The pursuit of coolness has been part of the human experience since we started walking upright. It’s something sociologists, celebrities, and students have been arguing over for centuries.
In fact, the question of coolness is particularly pertinent for people in their teens to early 20s. During this part of our lives, we develop much of the personality, relationships, and life trajectories that will determine our future. And that can be an anxiety-inducing thought.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be cool. It comes with some great perks—authentic coolness can make it easier to find friends, land jobs, have adventures, and discover happiness.
Unfortunately, being cool doesn’t come naturally to everyone. And trying too hard to be cool can get you in some hot water. You could end up alienating people (which is very uncool), or worse, lose your own sense of self.
I can’t tell you what your specific brand of coolness will look like. But I do have some advice on what you can start doing now to increase your “cool factor,” while still maintaining the unique traits that make you you.
What does it mean to be cool?
This question is almost as old as the word “cool” itself, which dates back to the years of Shakespeare, at least:
Back then, Shakespeare was talking about calmness, clarity of mind, and reasonability. But since then, the concept of cool has taken on many other meanings: popular, well-dressed, outgoing, talented, wealthy, intelligent.
What’s considered cool changes depending on who you’re talking to and what you’re talking about.
Imagine you’re sitting at a table with Bill Gates, Lady Gaga, and your best friend. If you asked them all, “What is the coolest thing you learned this week?” imagine how wildly different their answers would be. This is because as we grow older and develop our personalities, what we consider to be cool changes based on our own interests, passions, and experiences.
On top of that, time alters the definition of cool—and thanks to the advent of the internet and social media, the concept of coolness is changing faster than ever.
What used to be cool (and why it’s not cool anymore)
Pop culture is closely tied in with what it means to be cool. Fashion, music, entertainment, technology, and current events are constantly shifting the parameters of what is hip and what is square.
This causes a phenomenon that makes coolness amorphous and hard to achieve. Take the mullet, for example. The “business in the front, party in the back” hairstyle was all the rage in the ‘80s, then fell sharply out of favor and was considered decidedly uncool by the ‘90s. Then it returned ironically in the mid ‘00s, and it appears to be making an even bigger comeback now—but that could change by the time you finish reading this sentence.
This is why it’s dangerous to anchor your own concept of coolness to pop culture. It’s far more achievable to develop the personality traits that have consistently been part of the cool lexicon—and if you can do that, you’ll have coolness that lasts a lifetime.
Say goodbye to James Dean and Regina George
James Dean, with his leather jacket, perfectly coiffed hair, and tight jeans, is often considered to be the height of cool. He was unfeeling, distant, and a real bad boy.
But research suggests those personality traits have not stood the test of time. In one study, participants were asked to list traits that they considered to be cool and socially desirable. Their answers featured adjectives like friendly, competent, trendy, and attractive.
Modern pop culture is also full of examples where people have mistaken popularity, vapidness, and cruelty for coolness. The best example may come from Mean Girls, where the most popular girls in school are also the most hated.
If you’re measuring your own coolness to these outdated examples, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Instead, let’s focus on developing the personality traits that are considered cool now (and probably will be for a long time).
6 personality traits that define “cool”
1. Self-confidence and self-assurance
If there’s one trait that’s been consistent throughout all interpretations of coolness, it’s self-confidence. Being sure of yourself and your abilities is an inherently attractive trait, but it’s not easy to build up confidence—especially if you’re in your teens or early twenties. Confidence often comes with experience, but there are ways to improve your self-esteem even if you’re still figuring your “self” out.
Boiled down, confidence is about accepting yourself—your appearance, your body, and your abilities. This does not mean you aren’t focused on self-improvement; in fact, striving for self-improvement is a cool and mature thing to do. But in the meantime, you need to love and be proud of who you are (even though you aren’t perfect).
You may find that there are people in your life who negatively impact your confidence. They tease you, make fun of your appearance, or prey on your insecurities. The best bet in these situations is to avoid these people if possible. If you can’t do that, you may need to set up boundaries with them or try to confront the issue by explaining how they make you feel.
A word of warning: It’s easy to confuse confidence with arrogance. You won’t successfully build up your confidence if you’re always showing off, comparing yourself to others, or trying to make yourself appear superior. In fact, this is a surefire way to make yourself seem very uncool.
Becoming more confident will help you achieve a number of the other traits on this list. Confident people are often seen as charismatic and interesting—and it doesn’t get much cooler than that.
2. Knowing how to have fun (and break the rules)
For a long time, being cool has included a devil-may-care attitude that leads to rule-breaking. In pop culture, this might translate to driving over the speed limit (see The Fast and the Furious), ignoring authority figures (see The Hunger Games), or even breaking the law (see Kill Bill).
But in reality, people are less interested in these dangerous attitudes, and more interested in autonomy—a person’s ability to live according to their own rules and values.
Having autonomy can be a way to demonstrate your confidence, but it also leads to excitement and adventure. If you’re willing to bend the rules, you can bring a level of unpredictability to any situation—excitement, mystery, and adventure are all aspects that are considered cool.
Pushing the envelope too far on autonomy, however, can work against you. For example, skipping school might seem like a badass thing to do—but flunking out of school because you were absent too often is a far cry from cool.
Instead of focusing on which rules you should break, think instead about being spontaneous, loving adventure, and thinking outside the box. Even small acts of spontaneity—like surprising your friends with custom playlists —can add to your cool factor (without putting you at risk).
3. Your physical appearance
Do you have to be conventionally attractive to be cool?
The short answer is no. There are plenty of people who have reached certified cool status without conforming to the (usually unrealistic) standards of beauty you see on red carpets and runways.
And like coolness itself, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder—certainly you can think of a person whom you find attractive that other people don’t, or vice versa.
