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Episode Transcript

MAUGHAN: Dang, grandpa was hip.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth. 

MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.

DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: what does it mean to be “cool”?

MAUGHAN: I’ve never really cared about trying to be cool, but maybe that’s just because I felt like it was a hopeless battle for me.

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DUCKWORTH: Mike, we have the best email ever from Anonymous.

MAUGHAN: Well, that is a very high bar, Dr. Duckworth.

DUCKWORTH: It’s a cool email! I’m going to read it to you. “Hi, Mike and Angela. Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be quote-unquote, cool.”

MAUGHAN: Oh, okay, I get it now.

DUCKWORTH: Right? “People who have historically been labeled as cool often seem to be caustic, edgy, and anti-authoritarian. Punk rockers and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause immediately come to mind for me. Things that are considered cool are often exclusive and elusive. Fancy nightclubs, V.I.P. rooms, designer clothing. Why are these idolized instead of traits like earnestness and things that are more accessible? For example” — and this part, I’m not sure I agree with Anonymous — “why is Rihanna cool and Taylor Swift isn’t?” What? Those are fightin’ words.

MAUGHAN: No wonder they typed in “Anonymous.” The Swifties would rally.

DUCKWORTH: Exactly! But this one, I kind of have to agree. “Why is Gucci cool, but Walmart isn’t? And why do I care? Thanks, anonymous.”

MAUGHAN: Okay, let me just say first and foremost, my mother once picked one word to describe me. And it was “earnest.” Which Anonymous just said is definitely not cool.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, Mike, if there were one word to describe my husband, Jason, it would be earnest. So, you’re in good company.

MAUGHAN: But also Jason, apparently we are not cool.

DUCKWORTH: Look, when we got this email, I immediately texted my daughters because I was thinking — well, actually, the first thing I did is I talked to my earnest husband. So, Jason and I had this very brief conversation about what’s cool. And he was like, “I don’t know, but it’s definitely not what old people do. It’s more like what young people do.”

MAUGHAN: I know I was going to say, respectfully, I don’t know that that’s the group to talk about what’s cool.

DUCKWORTH: It’s like one 50-something-year-old says to the other 50 — it’s like a New Yorker cartoon, right, I know. But, okay, then I decided to text Amanda and Lucy, and they are 22 and 21, so they are within striking distance of cool, if not possibly in the epicenter of cool. And so, Amanda texts back, “Sambas are in.” I think those are those Adidas sneakers. “Oh, people are really into Stanley cups right now.” Do you know what those are?

MAUGHAN: Oh, I have seven of them, I think. Including one right here.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, look! There you go! You have a Stanley cup! A really big Stanley cup.

MAUGHAN: Oh no, all Stanley cups are really big. That’s part of what’s funny about it. Is there — Yeah. Everyone’s like, why do you need this massive thing of water? But, look, people can argue all they want. I have a friend, her name is Lori, and she was kind of railing against Stanley cups. And I said, “Lori, I don’t really care. I’m not trying to be trendy. I drink more water, and I am more healthy because of this cup.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, what’s different about this particular bottle?

MAUGHAN: It has a handle. It’s very large, but it has a smaller base that can fit into your cup holder in your car. It has a large straw that makes it very easy to get the water. Maybe this all seems dumb, but I will say this. I bought Lori a Stanley. And Lori went from a hater to an evangelizer. So, they are trendy, but I’m going to go ahead and say they’re trendy for a reason. I will also say, I gave my sister a Stanley mug for Christmas, and her daughters, who are about the ages of your daughters, literally said this when my sister opened it: “Oh, good mom, you can finally be cool.”

DUCKWORTH: No. What?! Okay, well, I want to read you the rest of Amanda’s text. Lucy chimes in: “Super depends on the person. For girls of our age and educational demographic, slicked back buns; bows on shoes, hair, etc.; red ballet slippers.” Amanda chimes in, “Guys wear their hair all fluffy in the front now.” And I just text back that I have no idea what they’re talking about. Okay, this topic of cool may be inappropriate for uncool, earnest, old people like ourselves, but I think this anonymous question is a great one.

