On the Nature of Coolness

David Brooks, a popular commentator for the New York Times, wrote an article called  How Cool Works in America Today. 

Those of us who grew up before the onset of Netflix, Facebook and Twitter may remember the likes of Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Kathryn Hepburn, or Sidney Portier
Brooks says that ‘cool’ people tend to share common features. They are stoical, emotionally controlled, never eager or needy, but instead mysterious, detached and self-possessed. The cool person is gracefully competent at something in a seemingly effortless manner, but doesn’t need the world’s applause to recognise their worth. They seem to have found their own natural and authentic way of living with nonchalant intensity.
Roger Federer recently won his 19th Grand Slam title, more than anyone in history. 2 days before his 36th birthday, he is the oldest person to have ever won Wimbledon, at time in his career when most are lucky to hang to play mixed doubles. (Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe retired in the mid twenties). Federer reminds us that coolness is not a function of languages, passports and professions. 

There are many others I have come across in the course of my work that strike me as meeting most, if not all, of these criteria. I am thinking of Jean Claude Biver, Albert Kriemler, Luc Hoffmann, Peter Nobel, Ernst Thomke, Charles Weissmann and Stephen Zuellig et al. None of them are athletes, celebrities, most are not widely known, yet they are each distinctly cool in their own way. 
Jorge Paulo Lemann, a former surfer from Rio de Janiero is also, in his own right, a cool character. He told me that the key to Federer’s revival has been the overhaul of his backhand Lemann says that Federer learned as a child a classic backhand technique that emphasised extending the free arm in the opposite direction of the swinging arm to maintain balance. While this looks elegant and encourages control, it deprived Federer of power necessary to turn his backhand an offensive weapon. He has dispensed with this technique and, more like Stan Wawrinka, drops his right shoulder and drives his weight through the stroke so he is now able to throw his full weight into the backhand.

Coming back to what it takes to be ‘cool’, it occurred to me that often there is a hint of defiance that appeals to us. A refusal to accept the status quo, and rather a quiet resolve to overcome it – even if against the odds. Think of the famous motorcycle scene of Steve McQueen in the ‘Great Escape’, or James Dean’s defining role in ‘’Rebel Without a Cause’’. The look in the eye of Jack Nicholson in ‘Chinatown’ when he said ‘’How do you like them apples’’. Che Guevara is still an icon of coolness among Latin Americans three generations after his death. Our fondness for Katharine Hepburn comes in part from her refusal to conform to society's expectations of women. She was outspoken, assertive, athletic, and wore trousers before it was fashionable for women to do so.

‘Coolness’ -for all its mysterious merit - can deceive us as Janan Ganeshrecently pointed out in his article The Devil and Roger Federer published in the Financial Times.


Rethink everything

Like most of us, Janesh credits Federer with impeccable personal class: ‘’He is urbane, multilingual, emotionally expressive, faintly androgynous’’. He did, according to Janesh, ‘’What Mary Tyler Moore did for working women a generation ago’’, meaning that Federer has redefined masculinity for our generation. 
But Janesh cautions us that it would be a mistake for us to sanctify him. Though Federer exemplifies the effortless talent that is a condition sin equa non for ‘coolness’ something must lie hidden lurking beneath the surface. ‘To excel in sport, as in life, or just to withstand its vicissitudes, a person has to possess some dark traits in controlled doses: aggression, ruthlessness verging on chicanery, mental toughness and an ability to occasionally block out, rather than empathise with others’’ Janesh argues. 
Too much of this stuff and, Janesh warns. ‘’we are soon on the verge of of sociopathy’’. Too little and we’re wimps. Think of the academic wizard in high school who amounted to little in the real world. Or the overnice friend who plays the doormat in a marriage, because, like many of us, we overrate ‘’niceness’’ as a character trait. And then there is the old schoolmate who should have outdone us in life but lacked the grit or even imagination to even think in such terms. 

So, the most subtle, yet valuable attribute of ‘coolness’ may be their ability to disguise this dark energy, and keep it in balance. 
I’m hard pressed to find anyone who does this better than Federer. The problem is how can we measure what isn’t revealed? And this may be precisely why they enchant us.