There’s always someone cooler than you

Estimated reading time 16 mins.

The title may be familiar to some as the 2003 Ben Folds song it is. As a new experiment in my English conversation class this upcoming semester, I’m going to have students discuss these lyrics, while of course highlighting the lessons I take from it myself. As in many Ben Folds songs, the lyrics colorfully present a strong message, and I thought it would be a fun way to introduce a theme for discussion I think will prove relevant to them.

While comparing against others is a personal and social problem in Western countries, expressed (in one aspect) in the idiom “Keeping up with the Joneses,” Korea has its own distinct comparison culture. Korea is a hyper-modern economy that moves at warp speed. The uber-competitive education system centers all around scores and rankings based thereupon. And when they’re done with that, most feel enormous pressure at “getting a good job,” which means—if not a “doctor, lawyer, or judge”—at one of the bigger companies (e.g. Samsung, LG, Hyundai, etc.). Anyone can do the math to see that achieving this measure of “success” is not going to be a reality for almost everyone, so the stress is tremendous.

Beyond school scores and job status, however, there are many other social status markers of which, unfortunately, even kids are highly aware. With the skyrocketing standard of living in the past 30 or so years has come even more ostentatious shows of wealth. If the West’s own rise in the standard of living in conjunction with the influence of social media has people now “keeping up with the Kardashians,” many Koreans are now vying to show that they are above merely “keeping up with the Kims.” And on top of the pressure to appear “successful,” there is also a deep-rooted collectivism and expectation to conform, beyond what Westerners know of peer pressure.

Having recently completed the lesson plan, I thought it was worth sharing some of what I took from it here, as I found the review an enlightening reminder to myself. This song still plays on my running list, as, like many Ben Folds songs, it is fun and upbeat. But it has the added bonus of having lyrics which speak to and motivate me as I’m out on the road.

There is a phenomenon familiar to most, I’m sure, that books, songs, or movies we love become more or less meaningful as we get older and revise our own worldviews. I have often found that a single line speaks more strikingly to me as, over time, applications of the lesson held in it have demonstrated its truth in real-life situations again and again. This is also true of whole themes of books, movies, and songs, as well as in essays and non-fiction works I’ve loved. I live, I experience people and events, and I see more deeply and clearly what the authors were talking about. It then becomes my own first-hand knowledge, making it more powerful when applied in my own life. It’s very satisfying when things you’ve loved are proved through experience to be truer and thus become even more meaningful.

It is the prerogative of the audience to take whatever they might from an artist’s work in any context they care to. I can’t speak for Ben Folds here, but I can share with you what his lyrics have meant to me within the context I take them. It is also my own prerogative on this blog to present ideas in any form I care to. With that, I propose to reproduce the lyrics here, interrupting them at my pleasure to comment on what I read in them. I hope you enjoy considering what the lyrics mean to you as you go along, while perhaps gaining some insight from my own take. If this is somehow the first you’ve heard of Ben Folds, I’m pleased to introduce him to you.

There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You
Ben Folds
Smile like you’ve got nothing to prove
No matter what you might do
There’s always someone out there cooler than you


People smile for somebody. They smile to prove that they’re happy. Everyone knows the fake smile. But there’s nothing more attractive than a smile born of unself-conscious joy and general goodwill.

Following is the title line, and it’s pretty clear. It means that no matter how good you are at something, how high, how on top of whatever field you’re in, there’s always someone who can top yours and make yours look “worse”—by comparison. You can always find someone who has more (X), has a better (X), is better at (X), who is “cooler” than you.

I know it’s hard to believe
But there are people you meet
They’re into something that is too big to be
Expressed through their clothes

A lot of people have shallow, superficial interests. Often, these can be expressed through their appearance. This look is like a signal to others, a tribal membership ID, a shout, “Hey, I’m into (X)! I’m this kind of person.” It can in some cases appear more an attempt to be that kind of person than actually being into the thing, more as if they merely wished they were into something as cool as that.

Then there are others who are into things which they are so absorbed in, they don’t have time to think of any look associated with it. You’re into it because you’re into it, and you don’t feel a need to show other people you’re into it. I sometimes imagine Edison working on his inventions in this regard. What does an inventor “look like”?

(Perhaps this is a good spot to disclaim early that I do not discount that there are people whose look betrays their interests without a doubt and at the same time does not mean they are not passionate, individualistic, authentic, etc. This is true of other comments below. In all cases, I am describing people who exist, but it does not mean that anyone who resembles them shares the same motives. At the same time, I know that whenever I find a shoe that fits, I check myself closely.)

