Recently I overheard a customer ask the following question at local bar where I work. The question, disguised among the usual inane bar rhetoric, struck me in its simplicity:
“Why is everyone trying so hard? Is it cool to try hard now?”
Dear Bartender Ears,
Thank you for passing this question along to the Help Desk. It is a very important and complicated one. It assumes, as many have for some time now, that “trying hard” and being cool have been, throughout history, natural opposites. But when we look more closely, those who have created cool in various eras have generally manufactured the appearance of not trying that comes to constitute “cool” only through considerable effort, but only in secret. In addition, expending considerable effort in a cathartic sort of way—think of Charles Mingus, Sid Vicious, or Axl Rose on stage—has often been cool. In fact, assessments of coolness are arguably founded in judgments about the relative value of the things the actors in question are expending effort on, and not expending effort on. To cite an obvious example, most of my friends thought the Zuccotti Park Occupiers were cool because they were trying harder than most to protest certain systems, but to my conservative and libertarian friends, the fact that they were sleeping in parks rather than trying harder to get a job made them “not cool.” In other words, what looks like “trying harder” to some can look, to others, like “not trying at all.” All of this goes without saying.
But let’s bracket these complications for a moment and take this question as it is. Like your patrons, I have noticed that a lot of people are trying harder now. They’re in not one band, but two or three. They’re staying up all night to write essays, and then staying up all night again to work on their novel. They’re not only writing a novel, but also being a social worker and a bartender and launching stealth micropropoganda campaigns for important sociopolitical reasons in their spare time. They are leaking crucial information about how the CIA surveys us even if it means forever exiling themselves from America. And all these people are cool.
Before we can determine why, though, we have to define what “trying harder” really is. The phrase “try harder” first came to my attention when I was writing an essay for this very magazine. Next to a paragraph that was foundering on the rocks of my typically confused mind, Mark Greif, rather than engaging in any substantial way with the content of that paragraph or giving me any guidance at all about how I might improve it, instead wrote in the margin next to the paragraph in blue ink, “try harder.”
At first I was puzzled. Try harder at what? Try harder at making sense, I supposed, but how? Maybe Mr. Greif should try harder at editing, I thought. But then, because he had asked, I decided to attempt what he’d suggested. I just sort of turned my attention more vigorously to the problem paragraph, and found the place in the mind where you can—motivated by heightened belief and desire—make yourself make more sense, and I sat still and worked until the paragraph got better, and it did. And the fact that he hadn’t told me what to do, but assumed that if I tried harder, I would figure out what to do, was the condition of possibility for being able to do this.
I thought about this, and while I was still revising that essay, I had the opportunity to experiment with this strategy in another situation. In the course of participating in a certain act, the details of which I will spare you, I had gotten something stuck inside my body. I regret telling this story already, here on the internet, but for me it was only an intense visceral situation that could really bring home what it means to try harder. It was a tampon, which was stuck inside me. For twenty minutes I was in the bathroom trying to get it out, and in the course of trying to get it out I became overwhelmed by many new things I was learning about a part of my anatomy that I had never myself had occasion to investigate quite so deeply before. I began to get that alienated feeling one gets in potentially medical situations when one’s body suddenly seems more powerfully biological and infinitely more complicated and therefore more unfamiliar—how could there be a turn to the left in there! What is that unnamed cavity?—than one ever imagined. It was like trying to write a paragraph, in that way, or be in a relationship. I became overwhelmed, and I just could not get the thing out. I couldn’t even understand the place where it was, or conceptualize the physics of the whole situation. And so I gave up.
I left the bathroom and walked into the living room, where the man with whom I had performed the act that had gotten the thing stuck up in there in the first place had been sitting on the couch, stroking his beard, occasionally getting up to pace the hallway outside the bathroom door and say encouraging things to me. I said, “I can’t get it.” He asked me if I wanted him to help. I did not. I like to pretend he is a doctor, sometimes, but I didn’t want to get all medical with him, not literally, not like this. He asked if we should go to the hospital. I looked at him in despair; I’m the kind of person who would find it ridiculous and humiliating to go to the hospital if I’d had, say, a heart attack; I just couldn’t go for this reason.
We looked at each other and thought. I had told him previously about the phrase that an editor had written in the margin of an essay, and the magical effect of following its instruction. And after a moment, we nodded at each other, and I said, “I have to try harder,” and he said, “Try harder. It’s the only way.” So I went back into the bathroom and I did. I calmed down enough to actually think about the problem, and I sort of felt out a strategy for solving it, and over the next fifteen minutes or so I figured out how to stretch a little further than I had before, and like some kind of tiny Roman city engineer I created a kind of micro-lever situation with my fingers, and got the damn thing out.
Since then I have written the words “try harder” in the margins of my students’ essays and said them to their faces with remarkable results. I’ve applied them in situations ranging from not getting depressed, to having difficult conversations with friends, to playing my first show about a month after picking up the bass guitar. I’ve applied them even in the course of trying to write the answer to your question while being partially or entirely mentally impaired because I gave myself a concussion on a window while climbing onto a fire escape to water a friend’s vegetable garden. Your vegetable garden, I suspect, if I am guessing correctly about which bartender would pass on such a question. At any rate, I can attest that trying harder can work.
Which brings us back to the question of whether it’s cool or not. Part of the perceived historical opposition between trying harder and being cool arises from our need to continually disparage our constant need to have our choices approved of by others. It is well known that coolness itself arises, in its endlessly paradoxical way, when individuals or groups achieve the impression of not giving a fuck, and thereby gain approval from others. But what if we are so disparaging of the effort to be cool because we know all too well, and must therefore disavow, the way in which we do our best work in the world, have our most important ideas, and bring about the most real changes, only under the gaze, and because of the gaze, of others who approve? This is the paradox inside the paradox of coolness. People who are actually able to make good art and bring about political change and wear startling new fashions and so on have reconciled themselves to this fact—that they are doing what they’re doing because of and for others—and so they do not give a fuck whether or not people think this of them. And that’s what makes them seem cool, and as if they do not give a fuck.
And so what I would say to your patrons is yes, absolutely, it’s cool to try harder now, but what you choose to try harder at matters, and you should always also not give a fuck. It’s cool to try harder not to make any more shitty art, for example, which takes not giving a fuck about letting people see your shitty art along the way so that you can get their feedback and learn to make it better. It’s cool to try harder to love people who mean a lot to you, which takes not giving a fuck about them seeing you, like, have to try to get a tampon out, and all of the other embarrassments that come with being known. It’s cool to try harder to make the world, or at least your neighborhood, fairer for more people, which means not giving a fuck about people thinking you care too much, or are judging them. And it’s cool to search out and gather around you people who will look at you and say, “Try harder,” and to do it, sometimes, only because they have believed you can.