You’re four years old and you’re minutes away from meeting Santa.
You wait and wait, gnawing on the end of a candy cane in anxious anticipation. Your excitement mounts, your expectations soar. Your tiny seat is planted on his monstrous plastic throne and you think, This is it? This is him? THIS is Santa?
Your glittering visions of gumdrops and snowflake confetti crumble as you’re tossed like a sack of potatoes on to the lap of an uninspired curmudgeon with bad breath flowing past his strap-on beard.
Bear with me. Santa is just a metaphor in this story.
The point is that many of the people we find most captivating from a distance or in theory – the geniuses behind seductively perfect Instagram accounts, authors of our intellectual-crush publications, charismatic actors, models, and musicians defining millennial pop culture – are often the biggest letdowns in person.
The shiny creativity and cerebral brilliance of an online or on-screen persona often translate into a flat, lackluster, neurotic, and disappointing reality.
Enter, the “You’re Not as Cool in Person” Phenomenon.
The dissociation between perceived awesomeness from afar, and actualized awesomeness in person. We can write some of this off to romanticized expectations and realistic limits on cool-factor, but it got me thinking about the role of incongruent selves.
In a recent Vanity Fair article, the “Godmother of Punk” Patti Smith pondered her stardom and fame, “It’s a mystery I’ve never solved… What is it that drives me to perform when I can hardly hold my own at a dinner party?”
Wait a second. She can’t hold her own at a dinner party, but can singlehandedly bring hundreds of thousands to a musically-induced orgasm? Where does her inspired persona go when she’s asked to just be her self?
As I let this marinate, I distractedly flipped a few pages to the Rihanna cover story. My eye snapped to the headline, “The chasm between her reality and her reputation.”
I read on. She admitted, “I’ve been thinking lately about how boring I am… When I do get time to myself, I watch TV.”
I’ve never fully understood the hype around Rihanna. That said, her sex soaked, tattooed, bad girl, sorry-I’m-not-sorry extremism speaks for itself. If she’s boring, I’m doomed.
So when I read this, I totally passed a judgement: She might not be that cool after all.
Rihanna continued, “I honestly think how much fun it would be to live my reputation. People have this image of how wild and crazy I am, and I’m not everything they think of me. The reality is that the fame, the rumors—this picture means this, another picture means that—it really freaks me out.”
We see it again and again. The thought-leader with a neurotic and bitter persona hidden behind the inspired pages of his blog. The confidence-spewing celebrities who suffer from panic attacks between shoots or speeches, littered by the likes of Hugh Grant, Scarlett Johanson, Mahatma Gandhi, and Thomas Jefferson. The enlightened, juice-guzzling celebrity yoga teacher with more self-loathing and pent up anger than the asshole who cursed you out on the road this morning.
Some of society’s most captivating personas contain the widest gulfs between their public and private selves. But what do they have going for them?
A recent New York Times Op-Ed piece explored the role of self in a passionate life. The author came to two conclusions:
Passionate people discover themselves through play.
Agree. We’re living in a time where we can play, mesh, and mold our consumer-facing persona on an hourly basis. Blogs, Instagram accounts, and the myriad of digital and detached platforms let us slip on princess and pirate costumes, and craft high flying, electrified, sexed up, protracted make-believe sessions indistinguishable from reality.
And it feels f**king awesome.
As the article explains, “Whether scientists, entrepreneurs, cooks or artists, they explore their issues the way children explore the possibilities of Play-Doh. They use imagination to open up possibilities and understand their emotional histories. They delight in new ways to express themselves, expand their personalities and move toward their goals.”
We can play out our dissociative, schizotypal personalities on a public stage to test out different selves and see what sticks. A different selfie for each self. The passionate shouldn’t be shamed if one form of self expression is boring while another is electrifying – it’s just a different dress up costume.
Passionate people have the courage to be themselves.
Disagree. Passionate people have the courage to act out the many personas within themselves. The wild experimentation of characters like Lady Gaga doesn’t mean she has the courage to be her self. Rather she has the courage to act out the many selves she contains.
The beauty is that the passionate have the courage to not have a coherent self. Through experimentation and play, through a dissociative personality across their many selves, the passionate are willing to contain a hot mess of contradictions within one lifetime.
They live the mantra of Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Sympathy for the “You’re Not as Cool in Person” Phenomenon.
This phenomenon is nothing more than catching passion between costume-changes. It’s witnessing the pants-down self while it’s transforming back into a swan. It’s the colorful life caught off guard, picking its nose.
Is Rihanna less cool because she’s admittedly “boring” off camera? Is Johnny Depp less enigmatic because he has crippling social anxiety? Are JK Rowling, Steve Jobs, or James Cameron lesser creative geniuses because they’re apparently assholes in person?
Nope. Not in the least.
So the next time you meet someone who’s a letdown in person, consider that you might have caught them between acts. Consider that the alternative is a non-passionate, predictable self – and how boring that would be. Consider that the world is a stage and they might be a few minutes late for their next rousing debut. The passionate keep us guessing and keep us inspired.
And after all, consistency is entirely overrated.