And they’ll put up with all the poses you throw
And you won’t even know 
That they’re not sizing you up
They know your mom fucked you up
Or maybe let you watch too much TV

And of course, because these people are into things, they are not absorbed in other people. Their primary concern is reality, not others. People always admonish, “Don’t judge.” But the kind of people who are “into something that is too big to be expressed through their clothes” is precisely the type who doesn’t judge because they are not others-centered. They might wonder for their own understanding of human psychology and themselves what makes someone else so uncomfortable in his own skin (Your mom fucked you up? Too much TV is too much time spent involved in others’ exploits and not your own life), but it wouldn’t be for the purposes of “judging” in the sense the “don’t judge” admonition means, which is to not evaluate others unfavorably against themselves (or often against any standard). They don’t think of themselves in relation to others at all. They are independent in that way.

I can’t resist a reference in this context to Howard Roark, the hero of The FountainheadIn a quiet but dramatic scene, the arch-villain of the novel, whom Roark has every reason to hate—even fear, in one of the few dialogues between them in the whole novel, says: “Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.” Roark replies: “But I don’t think of you.”

This man is so passionately, innocently, wholly into architecture and his own life that he sees it irrelevant to spend time sizing up even this grand poser.

But they’ll still look in your eyes
To find the human inside
You know there’s always something in there to see
Beneath the veneer

But when such people do meet others, they are genuinely interested to know who those others are. To be an individualist does not mean that you’re necessarily a “loner.” People are a great value to people. They inspire us, teach us, amuse us, and produce values for which we may trade and improve our lives.

There are many ways I might characterize what makes a personality, an individual, what’s “beneath the veneer.” I’ll do here with a quote from science writer Winifred Gallagher, who summarizes: “What you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.” And people who are joyously into something want to know what it is you’re into. And while they may politely put up with poses, if “the human inside” is not to be found or is found to be empty, it won’t go any further.

Not everybody made the list this year
Have a beer

There is any number of “Most” lists: Most popular, Most glamorous, Hottest A-list celebrity, Sexiest man alive, etc. Rankings are necessarily comparative. And to take hard stock in them means to be focused on ourselves in relation to others. It means to be others-centered, not reality-centered. People of self-esteem don’t need rankings to affirm themselves. And in any case, it’s only for “this year”….

Just relax, have a beer, and don’t get caught up in all of those rankings. Just do your thing.

Make me feel tiny if it makes you feel tall
But there’s always someone cooler than you
Yeah, you’re the shit but you won’t be it for long
Oh, there’s always someone cooler than you
Yeah, there’s always someone cooler than you

The first line of the chorus describes the attitude of envy. Many people try to put others down in order to feel better about themselves. This is the ultimate sign of a lack of self-esteem. People who have a low self-estimate (i.e. feel “small”) often have an interest in chopping others down. They envy those who they perceive as “bigger” than them and so look for (or invent) faults and highlight them. These people feel pleased in the comfort of people with whom they can compare themselves favorably, as a “big fish in a little pond.” And even uglier, they feel pleased to see anyone they perceive as “tall” experience failure or misery.

But more than just being revolting, it’s a losing policy besides. It doesn’t work. This approach is precarious by nature and is necessarily short-lived. It is precarious because it is out of your control. Authentic self-esteem is independent by its nature. It is an estimate of oneself, and cannot be given or taken away by anyone else.

But when you set the standard of your worth against others, you are now dependent on them, on their successes or failures. To the extent others are tall, you’re tiny—and vice versa. So even if you “succeed” in feeling tall, it is only in relation to those you’ve managed to assemble around you who are “small.” And if you step outside of this bubble, you will inevitably find someone against whom you can compare yourself unfavorably.

And what then? Your bubble will shrivel, and your high will become a low. It is futile. There is always someone cooler.

Now that I’ve got the disease
In a way I’m relieved
‘Cause I don’t have to stress about it like you do
I might just get up and dance
Or buy some acid wash pants
When you don’t care then
You’ve got nothing to lose

The “disease” is an independent, genuine self-esteem. It is the state of not being emotionally dependent on what others think of you. But why refer to it as a “disease,” and why only “in a way” be relieved to have it? I should rather think—and I do think—that it is the hallmark of psychological and emotional health.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion about the nature of self-esteem, and so many of the campaigns intended to promote self-esteem in our society’s youth are, in my view, misguided. That’s a discussion for another time, but the result, in short, is that many people have learned to tie their self-esteem to the approval or disapproval of others. And as discussed above in regard to envy, once the standard is dependent on others, one necessarily fears and resents others’ success.

And whom would one who lacks genuine self-esteem resent the most? Those who don’t lack it. Those who don’t “have to stress about it like they do.”

