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Illustration by Graham Roumieu

Karen Rinaldi is a publisher and author whose latest book is It’s Great to Suck at Something: The Unexpected Joy of Wiping Out and What It Can Teach Us About Patience, Resilience, and the Stuff that Really Matters.

At the end of one of our family surfing trips, when we were watching clips from my son’s sessions recorded with his GoPro, a glimpse of a stranger was caught in the background, sitting in the lineup on my beloved nine-foot, three-inch fuchsia single-fin surfboard.

“Hey, who’s that on my board?” my mind questioned.

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Then my more conscious brain registered the answer. “Holy crap! – that’s me.”

While I have never been cool at surfing – I’d been surfing and sucking at it for 15 years at this point – I could still pretend at times when I was at least among other surfers, or better yet, when I was alone in the water. But now, I had entered a new low. I was the least cool person in the lineup.

When, on a dare to myself, I posted the video of me surfing, a colleague stopped by my office to gloat.

“So, you really do suck at surfing,” she said to me with a modicum of questioning left in her voice, as if I might just be pulling a fast one. No humble-bragging from me. I suck, pure and simple.

“You thought I was being modest?”

“Well…” she said, a moment of hesitation in her voice, “I’d thought, ‘Isn’t Karen cool? She surfs, she has a house in Costa Rica’ – I mean, I had this image of you…” and she trailed off as if to check that image again in her mind before continuing: “…And it wasn’t what I saw in that video you posted. You really do suck!” She had convinced herself now.

“And…?” I asked, but I already knew the answer. I just wanted to see if she’d fess up to it.

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“It makes me happy to know you suck at it,” she said with a wide smile that was not unkind.

I understood. People automatically think surfing is cool. When they hear that I surf, many people give a knowing nod, undoubtedly picturing me on a short board in a bikini, carving up a wave. Picture this instead: me on a long board, wearing a long-sleeved surf costume, mostly missing waves. But cool’s not the point.

“Glad I can be of service,” I told my colleague.

Some of the best surfers I know are not cool out of the water. When not getting barrelled or carving up and down on a wave, they can be goofy and awkward. The same can be said of many musicians, once the performance is over. Or athletes off the field or court, or any famous people in their quotidian lives to whom we attach fabricated notions of cool.

If I were to catalogue the people I know intimately – those who others might see as cool – they are, to a one, pretty much not cool. Take a moment to do the same – think of all the people you know well to whom others have attached the label “cool” and think about how uncool they are. That’s me. That’s you. That’s them.

So why do we ignore this extremely uncool truth?

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Being cool – the antithesis of the suck-at-something ethos – might have a historically very recent and very specific origin. There’s one fascinating theory that the very basis of cool as a bulwark against vulnerability originated from African-American jazz musicians in the thirties and forties. Joel Dinerstein explains in his book The Origins of Cool in Postwar America how “cool” was a survival mechanism against the racism black performers continually confronted. “To play it cool combined performed nonchalance with repressed vulnerability,” he wrote.

Mr. Dinerstein’s brilliant and detailed look at this rich history partly confirms my instincts that coolness is a veil for the ways in which we feel vulnerable, but it does something else, too. It confers a profound appreciation for why we love cool and why it has endured for so long. We are drawn to coolness because out of the very vulnerability it seeks to occlude, comes creative innovation – a key component of jazz. According to Mr. Dinerstein, “’playing it cool’ was a vernacular phrase picked up from the jazz slang that came to represent a new emotional mode and style: the aestheticizing of detachment.” It’s the aestheticizing part that makes cool so appealing.

Mr. Dinerstein tells the story of king-of-cool saxophonist Lester Young, who protested “Uncle Tomming” by refusing to smile on stage. He hid his eyes – the windows on the soul – by wearing sunglasses on stage and at night. By blocking access to a person’s biggest tell, he became unknowable. Sunglasses became a symbol of cool as a protection from giving yourself away.

So, if cool is, in fact, a reaction to that which oppresses us, then we can see how the desire to be cool for cool’s sake would keep us from ourselves. Still, we can see why cool is undeniably appealing because from it comes some of our best art. Digging deeper into this unholy matrix of cool and vulnerability might help us to distance ourselves a bit to make room for sucking and the joys it brings.