That being said, your physical appearance does factor into how cool you are, because your “look” is a form of self expression. Having confidence in your appearance will make you a more attractive person overall, no matter what you look like.
Want to take your appearance up a few notches? Here’s what to consider:
Hygiene.Personal hygiene makes you more approachable, which is necessary when it comes to coolness. Beyond that, showering regularly, keeping your teeth clean, and a spritz of cologne or perfume sends a message: “I care about myself.” As I mentioned above, cool confidence is a product of self-care.
Clothing.Your clothing choices also play a factor in how others perceive you, and how you express yourself. You don’t need to spend mountains of money to look fashionable—in fact, there are people who define their coolness through thrift-shop purchases and repurposed threads. What’s more important is finding clothing that compliments your body and expresses your personality. If you’re looking for some pointers, check out Reddit’s fashion advice forum (there’s also forums for male fashion advice and female fashion advice). If Reddit isn’t your scene, head over to Instagram, TikTok, or YouTube and search for hashtags like #frugalfashion #womensfashion #mensfashion #transfashion—you get the idea.
Hair.Whether you want them to or not, people notice your hair, so it pays to put some effort into how it looks. Think of your hair like a frame for your face: the style should compliment your face shape and facial features. The next time you book a haircut, bring along a few photos of hairstyles you like and show them to your stylist. Ask them for advice on what products you could use to style your hair at home or keep your hair healthy. Again, there is boundless inspiration to be found on social media—Pinterest is a great place to start. A search for your type of hair (eg. “curly men’s hair” or “short brown hairstyles”) should give you some inspiration.
Your unique twist.To boost your cool, find a way to reflect your unique personality through your appearance. For some, this could be as simple as wearing a signature color or unique accessories. For others, it might mean blue hair, light-up sneakers, bold makeup, or hammer pants. What matters is that it reflects who you are, and that you can wear it with confidence.
4. Keeping your cool and being even-tempered
When people say “be cool” they often mean “be calm.” A big part of being cool is maintaining an even temper. You don’t sweat the small stuff, and you don’t fly off the handle when you’re upset.
This of course is easier said than done. Anxiety and stress can make it hard to keep your cool. We’ve got an article coming up soon that talks about coping with anxiety, but you can also improve anxiety levels by getting more sleep, moving your body, spending time with people you love, and performing other acts of self-care.
Mindfulness can help you realize when you’re losing your cool. When you’re in a situation where you feel yourself getting heated or excited, pause for a moment and think about what’s going on. Consider what emotions you are feeling—is it excitement, anger, frustration? Being excited about something you’re passionate about is cool—being overly intense, defensive, or argumentative isn’t.
Bear in mind that “keeping your cool” does not mean being cold, rude, or emotionally void. In fact, bottling your emotions is a surefire way to losing your cool later on.
The vibe you should strive for is a relaxed and easygoing—which doesn’t exclude warmth, friendliness, intimacy, positivity, or kindness.
5. Cultivating your interests and passions
Part of being cool is being interesting—and that means having your own unique passions. There are plenty of things to be passionate about: art, history, animals, fiction, crafts, politics—I could go on. What matters most is you find a passion that you are genuinely interested in, and you learn how to share that passion with others.
There is a bit of a balancing act to play here. Having unique passions can certainly be very cool, but you also run the risk of alienating people if you choose only passions that are so unique no one understands them.
For example, let’s imagine that you are truly passionate about ancient history. When you’re with other people who are into the same subject, sharing your perspective on how the pyramids were built could make you appear pretty cool to the group.
But if you’re in a group of people who don’t know or care so much about ancient history, badgering them with facts about Alexander the Great is going to make you seem less than cool.
The trick is to maintain a wide variety of interests—some that are more unique to you, and others that appeal to a larger audience. Having an awareness of pop culture, current events, and popular trends will make you far more approachable to a wider segment of the population. Very cool.
6. Showing interest in others and being approachable
Being cool means being memorable, and the best way to make someone remember you is by showing genuine interest in them. Learning how to listen to others and keep conversation moving will leave a lasting impression, and as an added bonus, it’s a great way to make friends as an adult and strengthen relationships you already have. (If you ask me, that’s about the coolest thing you can do.)
Being a good listener starts with practice—the more conversations you have, the easier it will be to improve your listening skills. Here’s what to focus on:
Keep eye contact and watch body language.Listening means more than just using your ears—watch the facial expressions, posture, and gesture of your conversation partner to gain a deeper understanding of what they are communicating to you. Stop thinking about what you want to say. It’s impossible to genuinely hear what someone is saying if you’re only thinking about your response. Try to stay in the moment and listen to their words.
Ask more than “yes or no” questions.To keep conversation moving and demonstrate your interest, ask questions that give your conversation partner an opportunity to talk more deeply about the subject at hand. For example, instead of asking “Was that fun?” ask “What was your favorite thing about that?”
Aim for a 50/50 convo split.A good conversation should be an equal exchange between two or more people. In addition to asking questions and showing interest, you need to contribute to the conversation with your own insights and experiences. If you sense you’ve been talking too much, pass the conversation on to someone else with a thoughtful question or comment. If you feel like your conversation partner is losing steam, pick up the conversation with your own perspective.
Be cool, be calm, be kind, and be yourself
I’ve covered the basic ingredients of coolness, so now it’s time to put it into practice. The quest for being cool can feel intimidating, especially if you’re entering into a new phase of your life—high school, college, the workplace, or a new social scene.
Remember that coolness isn’t developed overnight. It’s natural to hit stumbling blocks, be they awkward moments or fashion flops. Dealing with these blunders is part of the journey to coolness. You’ll know you’ve arrived when these little mistakes don’t trip you up, and being cool is no longer something you have to think about.