THE BLOG
08/11/2010 07:47 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Makes a Smart Person Cool in College?

For the past seven years, I've been running an event for the local Harvard Club where recent graduates of Harvard College give their best advice to freshmen about to leave for school -- on academics, extracurriculars, social life and career planning. We just held it last weekend -- it's called HUGS for THUGS -- and the kids seemed to get a lot out of it.

One of the concerns that the rising freshmen have is how to be cool in college. Well, I've got a confession to make: in high school, I was totally not cool.

In fact, I was completely oblivious to what cool was. I had just come to LA from Tehran -- a smoggy, sprawling metropolis just like LA, with a totalitarian fundamentalist regime, not so much like LA. I had zero fashion sense, knew nothing about parties, did my schoolwork, swam on the swim team, and minded my own biz. At lunch, I hung out in Mr Takagaki's gov classroom with the small enclave of smart and occasionally nerdy kids.

See, in high school, cool was all about Where You Hung Out at Lunch. All the cool kids hung out at the grove just above the football field or in the parking lot, around the brand-new Mustangs their parents bought them for their 16th birthday. And after school, they hung out at Holmby Park, a stone's throw from the Aaron Spelling and Hugh Hefner mega-mansions.

Sure, I was aware of their existence. They were rich, good-looking kids with their own little world of Westside privilege. I even had a crush on Jenny, who was devastatingly cute if a bit bland. But their world of football homecomings (to this day, I still don't know what the hell a homecoming is -- it's not like they went on a campaign to conquer Carthage, geez), partying, fashion, alcohol, boyfriends and girlfriends, sex, cars, popularity and just plain inaccessible coolness was as foreign to me as a well-stocked supermarket is to a North Korean.

At the same time, I didn't really want to hang out with them either, because they just weren't all that interesting. I wanted to hang out with my smart buddies in Mr Takagaki's gov class and talk about stuff that mattered to me. Like debating the merits of classical music over jazz with David (who ended up at Princeton, and Dave -- if you're reading, sorry, but I still don't get jazz); get excited about the Nobel Prize for superconductivity; and discuss why Reagan was a flaming idiot.

For a lot of people, high school is hell. All the jockeying for popularity, coolness, and fitting in; the obsession with sex as your brain gets bombarded with hormones while being incapable of doing much about it; keeping up with the fashion in clothes and music; all while working hard to get good grades and keep up with your extracurriculars -- it's all a tad much, really.

Well, congratulations my friend. You're out of high school. And if you're going to Harvard or a place like it, you'll be on a whole planet full of people just like those in Mr Takagaki's classroom -- basically, a bunch of kids like you. You are now insta-cool, if only because you're not the only nerd in a 5-mile radius -- you're surrounded by them, baby. It's safe to be smart now.

But still, in college, a new transient hierarchy of cool coalesces. This occurs no matter where you go; it's what primates do. So in this article, I want to talk about what really makes a person cool that has nothing to do with transience, trends, or opinions. I'm going for the timeless universal cool here, people -- the thing that is immutable and results in your further growth and happiness. In a hundred years, no one's going to care which band you listened to, what brand jeans you wore, how pretty your girlfriend was or how fancy your handbag was. Here are 3 things that really matter:

1. You are cool not because of what you consume, but what you create.

It's always amusing when people are trying to get coolness points for their clothes, car, friends, neighborhood, or the merchants they frequent (restaurants, clubs, hotels, stores etc). There is no art or skill in consumption -- anyone can do it. And if you spent $1000 bucks on a handbag that doesn't hold your stuff any better than a $50 one does, you're just honestly broadcasting to the world how much your ego needs propping up.

If you want to live well and indulge in luxury, fine. Just remember that it doesn't make you a better person, nor does it make you happier. Scientists have shown time and time again that once your basic needs are met, more stuff does not make you any happier. It probably makes you less happy because the stuff you own starts to own you.

What does make you cool is what you put out into the world. Sistine Chapel frescoes? Cool. A whole bunch of plays? Cool. Discovering radioactivity? Cool. Relativity theory? Cool. Mind-blowing string quartets? Mega-cool. Inventing the Internet? Hyper-cool. Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Curie, Einstein, Beethoven and Tim Berners-Lee will forever be cool.

Consumption is transient. Creation leaves a legacy - and it feels good, too. Psychologists will tell you that creating novel items out of sheer nothing is one of the most fulfilling activities you can engage in.

2. You are cool to the extent that you exercise compassion and perform service.

How does your work touch others? Does it assuage a crying child's pain? Does it soothe a broken heart or mend a broken leg? Does it help lift up someone beaten down by time and circumstance? Does it create a pleasing space for an eye to rest upon?

Those are the things that make you cool, not the amount of money you make, your title, the awards you win, or the prestige of your employer's name. Beware of the media's glorification of near psychopaths because they happen to be captains of industry making shit-tons of money. It ain't about the money, people -- it's about how many people you help.

A simple rubric is that if it's just about you and your glory, it's not cool. If it's about Us, it is. Once again, scientists tell us that performing service is one of the activities that generates and sustains happiness in us most reliably. So get in the habit of doing service, and aim yourself towards a career of service instead of say, becoming a soulless, reptilian investment banker.

3. You are cool to the extent that you are curious.

Being curious is the opposite of being judgmental. When you're curious, you're open to new experiences and ideas. You accept people as they are, not as you think they should be. Tall, short, pretty, ugly, gay, straight, liberal, conservative, Lakers fan, Celtics fan, European, Asian, African, white, brown, black, yellow, green, purple -- you meet them where they stand and seek first to understand, then to be understood. If you do just this, everyone you come in contact with will love you. And that's kinda cool. Not everyone does this because, frankly, it's hard to do. I'm still working on this every day.

Openness goes hand-in-hand with flexibility. The more flexible you are, the more adaptable you are. And adaptability, more than strength or intelligence, is the prime determinant of survival and success. Chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching says:

Men are born soft and supple;
Dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
Is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
Is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.

So be creative. Be compassionate. Be curious. If you do, I promise you'll be the coolest kid who ever went to college.

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