MAUGHAN: Here’s where I want to go, while we’re on the topic of your daughters and what they think is cool. I have a YouGov survey here. Surveyed almost 35,000 U.S. adults in March of 2024. So, this is recent data.

DUCKWORTH: Really recent. Mm-hmm.

MAUGHAN: They asked the question, “Do you think you’re cool?”

DUCKWORTH: Oh, wow. I love this question.

MAUGHAN: What percentage of adults in the U.S. believe themselves to be quote-unquote “cool”?

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Um, I think more people think they’re cool than think they’re uncool. At least 50 percent. Maybe I’ll say 80 percent. And the second thing I’m going to rush to say is that I think it probably varies by age. And I think older people may think — they have a little bit of a realization that they are ripening, and not ripening toward cool, ripening toward earnest, maybe.

MAUGHAN: Before I tell you the answer, if you were asked this question — do you think you are cool? — what’s your response?

DUCKWORTH: Do I think I’m cool? Um, you know, I don’t think I’m cool.

MAUGHAN: I would also have said no. Fifty-three percent of adults in this survey said “Yes, I think I am cool.” Twenty-nine percent said “No,” and 17 percent said, “I’m not sure.” 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, that’s interesting. So, only one out of three people said, “Oh, not me. I am not cool.”

MAUGHAN: Interestingly, 61 percent of Democrats said, “Yes, I’m cool.” Fifty-four percent of Republicans said, “Yes, I’m cool.” And 47 percent of Independents said, “Yes, I’m cool.” And your, your guess about age is correct. Seventy-five percent of people between 18 and 29 said, “Yes, I’m cool.”

DUCKWORTH: It’s not like old people are cool. Like, we’re just — because the word cool doesn’t just mean “good,” because the word cool doesn’t just mean good, right? It’s not like everything good is cool. Only some things that are good are cool. And I don’t think it’s old things. 

MAUGHAN: So, the word cool and what it refers to has shifted dramatically over time.

DUCKWORTH: Like, the use of the word?

MAUGHAN: Yeah. So, back in the 1930s — and this comes from David Skinner, who’s editor of the National Endowment for the Humanities magazine called, appropriately, Humanities. But he wrote about how starting in the 1930s, “cool” started appearing in American English as this casual expression that mostly meant “intensely good.”

DUCKWORTH: Oh, really? 

MAUGHAN: In the ‘50s and ‘60s, that’s when it grew into this more multi-purpose slang word and grew much more prevalent. And different meanings of “cool” over time have been: “self-possessed, disengaged, quietly disdainful, morally good, intellectually assured, aesthetically rewarding, physically attractive, fashionable, and, and on and on.” So, it has all these different things, but it is kind of the one word that’s really stuck around to mean something generally positive.

DUCKWORTH: Don’t we use the word “hot” to mean the same thing as cool? I just find that really interesting.

MAUGHAN: “Hot” so often also refers to a person’s level of attractiveness, but you can also say, “That thing is hot,” meaning it’s getting a lot of attention or it’s really popular. But I will say this, speaking of cool, my family was recently together. This is, I guess, a couple years ago. And I’m standing there talking to my younger sister, Allison and in walks my niece, who’s amazing, awesome. I think she’s just entering high school at the time. And she is wearing these huge baggy pants. And I said something, because I thought they looked a little ridiculous. And my, my sister, Allison, looks at me and says, “Mike, if you want to sound old and not have a great relationship with your nieces and nephews, then say stuff like that. Otherwise, just be like, “Hey, you look great!” Also, don’t comment on what people are wearing.”

DUCKWORTH: I have been schooled in this, and don’t say anything. Don’t say, “You look great.” Don’t say, “You don’t look great.” Just, “Hey.”

MAUGHAN: I just had never seen any pants like that.

