I have a quote taped to my mirror. It’s from a scene in Almost Famous – the young music journalist has just realized how uncool he is and he’s devastated. All of his friends are fake, he’ll never get the girl, he is a chronic, incurable dork. But then the old, crotchety music journalist tells him this:
“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”
I taped this quote up because I want it to be laced through my daily thoughts. I want to think of it when I’m shopping for overpriced makeup, or out at a bar filled with pretty young things, or browsing all of those “I just happen to constantly look fabulous” photos on Facebook. Sometimes I look around at my fellow young adults and just wonder what they were like at 14 or even 11 years old. I like to imagine that that sexy guy in the skinny jeans had secret nerd hobbies, like Magic Cards or juggling (this, of course, before having “ironic” nerd hobbies was even a thing). Or that that stylish girl with the high-waist shorts and mermaid hair once, not too long ago, wore baggy T-shirts and stayed home Fridays and laughed really hard with her mom in the car. People look so maddeningly good in their twenties that it’s easy to forget we were all hopelessly uncool at one point. It’s also easy to forget how happy we sometimes were despite it. How some of the most euphoric times were just sitting at our best friends’ kitchen counters in sweatpants, watching TV and making nerdy jokes about people for whom we harbored hopeless crushes.
By the time we reach a certain age, many of us have heavily edited ourselves into adulthood. Every weird comment in our heads is scratched out with a big red marker, and in fact we become SO adept at the editing process that we actually have to make a conscious effort to be sincere. Oftentimes, it just doesn’t seem worth it. Why say anything that might threaten our acceptance? Why indulge any hobby, or wear any outfit, or have any opinion that will make life any harder than it already is? It’s a real risk, and one that’s deeply rooted in human psychology. I imagine that, in ancient times, people were attacked (or worse, ignored) for being too quirky. It’s tempting to just put up the shell, to edit, and edit, until we are masters of self-preservation, until we can rest assured knowing nothing that embarrassing will ever slip out of our lips. But there are reasons—big reasons—that make choosing sincerity over conformity always worth the risk.
The first is that the payback of being accepted as we are—for gaining respect for our true opinions, or laughed at for our stupid jokes—is not only impossibly relieving, it’s the only true happiness we’ll ever know. No matter how well liked we are, it essentially means nothing if you yourself don’t feel free. What it really comes down to is the difference between judged and lonely, and at the end of the day, lonely feels a lot worse. But when even one person likes the jokes or music or drawings that we believe in, then we can know human connection. That’s “true currency.” That makes life worth living.
The second is to honor variety and innovation. If we all play it cool by taking the safe route, we’ll create a world of homogenous tastes. And not only does this make us boring–it actually threatens human advancement. For civilization to develop, it’s imperative that there be outliers to skew the average. Behind every great invention is some delightfully freakish person. (Yes, that’s a fact, and no, I will not be providing my sources).
The final, and most important reason is that every time even one person is genuine, it gives others permission to do the same. Just because our words didn’t receive a standing ovation, it doesn’t mean that someone else didn’t quietly thank us for saying them. There is almost certainly at least one person in this world who has, at one point, valued your sincerity more than he let you know. Authenticity has a domino effect, as does cattiness, as does exclusion, as do all other painful side effects of choosing to be insincere.
So if you are a true nerd at heart, if you are happiest when you’re at your most “uncool,” then I ask you this: the next time you think of silencing yourself out of fear of disapproval, or making some banal comment in a timid effort to blend in, consider the quiet person (at the party, or office, or wherever you happen to be) who is secretly praying for someone else to be weird and uncool like him. Be yourself, for his sake. He will thank you, even if you never know. And then someday, someone will thank you, and that’s how you’ll know you’ve contributed to the world collectively feeling better about ourselves. It’s time to come out of the closet and embrace the dork you were born to be.