I met Joe in college. He was short and scrawny with thinning dark hair that stuck out like Doc from the Back to the Future movies. He drove a nerdy hatchback, wore shabby clothes and shaved his patchy beard once or twice a week… about as often as he bathed.
And, he was the absolute coolest guy I’ve ever met. Ever.
Men wanted to be him, and women wanted to be with him. I was one of his closest friends and I just couldn’t figure it out. Professors would give him a break when he failed to turn in assignments. Women would forgive him when he forgot to pick them up for dates. His friends would let it slide when he would renege on commitments.
What made this seemingly unimpressive little guy so irresistible to people? The answer is…he was cool like Fonzie (Google it).
The secret to being cool is this: Joe honestly didn’t care what other people thought of him… at all. People with that “cool” indifference carry themselves in a manner that suggests extreme confidence. And confidence is attractive.
It wasn’t an act. At least, I don’t think it was. If it were an act, Joe never broke character. I saw him in every situation imaginable and he always projected the same cool confidence.
When insulted, he just laughed it off as if to say, “We both know that’s not true.” He didn’t take it to heart, he just dismissed slights outright.
How could he possibly not care what other people thought of him? Looking back, I believe he truly liked himself or maybe he was simply at peace with his own imperfections. He didn’t feel the need to conform in any way and that made him an outlier.
What’s interesting is liking yourself should be considered positive or healthy, but synonyms for self-love include conceit, narcissism and vanity.
Because humans are social animals. We have a strong desire to conform to group or social norms. We truly care about what others think of us and, as a result, we are heavily influenced by the opinions and behaviors of others. Conversely, we distrust outliers and we try very hard not to be one.
This societal standard is amplified by something called the spotlight effect, which is when we believe we are being noticed more than we really are. This occurs because we are the center of our own world. More than anyone else, we are acutely aware of everything “wrong” with us and we desperately want to hide those flaws from others. We don’t want to be considered an oddity. So, we hunker down and blend in with the crowd. We want to be accepted.
If we dislike outliers and the norm is to conform… why would Joe’s apathy make him cool rather than conceited?
Well, there is a fine line between cool and conceited.
The key is the perception of confidence. In our minds, confidence suggests certainty and certainty is a powerful source of influence. This is because human beings crave consistency, stability, reliability and, of course, certainty. Certainty is the cure for our risk aversion. We want answers and we will follow people we think have them.
Joe was an anomaly and a bit of a character, but he taught me a valuable lesson at a young age. Rather than trying so hard to fit in, just be yourself. Embrace your imperfections. They are a part of the perfect you. And, when you like yourself, others will like you too.
This wisdom isn’t new. In fact, the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu gave this sage advice 2,500 years ago. Here's a translation:
Those who care the least about approval receive it the most.
If you want to be cool… the only person you absolutely have to please is you.
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Photo by Zoran Zonde Stojanovski on Unsplash