DUCKWORTH: I am with you. Okay, in this safe space that we have created for ourselves to have conversations, Mike, that I’m sure Lucy and Amanda will never hear. I remember for several years, it was like, are you deliberately trying to look bad? Like, why would you wear pants like that? Or there was this — and maybe it’s still true, this, like, half-shirt craze. Like, it’s winter, but I’m going to bare my midriff in a ridiculous looking half-shirt with my pants that look like they’re too big on me. Like, I couldn’t understand any of this. And for me, it wasn’t just that I felt like, why not do this other practical thing? To me, it was — it was kind of, like, unattractive. It was aesthetically unappealing. But I now realize that in addition to the function of a product — like, these are pants. They’re meant to, you know, keep me warm or something, right? There’s also, I think, signaling. And I think a lot of coolness is signaling that you are part of a certain social tribe and not another. Like, okay, what is this stuff that Amanda and Lucy are talking about? Like, ballet flats, and slicking your hair back, — you know, it’s signaling.

MAUGHAN: Well, here’s what’s really amazing: I looked at some old pictures of my grandfather who was wearing this pair of thick black glasses.

DUCKWORTH: The ones that are, like, on nerds in movies?

MAUGHAN: Yes, but my grandfather looked great. He was in a crisp suit, but with these glasses. And I thought — I remember when I was in high school looking through the pictures and I was like, “Gosh, why would you ever wear glasses that look that dumb?” Fast forward, I don’t know, 15 years. I’m flipping through the same photo book and those glasses are in style. I looked at the same picture and I was like, “Dang, grandpa was hip.” And then, I realized how dumb I was. And I was like, man, all of these quote-unquote “cool” things just go through cycles. I read one thing from this journalist, Marc Bain, who wrote an article called “What Cool Means Now” in Quartz. This really struck me — and I’m not always trying to bag on social media, but he said one of the most interesting things about “cool” and social media is that what it’s really done is sped up the cycles where things become cool quicker, but they also lose their coolness quicker because it can catch on and then fade much more quickly than it did in the past. And so, Crocs — you know Crocs?

DUCKWORTH: I know Crocs! I have Crocs. Wait, before you tell me they’re uncool, I have so many pairs of Crocs. Are they not cool anymore?

MAUGHAN: No, they are cool.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, they are? Oh, good.

MAUGHAN: But like, they were, and then they weren’t, and now they are again.

DUCKWORTH: Oh! I was just wearing them for years. So, I probably missed the uncool period, during which I was also wearing them.

MAUGHAN: You just wore them through it. I’ve never owned a pair of Crocs. All I know is that I have these two nephews who are, like, 18, 19. The one has the hair exactly like you’ve described it, all puffy in front. He’s very quote-unquote “cool.” And they both wear white Crocs all the time, everywhere they go. And I will admit that while I do not consider myself cool, and therefore am in the minority of adults in the U.S., and I’ve, I’ve never really cared about trying to be cool, but maybe that’s just because I felt like it was a hopeless battle for me.

DUCKWORTH: You’re like, “I’m not playing that game.”

MAUGHAN: But I will say that as I’ve gotten older, I do recognize much more than I did when I was young: the signaling. It’s also association. Do I want to be associated with this individual? Do I want to be associated with this brand? Look at how brands sell. Nike, Under Armour, et cetera. They all try to attach their brand to these really “cool” figures in sports. Michael Jordan, who’s on Nike, and then of course there’s the entire Jordan brand. There’s Steph Curry in the basketball world, who’s in Under Armour. And there’s this collegiality among Under Armour athletes and, “I’m in the Under Armour family,” or, “I’m in the Nike family.” And people get paid a ton of money to be associated with brands. I remember my, my nephew, Drew — who’s, I don’t know, probably 12 years old now — he, at maybe six years old, was so in love with certain Under Armour athletes that he was only wearing Under Armour. And it started that early because of the cool factor.

DUCKWORTH: At six? That’s like, really early. Like, well before puberty! So interesting.

MAUGHAN: But that’s, I think, the power of, quote, “cool,” right, and and association with those brands.

