Nerd entitlement: being uncool isn’t a requirement for creativity

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IN ALMOST FAMOUS, a movie I still like even though it makes me feel embarrassed and a little manipulated, teenage rock writer William Miller, heartsick and on deadline, receives a few soothing words from his mentor, Lester Bangs. “We’re uncool,” Bangs says. “And while women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem. Good-looking people don’t have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we’re smarter.”

This is a sweet salve for the uncool, and a popular myth, but it’s entirely untrue. As the rise of the nerds has shown us, women–and of course, we’re speaking of women as a commodity here–are rarely a problem for uncool men, at least past a certain age, and great artists are often great-looking (consider The Beatles, or Marvin Gaye, or Kate Bush). Further, great art, I would argue, is just as often about love, and loss, and great personal hardship, of which being uncool hardly counts. But the myth itself is less obnoxious than the notion it springs from, which is that having been uncool entitles you to the whole world and more.

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Successful people, particularly in the creative professions, rarely admit to having been cool when it mattered (and apparently it only matters in high school). Being uncool suggests strength of character: having been an outsider, you can see the inside for what it is; having suffered, you’re stronger than most. And that’s not necessarily untrue, but high school is not the world, and being cool is not an entitlement or even a necessity of life. The William Millers of this world–and demographically, I’m basically one of them–enjoy a host of unearned advantages otherwise. If being uncool is the worst thing you ever faced, you’re pretty doggone lucky.

In his latest HBO special, Louis C.K. devotes a good chunk of airtime to his average looks. “For guys like me, this is not a fun youth,” he says, indicating his midsection. “I’d like to make one of those It Gets Better Ads for dumpy young guys.” This struck me as a bit callous. I’m glad it gets better for dumpy young guys like Louis C.K., but it getting better for them isn’t some cosmic moral victory. Nowadays, of course, Louis enjoys the kind of sexual and material prosperity that most hardly dare to dream of, and it’s not undeserved: he’s talented, he worked hard, he was patient. But he’s also extraordinarily lucky, because what are the odds that you’ll get to make a living, much less a fortune, doing something you love?

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“Uncool” is a special currency among creative professionals, because creative professionals are among the luckiest people in the world, and among the least likely to have earned our lots. We are disproportionately privileged from the get-go, and while most of us work hard (and love talking about just how hard we do work), we probably work less hard, and at funner things, than most people on earth today and since the dawn of human history. We don’t deserve our lots any more than does a person who labours at repetitive tasks for 18 hours a day. So we create novel ways to remind ourselves that we earned it.

ALEXANDRA MOLOTKOW has written for The Walrus, the Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, Maisonneuve, and The New York Times Magazine.

Illustration by Dave Donald