17 Apr 2015
The Cool Kids
I’m not a cool kid. That much is true.
I never got to be in the upper crust of the social strata in school, so I was condemned to sit in the back corner of the cafeteria at lunch time, with the punks, and nerds, and hippies. I was a long way from the tables where the Cool Kids held court.
I spent the first part of my career buried in the back office of a university school quietly building out their website. I was both shy and arrogant, thinking I knew more than everyone I worked with, but too timid to raise my voice. Took me years before I found my voice in the wider community.
I read Meyer, Holzschlag, Zeldman, Krug. They wrote, they spoke at conferences, they were authorities. I wanted to be that. The first time I saw Jeffrey Veen speak, I thought, "This sort of storytelling, this is what I want to do."
I wanted to be a cool kid... like them. I started blogging. Eventually, I was presenting, too. I spent the next phase of my career finding my voice, first in the world of higher education, then in the wider user experience world.
At conferences and other events I started meeting some of my heroes. Outside I tried to be nonchalant, though inside I was thinking "OMG YOU'RE A MAJOR WEB CELEBRITY" and getting very fanboy. Sometimes it leaked through, of course.
One day at a conference one of these so-called Cool Kids walked up and introduced themselves. They knew who I was.
But I’m not a cool kid.
Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you
Tell me I’m exceptional and I’ll promise to exploit you
-“Pedestrian At Best,” Courtney Barnett
The more I hang out with industry people, the more sordid the gossip I hear. Who hates whom, who is all about promotion and ego and power, who is really a nice and generous person.
I know a name in the industry that, were you to search their name on Twitter, will return a cascade of “This person is following me!” tweets in the results. Their "cool kid" persona is following others on Twitter en masse. For them, Twitter is not about conversation, it's about ego-stroking adoration.
I wonder how many others are out to cultivate a persona of adoration, or perhaps exploitation. We mutter about the people who seem to speak at conferences more than they do "actual" work -- the dreaded "thought leader" label. But most of those you see on stage are like me. We just say what we feel, and then we go back to doing the work we're paid to do. Our job is to inspire people and drive the conversation, but it doesn't pay our bills.
But the exploiters are out there, people too intoxicated by their own image, who need adoring acolytes to fanboy over them for their books and talks and thought leadership and pull quotes on Twitter. You can't always tell where the brand ends and the person begins, or if there's even still a human in there.
Recently, though... the adulation is starting to happen to me. People come up to me going "OMG YOU'RE DYLAN," and I’m thinking “who is this person you’re talking about and can I meet them because they sound way more awesome than me.” The impostor syndrome wells up in a hurry.
But now that I've met the cool kids, I know they are just like me. They have their own human failings, their own self-doubts, their own mortgages to pay. The cool kids are just as scared as the rest of us underneath their prestige and cool swagger.
I've been incredibly lucky I've been given opportunities to do things I love, meet some great people, and maybe inspire a few others to do greater things. I have every obligation to return that luck by being helpful and gracious to those who come after me. Writing and speaking are just the ways I'm trying to pay down that debt.
I'm not a cool kid, and honestly, it's not my goal anymore. I don't think it should be yours, either. Focus on craft, on making others better, on improving this field and this web we've created.
Let's just hang out here back in the corner of the cafeteria and be punks, and nerds, and hippies. Let's talk about your truth. Let's talk about what you're passionate about, what you're afraid of. Put it in a blog, in a slide deck, a video, and post it on the web. Let's share and stop worrying about being cool.
I can also promise that more than a few people you think are cool kids eat lunch with us, too.