DUCKWORTH: You know, one of my very closest collaborators is Colin Camerer, who is one of the founders of neuroeconomics. He’s at Caltech. We’ve talked about Colin Camerer’s research before. And he has a colleague there named Steven Quartz, who’s actually a philosopher by training. And there was somebody who was, I think, working in Professor Quartz’s lab named Annette Asp and, anyway, the two of them got together and wrote this book, and it is on neuroeconomics, but it’s actually called Cool: How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World. And what Quartz’s research and other neuroscientists’ research show is that we have a basic human need for status, and to be respected — the identification of this part of the brain, from Quartz’s lab and others, is the medial prefrontal cortex. In Quartz’s words, like, this is where social identity lies. And he has this phrase, like, a “social calculator.” But basically, the idea is that we are tracking how other people think about us. And it’s like a number that can go up or down, and it can change based on who you’re with, but we have a fundamental need to be higher, not lower, in status. I think this is why social media is so powerful, right? And I know it’s hotly debated, but it’s so powerful and therefore, as any powerful influence might be, potentially very dangerous. And I think it all goes back to, yeah, our brains are wired to care about signaling, you know, where we fit in in the society. And ideally, the niche that we occupy is a high-status, not low-status niche. So, “coolness” is kind of fundamental to the way we make sense of the world and ourselves. Well, Mike, I would love to hear the thoughts of NSQ listeners on what it means to be cool. What does the concept mean to you and how important do you think it is in everyday life to be cool? Record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone and email us at Maybe we’ll play it on a future episode of the show. And if you like the show and want to support us, the very best thing you can do is to tell a friend. You can also spread the word on social media or leave a review in your favorite podcast app.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: What’s different about being cool in 2024?

MAUGHAN: Oh no, I cut this wood at my house, and then I figured out via YouTube how to build this amazing table, and this is where my family eats now.

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Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about what it means to “be cool.”

MAUGHAN: What’s fascinating about this idea of cool is there are some who want to, of course, follow the trend or set the trend and be associated with the trend. But there are also people who, as soon as something becomes popular — so maybe I’ll distinguish “popular” and “cool” — as soon as it becomes popular, it’s no longer cool to like it because you want to be this counter-cultural person. You know, and I’ve read a book recently where this guy was talking about how much he loved this new musician, but it was because he was one of the first to find them and to really follow them. And then as soon as everybody else found this new artist, he was like, “Eh, don’t like him anymore.”

DUCKWORTH: I think you’re right. It’s not just “popular.” I mean, maybe this is why Taylor Swift — I don’t know who this anonymous person is, who’s trying to protect themselves, but, like, I think Taylor Swift is cool. But maybe Taylor Swift is so popular now that she can’t be cool. There is this paper in the American Journal of Marketing on brand coolness that was published in 2019. And one of the things that these two marketing people who wrote the article claim is that you can’t really be cool in the same way when you go mass. So, when everybody else is listening to that music, you can’t be cool in that niche way that you were when you got started with some small in-group of people who were early adopters and kind of discovered you. But you can become iconic.

MAUGHAN: Wait. So, it’s movement from being cool to iconic — like, that’s the growth trajectory?

DUCKWORTH: Right. And they say there’s like this cycle that goes from “niche-cool” brands, which are — they have this checklist — like, rebellious, original, authentic, subcultural, extraordinary, aesthetically appealing, energetic, high-status. So, that’s the niche-cool brand checklist. And then, as it spreads to the masses, right? So like, more people are buying that album or whatever, then you can become a “mass-cool” brand. And they have a shorter checklist. So, they say that mass-cool brands are energetic. They are high-status. They’re popular. They’re iconic. And then the last one is: “And still moderately extraordinary, moderately aesthetically appealing, moderately original, moderately authentic, moderately rebellious, and moderately subcultural.”

MAUGHAN: Because you can’t be that rebellious at that scale.

DUCKWORTH: I guess so. I guess you’ve become corporate. You probably have a chief human resources officer. Like, you’re trying to sell to everyone, not just, you know, 1 percent of the population. I mean, if this chart had a personification, it would be, like, a teenager becomes middle aged. You know? You have higher status maybe than you did before, but you’re, like, getting gray. 

MAUGHAN: It’s interesting, because as I think about what you’re describing, one of the cool things, at least in the, the world I operate, is a Jordan shoe, right?

DUCKWORTH: I think the famous one is, like, it’s red, white, and black, right?

MAUGHAN: There’s a very famous Jordan shoe that was red, that was breaking the initial rules of the N.B.A., because you couldn’t — I can’t remember the details, but you couldn’t wear that color, or pattern, or something because it had to be more milquetoast. And it was kind of this cool, iconoclastic, rebellious thing.

DUCKWORTH: Maybe you go from iconoclastic to just iconic. That’s progression, right?

MAUGHAN: But that’s what I think is so interesting about his shoes right now, is: they’re in this — at least it feels like — renaissance, where they are the most iconic thing. They are cool, even though they’re rather ubiquitous. But there are different levels of Jordan shoes. And then they have all these drops. And so, part of “cool” is limited-edition quantities. So, hey, we’re only going to drop X thousand pairs of this shoe. You have to line up, and try to get online on the exact moment, and then you either got it or you didn’t. And if you didn’t, you have to buy it for triple, or quadruple, or whatever the price on the resale market. So, part of it is creating sort of a level of exclusivity to being able to purchase this thing. And that’s where some of the cool factor comes in.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, so here’s a cool story. So, you were just talking about Under Armour and I think one of their athletes is Lindsey Vonn, who, as we both know, is an Olympic skier par excellence and kind of an icon in the skiing world. And Lindsey has a foundation for helping girls develop confidence and dare I say grit. And so, I’m on the advisory board, and she has an auction every year that’s basically her swag from being an Olympic skier. She has, like, an unlimited number, apparently, of, like, really cool jackets and other stuff that I don’t know about because I’m not a skier. And one year, I bought a jacket for Lucy, who was — I guess she was, like, 19 or something at the time. And by the way, when I got it for Lucy, it wasn’t a surprise. I know I’m not cool. So, I was like, “Lucy, which of these jackets do you want to buy? Because it goes to charity, and also you need a jacket.” And she picks this brown jacket that, I will just say, I would not have picked. I mean, it’s really big. It looks too big. It doesn’t even look like a ski jacket. And it’s got all of these decals from all the sponsors. And she gets this jacket, and I kid you not; anytime I am with Lucy, while we are walking around, and she is wearing that jacket, we get stopped three or four times per hour with young people always saying something that I can’t even like — they don’t even say, “Cool jacket.” That would probably be an uncool thing to say.

MAUGHAN: They probably say something like, “Nice drip.”

DUCKWORTH: Yes! They say something that I would have to go home and Google.

MAUGHAN: Which I’m sure I just used incorrectly, but “drip” I think is what people call it. 

DUCKWORTH: I’m sure you did. I’m sure we just had a moment of uncoolness there. But it’s marvelous to me in the sense that, like, wow, clearly these young people are sending and receiving signals to each other, and I think that is part of coolness, right? Like, that there is this secret language that some people don’t speak, and that’s what makes it cool.

MAUGHAN: I do think it’s interesting because as we’re talking about this, it’s like she’s wearing this amazing Lindsey Vonn jacket that other quote “cool” people recognize and they’re having this communication. But I also think there are segments of “cool” where maybe within, like, the engineering community, you are the iconic person that is really cool. But also within communities, you can signal in a very different way. And part of their thing might be, “I don’t care what you all think is cool. In my world, this is cool.” And so, there are subsets of languages.

DUCKWORTH: You can be cool within your niche. Like, maybe you don’t even want to be cool in somebody else’s niche.

MAUGHAN: Right! I mean, you and I spoke recently, and we were talking about authors we loved. You had mentioned that you met Judy Blume, and you held hands briefly, and that was this really cool moment for you. There are a lot of people who are like, “Who’s Judy Blume?”

DUCKWORTH: Ugh, yeah.

MAUGHAN: But their cool is, “Hey, Angela Duckworth, guess who I just met?” And your response is, “I don’t know who that is either.” And so, I think it’s important to recognize that there is signaling within groups, but we also have to recognize that there are a lot of different groups, and it’s okay to not have to signal to groups that you’re not part of, or don’t need to be part of, or don’t care to be part of. I would love, if you’re willing, to get your take on this article I read that talks about these four traits of “cool.”

DUCKWORTH: Oh wait, what? Is it by scientists?

MAUGHAN: It’s by a Darden graduate named Johnny Miles, who got insights from this professor of marketing named Lalin Anik and a Yale management Ph.D. candidate, Ryan Hauser. So, academically informed.

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Got it.

MAUGHAN: So, they go through these four traits: autonomy, authenticity, attitude, and association. Now, we’ve already hit on, sort of, association. I believe firmly in that one, of course. Under Armour has Steph Curry. It has Lindsey Vonn, et cetera. Nike has Michael Jordan. So, you associate cool with that. When they talk about “autonomy,” they talk about this lack of conformity, unconventionality, rebellion, individuality, and independence, and that it goes away as soon as you become, quote, “A mainstream sellout.”

DUCKWORTH: Oh, “sellout” is a good antonym for cool.

MAUGHAN: Yeah. And “mainstream” is sort of this diss. It’s like, “Ah, you went mainstream. You’re no longer cool, because you’re just — you’re “corporate” I think it’s the word you used earlier, but it’s such a diss. “Ah, you’re corporate now.”

DUCKWORTH: Wait, so that’s autonomy. And what was the second A?

MAUGHAN: Authenticity. To quote them: “As highly sophisticated social beings, we’re adept at reading subtle clues to determine whether someone is, quote, ‘being themselves,’ or trying to pass as something they are not.” So, for example, if a company or corporation tries to be cool, and everyone’s like, “Okay guys, you’re IBM. Like, let’s not.” Like, it just doesn’t come across as authentic.

DUCKWORTH: This is why, whenever I say “hashtag” anything, my kids, like, roll their eyes because that’s me trying to do something, but for them it’s, like, really inauthentic. By the way, we’ve done behavioral science studies where we have sent text messages to literally hundreds of thousands of people across the United States trying to, for example, encourage them to get their flu vaccine or, you know, boosted for Covid. And sometimes these not-so-super-cool scientists, myself included, we write these text messages that are supposed to be cool or funny. And wow, do they land like lead balloons. So, what we’ve recently been recommending to companies is, like, don’t try to be what you’re not. If you’re a pharmacy chain and your brand, appropriately enough, is not cool — I don’t even know that anybody needs to go to a cool pharmacy. You probably want to go to an earnest pharmacy before a cool one. Then write a text message in that voice. But the authenticity thing is very interesting. I want to come back to autonomy, but tell me what “attitude” is.

MAUGHAN: So, attitude I think is really interesting, and they talk about it and use this phrase, “Casual effortlessness.” And if you think about it, if you’re trying to be cool, that’s not cool.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, interesting. So, it’s kind of a swagger. Like, “I didn’t spend seven hours trying to get ready, I spent seven minutes, but, like, I look amazing.”

MAUGHAN: Exactly! There was this trend for a long time that you wanted to look like you kind of just rolled out of bed and are here. But ironically, it took two hours to look like you rolled out of bed. And so, it’s this idea that the minute you try to show you’re cool, you’re not. So, you’ve got to portray this attitude of casual effortlessness.

DUCKWORTH: I think that’s so interesting. I mean, if you put it all together, and I want to go back to autonomy, because now we’ve talked about association, we’ve talked about authenticity, and then just attitude, the human need for autonomy has been long recognized as one of the basic human needs. And it’s so profound that as soon as you tell someone what to do, they don’t want to do it. You know, Jason and I were remembering, you know, different parts of the chapters in our relationship, you know, times that one of us was trying to get the other one to do something, and it was just, like, the moment we let go, like the moment we were like, “You know what? You got to make up your own mind. I can’t make up your mind for you. You do what you want.” That’s the moment where it’s like, “Well, actually, I can kind of see your point of view.” And this need for human autonomy is as ingrained as our need for status. And I think there is this element — like, if you do think about, you know, James Dean and you think about subcultures and just, like, the rebelliousness that seems part and parcel of being cool —.

MAUGHAN: You lost me at James Dean, but carry on.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, you don’t know who James Dean was?

MAUGHAN: I mean, I’ve heard the name. I’m so sorry.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, what? All right, by the way, I was not, like, alive while everybody was watching “Rebel Without a Cause” for the first time. I’m not that old. But haven’t you seen, like, posters of James Dean? He usually has his collar up.

MAUGHAN: Oh yes, of course— I just Googled him. I totally know who — I mean, I recognize him, and I get what you’re saying. Sorry, I did not know.

DUCKWORTH: Really? Okay. Well, there is always this autonomous— like, because that’s what rebelliousness is. It’s just like autonomy to the extreme. So, I think you’re right! I think that’s a great list. You know, you can see the throughlines here, right?

MAUGHAN: Also, I did go ask ChatGPT what is cool now, just because I was curious to see —.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, my gosh, so super want to know what ChatGPT says is cool.

MAUGHAN: And I’ll just say from the business side of things, I think this resonates so well. And it’s interesting because ChatGPT didn’t bring up brands, or clothing, or TV shows, or anything else. It said that things that are considered quote “cool” in various contexts: “Sustainability.” Because there’s this increased awareness of environmental issues. I think that’s much more on the forefront of this Gen Z, their mindset. “Retro styles.” I mean, we’ve seen that with the Jazz. We’ve done a bunch of retro jerseys, and I think they’ve done that across the N.B.A. But those are very popular. People love to go back to that moment in time. “Wellness and mindfulness.” That’s become such a, a buzzword almost. “Social activism.” I mean, back in the day, there’s a very famous quote from Michael Jordan, who we’ve talked about. And people said, “Why aren’t you more socially active or talking about a stand?” And his famous quote is, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Whereas I think today, it’s very expected that celebrities take a stand. I mean, you know, if you have a Twitter account, then you’re expected to say something. And then, another one is “D.I.Y. culture” is now cool.

DUCKWORTH: D.I.Y. culture? Like, watching on YouTube videos of, like, how to play the guitar and then playing the guitar?

MAUGHAN: Like, I want to make my own table.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, right. Instead of, like, going to Ikea.

MAUGHAN: Yeah. Like, it’s so much cooler to be like, “Oh no, I cut this wood at my house, and then I figured out via YouTube how to build this amazing table, and this is where my family eats now.” So, I just thought it was really interesting to see. Again, not like I’m saying ChatGPT is an oracle, but I see that reflected a lot in the organizations that I work with and in society at large — that some of the cool things aren’t necessarily what you wear, but it’s your attitude and it’s what you care about. 

DUCKWORTH: So, I’ve quoted this to you before, I think, because I say it to myself, oh my gosh, all the time, but when my French teacher in high school, Dr. Rowland said — in French, beautifully, which I will not try to recreate — like, “All of history is action and reaction,” you know, this kind of pendulum swing from, you know, one thing is cool, now it’s not. Now it is. But I think there’s something deep behind that which is, when you read me this list, like what’s cool? Sustainability is cool. Social activism. Like, I wonder whether the reaction, so the reason why that’s cool now, is that there’s this sense that we’re in a purpose deficit. And I was speaking recently to the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, who is definitely earnest. I don’t know how cool he is, but we’ve talked on No Stupid Questions about his concern that there’s a loneliness epidemic, in the United States and globally. But what we were talking about recently was purpose, and he asked me about the psychology of purpose, and we talked about this category that includes being concerned about the climate, being concerned about social change. And what I think this is a reaction to, this idea that it’s cool now, is maybe that we have felt like we’re not doing those things, right? Because I know that when I was growing up, what was cool was conspicuous consumption. Everybody was wearing designer jeans for the first time and I literally had a neighbor who named his dog Mercedes so that he could call its name every morning. And that was kinda cool then, I guess? I don’t know if that was ever cool.

MAUGHAN: Yeah, I was going to say I’m going to go ahead with a strong no. 

DUCKWORTH: A hard no on that. But, you know, if purpose is cool, all I can say is that I hope it stays cool. And maybe if you can’t stay cool, maybe purpose could be iconic. Because, to me, the need to be part of something larger than yourself and to be in service to something larger than yourself, that’s how scientists define purpose. I hope that’s not niche. I hope it’s here to stay, because it’s something that I don’t want to go out of fashion. 

