I had lunch last week with a friend of mine who’s in the music business. He’s a passionate guy, around my age, with an impressive resume. I like talking to him. We debated the fine points of the Black Keys’ rise, the difference between real and cultivated authenticity, and whether people know or care about it. Then the conversation turned to taste and I asked my friend about his criteria for working with a band. Must he love the music? Does he have to believe they’ll be big? What matters? One thing that matters, my friend told me, a little bit quietly, after he told me about some other things that matter, is cool. He wants his music choices to make him look cool. “More than I should,” he said.
The next day I had a phone conversation with another friend, who was describing a business venture that required him to either face off with or extend a hand to a competitor. My friend wanted to make nice. He told me that he’s no longer attracted to exclusivity and the sort of mystique it confers. ”As I’ve gotten older I care less about cool than I once did,” he said. “I’ve defined it for myself as not wasting a lot of time lying. It’s become tedious.”
The day after that (it was one of those weeks) I had a long talk with my dad. We spoke for maybe the 300th time about the importance of relying on your own internal guidance system instead of external cues for direction and meaning, and about how hard that is to do — even if you know it’s the way you want to live, even if you’re the mindful type, even if it will without a doubt make you happier. My dad thinks it’s because from the get-go we’re taught to seek approval from other people. We’re ingrained with the belief that we’re only as good or smart or valuable as our parents and teachers and friends think we are, and it’s tough to unlearn those early lessons. My dad is a wise man, a font of short-form allegories, and he trotted out one of my favorites. It goes like this: imagine yourself standing on a stage, preparing to give a performance. You gaze out at the audience and discover that the theater is empty. No one is watching. But the show goes on.
I swear, these conversations never get old. Much as I’d like to evict the imaginary chorus heralding the imaginary spectators whose imaginary cheers and jeers inspire too many performances, they’re determined squatters. So it’s war. It’s me versus a hallucination. Me versus a misguided notion of value and power. Some days I win. On those days I know that the cool kids are muddled like me, not at all as sure as they seem to be about what’s good and what’s smart and what matters. Some days, consumed with self-doubt and comparitis, I lose. I wonder why I even bother. So it’s one step forward and one step back. Actually it’s more like this: