Through Being Cool
Written by Jennifer Gage Kaplan
I have the curse of being easy going. As a kid I went along with my friends ideas. I’m a yes girl. Yes, I will allow you to use your mom’s makeup on my face! Girl, of course I will interview you pretending to be Celine Dion for your tape recorded bedroom talk show, you genius! My whole life I’ve generally allowed others to take the reins, because I like to be around people, ensconced in the community. As someone who can get thrown into most situations and come out fine on the other side, I’d never really questioned my inability to take the lead. I was the person who woke up every day and was straight up EXCITED to go to school.
When I got to college however, it all kind of fell apart. Far away from my home, I wasn’t able to make the connections. I clung to my best friend for dear life. I remember one night we walked around the “downtown” of our college town. Too young to get into bars and far too sweet to get fake IDs, we peered into the window of one of the bars. Inside was a scene from Cheers: there were beautiful people laughing and smiling, living their best lives. How could we get that for us? How did I go from a full social calendar in high school to full scale depression?
My best friend chose to learn Spanish and went to live in Mexico. I chose to design my own field experiment: live among the people who in my mind ruled the social scene at my state school. I’d never been interested in going to parties or drinking, but these people seemed to be happy (and didn’t run out of classes having daily panic attacks) so perhaps they had answers I’d been too quick to dismiss. I rushed a sorority as a junior. Soon I was swept up in a series of parties and drama so enveloping that I felt like a new person. I moved to New York two weeks after graduation and continued my experiment on a far grander scale.
Living in New York City was like a giant game. Everything seems simultaneously both attainable and yet, just out of reach. I was lucky to have taken a job that had a college development aspect, so that when I started working I was in a cohort of 20. I had my community, my safe space of people. I was ready to soak up all the knowledge I could from my coworkers and bosses who in my mind were doing New York right. I was 22 when Gossip Girl was at its peak popularity. I felt like if I could live my own version, eating at hip downtown eateries, getting passwords and secret numbers to bars that were a very open secret, I must be doing something right. I always had a story to tell to my friends back home, so I must have solved my college depression. I WAS WINNING AT LIFE. The real crazy thing about New York, is the fact that celebrities roam the same streets and restaurants that you do, and if you stay long enough, you are at the same parties and perhaps even share the same friends. It can feel like if you keep trying, YOU TOO CAN BECOME FABULOUS. To say I got caught up in the scene is likely an understatement, but my flawed thinking was such - if I keep playing the game to be cool then everything I want will come to me. If I’m out at the hot new bar, then I’ll find the best dates. If I’m out eating at the chic restaurants, then others will think I’m in the know and I’ll be included in the cool things going on around town. Never ONCE did I think hey, I should work on my personality.
It wasn’t until I was 27 that it dawned on me that my entire identity was externally defined. I was back in school to change careers, sitting in a child psychology lecture course minding my own business, learning about how kids form their identities when I was hit with a LIGHTNING BOLT of insight. I was depressed in college because I wasn’t around MY COMMUNITY. I had grown up seriously blessed and I hadn’t even realized it. I went to school with the same people from kindergarten to senior year. I was accepted for who I was and on top of that I was well liked, talk about #blessings. My neighborhood growing up was nicknamed Sesame Street. College was my introduction to the real world and I’d been massively kicked out of the nest. I’d come to know myself in relation to my surroundings. When those surroundings had become unfamiliar, I was fully unmoored. I wasn’t strong enough internally to weather the storms life throws at all of us, so instead of developing my inner resources, I gave up my autonomy and took refuge in others ideas, allowing opinions other than my own to steer my ship.
After that moment, I knew I needed to take back control of my life to be happy, but I was still too scared to stand on my own ideals and go against the grain. I was a weak Robert Frost – I wanted to take the road less traveled, but I didn’t have the confidence to travel it alone. When I shared my career aspirations and life ideas, I let my friends and family’s opinions get the better of me and I crumbled under their questions and opinions. No one didn’t support me, I just didn’t support myself. I didn’t believe I could make the change I wanted, so I ended up taking a safe job instead of following my heart on my own path. I felt safer with what felt like group approval, then sitting in the discomfort of the unknown. (I am in awe of people who do have the gumption to do what they believe from a young age, able to say a hearty fuck you to the haters.) So I kept riding out my dreams in a sideways manner, dating people whose careers I admired and to experience different parts of New York City culture I didn't think I could find on my own. I hung out with people who I thought were cool so that I could feel cool by association. It felt like I went out almost every night to keep busy because if you aren't busy, what are you? It was all driven by a need to bury myself in distraction, to prove that despite my own insecurities, I was still cool and interesting.
One day I was staying in a fancy hotel in San Francisco thinking about tagging a post with my location. As I was pondering my post I was struck with a flash of how empty the gesture was; what was I trying to say by tagging this high-end hotel property? Was I trying to brag or prove my worth? Who wanted this life, really? Was it even my idea? Who’s life and goals was I trying to achieve? I was in the passenger seat of my own life.
I got burnt out in my career after a few years of pushing hard at something that wasn’t my passion and I started to realize through therapy that I was living a fake life. I lived a life I didn’t want to really live because I was terrified of going after the life of my dreams. This was progress, but I couldn’t manage to change my circumstances or take control because I didn’t think I deserved to get to live my dreams. I really took to the victim/martyr card, until one day after landing in the hospital after a routine medical procedure had gone awry, I was like good grief, how long am I going to avoid myself? Am I trying to manifest an early death? Because that seems kind of extra. I had always gone to yoga, because I read once in college that Jennifer Aniston was into it (duh, just trying to stay cool out here). After deciding I needed to actually LIVE MY LIFE, I became aware that there’s a lot of useful information being told in yoga classes. I began to pay attention in my yoga classes and got super into kundalini yoga. Then I found it was easier to take meditation more seriously. The more I found the time to slow down and listen to my own voice and guidance, I felt led and I started to find friends that shared my passions and interests, but in New York I always felt that pull to prove that I was somebody worth knowing.
In New York I chased the life I believed I wanted. It’s the pursuit of the glitter. As I got stronger in my own body and my own beliefs, I kept getting this ping that I was supposed to do more. I was supposed to leave my job and get out into the world a little more. I’d traveled to Austin once and the images of my trip a few years back just kept cropping up. So, I decided, fuck it. Let’s just book a one way ticket and see what happens. I showed up and was like, oh man, what have I done? This place is healing with its river and nature, but what am I doing here? In Austin with no understanding of who the tastemakers are, where the society was or what was even cool, I had to go on my own tastes. And it was then that it really dawned on me that I’d still never steered my own ship. Did I know what I liked? With no real context, what would I do? I sat in coffee shops and wrote and I went out to the lake and paddled. I sat with my thoughts for a full month and found the gumption to quit my job and move to Austin to explore my own interests outside of influences that could persuade me off my path.
I’ve been here for two years now, and I feel more myself every day. Building my own life here, where I am my own captain has been so healing to my soul.
There's a saying that's popular in classroom education which is 'the answer is in the room,' since budget cuts require teachers to increasingly rely on themselves. As a good teacher, you've got to figure out solutions using yourself as your main resource. My first month away from New York showed me that I already had the answer in me. I was (am) enough. I am my best resource and don't need to use others as crutches to my dreams. I am the author of my fate.
As I continue to grow, I realize now, what makes us cool is being confident in ourselves and that the most satisfying journey is the one that we take with ourselves in the driver's seat.
Jennifer Gage Kaplan is a health and wellness enthusiast. Her passion is spiritual wellbeing. Based on the belief that we're put on earth to discover our own talents and unique gifts, she holds self-care workshops in Austin and writes about her own journey of self-love and acceptance on jenigage.com. You can also find her at The Lagree Studio where she teaches Lagree fitness. Her fitness philosophy is every body is a fitness body.