obsession with stepping outside of the box? Is it possible to put too much pressure on the importance of being different?
At Wesleyan, there is one definition of “cool” that seems to remain prevalent. Being yourself and doing your own thing is seen as cool. Even cooler is the act of doing this without really showing an awareness of it. After all, if you know you’re cool, that means that you care about being cool–and that’s not cool.
In the ever-changing cycle of what is cool and what is mainstream, the Wesleyan idea of the coolness of being yourself seems like the healthiest form of cool. But I wonder whether this idea truly allows for the possibility that being yourself might mean being somewhat “mainstream.” Do we, as a student body and even as a society, leave room for those who don’t happen to have an extremely unique set of interests, hobbies, or traits? Of course, each person is inherently unique, but it seems that our society often charges us with taking on an additional layer of uniqueness; the unspoken assumption is that we should be ourselves, but we should do so in a way that is somehow different from everybody else. It’s likely that we all instinctively accept these societal expectations from a young age, and so it might be impossible for us to know at this point which habits or preferences we’ve picked up out of a subconscious desire to appear cool or different. And this isn’t necessarily a negative trend; perhaps the encouragement to be different has inspired us all to step beyond our comfort zones and to take on actions or skill sets that we may not have thought ourselves capable of or good at. But with this societal expectation of uniqueness can also come a dangerous source of pressure to find ways to make ourselves stand out, even if those paths aren’t true to who we really are.
It would be nearly impossible for us as a society to abandon the notion that unique is inherently good, and I’m not certain that we actually need to abandon it. But an understanding of the potential of this concept to lead us towards falsity or performance is important in order for us to think critically about what we do and why. Ideally, we should all feel free to proudly do what is most natural and comfortable to us as individuals, no matter how normal, or how unique it might be.
Fattal is a member of the Class of 2017.