To help me, I contacted one of the coolest of cool cats, Anthony Bourdain. I knew Tony from his early days as a Mr. Fix-It Chef. I published his first book, Kitchen Confidential (and the five or so that followed). He was always generous and funny, but also a bit shy and, well, goofy. But in all the good ways, and I wanted to see what he had to say about it all.

I’ll put this out there first, since Tony was emphatic about one thing above all.

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“Simply put?” he said. “I am not cool. I have never been cool.”

In trying to dig into cool, Tony offered, “I think cool suggests the absence of caring,” echoing Mr. Dinerstein’s aestheticizing of detachment theory. But Tony saw a more nefarious aspect to it. “It’s an almost sociopathic state – the ability to not [care] about anything…. In my experience, people are foolishly attracted to people who know what they want. And when all you want is to play blues better than anyone else – or take heroin … that, dismayingly, has an appeal to those of us who struggle with our feelings, needs and desires every day.”

But he allowed for there to be something to coolness, something that, to my ears, sounded more like confidence, and a willingness to be confronted (rather than avoidance): “Cool to me is fearlessness, independence, integrity of a sort – the refusal to compromise out of fear or greed or even common sense.” How much daylight exists between that conception of coolness and vulnerability? Both invite the world in, both exist on the cusp of great creativity.

Tony continued, “I finally met and became friendly with my platonic ideal of cool: Iggy Pop. But Iggy needs love. We talk of that a lot. And those of us who need love, to be loved, appreciated, can never be really cool.” And then Tony retreated back to cool’s shadow side: “Cool needs nothing. Cool doesn’t give a [damn]. And I give a [damn]. I choose to feel, to love, to hurt, to fail. Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

I asked Tony if he thought sucking at something and being cool were mutually exclusive.

“Yes. Cool people appear to be effortlessly great. At everything. If they don’t know how to do something, they make sure never to be seen doing it. Because … they’re too cool for that.”

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I would add to that the reason why so many people won’t let themselves suck at something is because, even if they aren’t among the “cool people,” there’s always hope. Hope to be inducted into the hall of coolness – which is sad because it closes the door on so much possibility. In any case, it’s a lonely room.

For the self-described man who made “commercially successful pure food porn,” excelling is overrated. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that he’d taken up Brazilian jiu-jitsu. And … he regularly got his ass kicked. Tony, it turned out, was expert at sucking at something.

“To be at the bottom of an endless learning slope, with no peak. That’s deeply satisfying,” he explained before turning back to his place of comfort. “It’s like being the worst, newest cook in the kitchen again. The satisfactions of learning, in tiny increments, the daily problem-solving, the sucking less … it’s great!”

He paused before continuing, “I’d add something Ferran Adria said to me: ‘I don’t want to do things I know how to do. I want to do things I don’t know how to do.’”

Maybe it’s no coincidence that a life-long chef developed this positive attitude toward sucking. Nothing will more quickly or more consistently put you face-to-face with your limitations than the kitchen. You’ll get scalded and burned, you’ll cut your fingers and bleed into the prep, you’ll mess it all up and make crap food even when you get good at it. But – most importantly – you can’t stop trying. We all gotta eat.

And yet, in spite of all that, we sometimes learn in the most painful way how vulnerability and the veneer of cool we project onto others can hide someone’s darkest hour. On June 8, 2018, with the news of Anthony Bourdain having taken his own life, I was reminded that the labels we put onto others have no bearing on their pain. The best we can do is to expose our own to daylight and to pay attention to the twilight messages we might otherwise miss from our loved ones.

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If we have to grapple with what cool is and what it isn’t, then cool at its best is flexible and resilient, it’s improvisational, it’s an open response to vulnerability. Cool isn’t rigid or unforgiving. It is not the lack of action, but action taken full-bore, with no regard for a determined outcome. If it’s a mask, it’s a transparent one that should facilitate how we see the world rather than try to manipulate how it sees us. Tony Bourdain nailed it. We all gotta eat.

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