And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:

Angela’s daughter Amanda noted that the Adidas Samba trainer is quote-unquote, “in.” However, the shoes were recently declared “out” across social media and a multitude of popular media outlets after UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was pictured wearing a pair of white Sambas during a Downing Street video in which he was promoting his tax policies. British GQ Senior Style Editor Murray Clark wrote, quote, “Sunak took an eternally cool sneaker, and ruined it for everyone.” The Observer published a headline that read, “Adidas Sambas Were This Year’s Coolest Shoes — Until Rishi Sunak Got a Pair.” The prime minister has since issued an apology.

Later, Angela references a paper from a publication which she refers to as the “American Journal of Marketing.” It’s actually simply the Journal of Marketing, published by the American Marketing Association.

Also, Mike says that he can’t remember the details of why the original Jordan shoe was banned for violating NBA rules. In 1984, Nike produced the first Air Jordan sneaker for then 21-year-old Michael Jordan, who was in his rookie year with the Chicago Bulls. Jordan reportedly first wore the shoes on the court during a preseason game against the New York Knicks. The sneakers were primarily black and red, and therefore violated the NBA’s “51 percent rule” that required players’ footwear to be mostly white. Sneaker folklore, and the 2023 movie Air, suggest that Jordan was fined by the NBA for wearing the shoes, and that Nike paid those fines on his behalf as a promotional maneuver. In fact, there’s no evidence that Jordan ever wore red and black sneakers during a regular season game.

Finally, Mike is convinced that he used the term “drip” incorrectly. He was actually spot on! “Drip” — or “drippin’” — is slang for stylish clothing and accessories.

That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on lying to children.

Melissa GILLAM: Hi, this is Melissa from Virginia. When I was a kid, my dad was in the military and so he would be gone for six to nine months at a time, often missing birthdays and holidays. One year, when I was probably seven or eight years old, I got this doll from my dad that I adored, and it remained my very favorite Christmas present for my entire life, and one time I was telling the story to a bunch of people with my mom around, and I was telling them about how great it was that my dad got me this doll even though he was on an aircraft carrier, and it was so special because he was so far away. Well, my mom started laughing and that’s when she finally told me at the age of 25 that she’s the one that bought it for me at the store and that there were no gift shops on aircraft carriers. So, sometimes a lie might be okay. It was really fun to believe that for a while.

Crystal ZHU: Hi, Angela and Mike. One example from this week’s episode that I particularly relate to was the one with a parent threatening to arrest their child. Whenever me and my brother fought, my mom would either threaten to call the police on herself to take her away from us, or threaten to split me and my brother apart, taking one of us and leaving the country. Me and my brother fully believed her, not thinking that she was lying at all, and we realized later that it’s maybe why we tend to feel overly guilty when conflict arises. 

Lexi COLE: Hi Mike and Angela, this is Lexi from Boston. In one of our childhood homes, my very observant seven-year-old sister noticed that the paint drips on one of our door frames were going up instead of down. When she asked my dad why this might be, he told her that the doorframe must have been painted on Anti-gravity Day, an event in which gravity stops working on earth for one day. He explained that this happens every leap year and that we were too young to remember it happening in the past. So, as diligent little planners, we anticipated it happening in four years and developed strategic plans about how to bungee down our cars and swing set and make sure that the cats and dogs all stayed inside that day. When leap year finally did roll around, we asked our dad if he knew the exact date on which we might expect Anti Gravity Day to fall, to which he responded, “Wait, you still believe in that?”

That was, respectively, Melissa Gillam, Crystal Zhu, and Lexi Cole. Thanks to them and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your thoughts on what it means to be cool. Send a voice memo to, and you might hear your voice on the show!

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: what makes a good gathering?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t want to have dinner with you for a long time. My butt hurts.

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.

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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. The senior producer of the show is me, Rebecca Lee Douglas, and Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Greg Rippin. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening!

DUCKWORTH: Well, your grandmother told you you’re earnest. You know right there you’re not cool.

MAUGHAN: My mother!

MAUGHAN: Oh, your mother told you you’re earnest. You’re definitely not cool.

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