It is in this way that people who do seek to think independently, discover their own interests, their own standards, etc.—who don’t seek to conform—find themselves ostracized. From the perspective of the conformists, it is a disease, and you’re a pariah.

It can be very painful to not fit in, especially for younger people. But then one can ask oneself, ‘What kind of people ostracize others for having their own interests, style, passions, independent ideas? And why seek their approval?’ When you can see the answer clearly, you will see that the disease is actually the cure. It is to be “woke” from the groupthink, and get up and dance, free from the sneers of the haters. When you don’t care then you’ve got nothing to lose—except the wrong kind of people.

And I won’t hesitate
‘Cause every moment life is slipping away
It’s okay

It’s never too late to shake off the stress of social disapproval and acquire “the disease,” although the longer we hesitate, there is less time to enjoy the benefits of a life of independent values, passion, and joy. We hesitate because we fear losing friends, social approval, etc. But life is not waiting for the whole world to come around and see the world as you do, approve, and be “nicer” to you. We must remember who we’re talking about. Much has been known for a long time about the nature of the bully, but still, people are afraid of his disapproval. The bully is weak and scared, and this is why he derides, mocks, denounces, intimidates. Misery loves company—needs company. And the bully’s company, while maybe not bullies themselves, are in any case bully enablers or apologizers. And who needs them?

I’ve often said to my wife, trying to articulate it clearly for myself, that when life’s all over and we’re gone, nobody’s really going to care about all the little things. They might think it’s weird that we do things this way while most do it that, but I think that for a lot of them, they actually respect that independence. And if we can ignore all the discomfort (or rid ourselves of it through conviction, which is the point of this song) and create something great—at least build a good life—it will actually be that which is the final verdict anyway.

But to build a good life or create something, you must be reality-oriented. You must exercise your independent judgment, following the evidence, even if it leads you away from the in-crowd. Ain’t nobody got time for caring about other people’s opinions—especially those of people who lack their own judgment in the first place! Who cares what someone might say about me today? Who cares???!!! The less you hesitate to understand this, believe it, and act on it, the more quickly you’ll be free to live the clean, shining life of intellectual independence and happiness. Walk straight for it, and don’t let that kind of life slip away. It’s more than okay.

Make me feel tiny if it make you feel tall
But there’s always someone cooler than you
Yeah, you’re the shit but you won’t be it for long
But there’s always someone cooler than you
Oh, there’s always someone cooler than you
Yeah, there’s always someone cooler than you
There’s always someone cooler than
Life is wonderful
Oh, life is beautiful
We’re all children of one big universe
So you don’t have to be a chump

I can never tell who exactly Ben is speaking to at this point, the bully or the bullied? But I suppose it’s both. I looked up chump for clarity, and I found a formal and informal meaning. Informally, it refers to a stupid person, a dolt. Literally, it means the thick, blunt end of anything.

From the start of this song, Ben is advising people not to compare themselves to others nor let others’ opinions of them have power over their lives. You need not be a chump, the blunt end of any joke or attack. You just walk away. And the bully also need not be a chump, in this sense, a stupid or ignorant person. Neither of them need be.

Every individual has a mind competent to deal with reality. Every individual can reach his own independent judgment about what he likes, cares about, wears, hangs out with, values. Life is wonderful, beautiful, exciting, glorious. It’s there for you to take if you just drop the fear and pick up your independent mind. We all share this capacity, this is what we have in common, what truly makes us brothers (not groupthink).

To those constantly comparing themselves to others and feeling high or low accordingly and who fear others’ disapproval, grab your mind and shake free of the moral self-doubt. To those who fear using their own minds and so work to bring down those who do, shake loose of your own “in-crowd” and join the ranks of the happy. You don’t have to be a chump.

And you know that I won’t hesitate
‘Cause every moment life is slipping away
It’s okay
Make me feel tiny if it makes you feel tall
Because there’s always someone cooler than you
Yeah, you’re the shit but you won’t be it for long
But there’s always someone cooler than you
Oh yeah, there’s always someone cooler than you
Because there’s always someone cooler than you
Cooler than you [Repeats]

Songwriters: Ben Folds / Benjamin Scott Folds
There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc

Envy paralyzes productive action, making it impossible to improve oneself, and is the root emotional cause of societal strife. Authentic self-esteem and healthy individualism are the foundations of a benevolent society. If your self-esteem is built upon a genuine foundation of efficacy at some productive endeavor, set in achievement, you will feel no threat at another’s achievement nor search others for faults at which you might be able to say, “At least I’m not as bad as that.” You don’t look down or up. Or when you do look up, it is with admiration at a greater capacity perhaps, but still as a moral equal. It is with respect and goodwill, and you will cheer the person. The person of authentic self-esteem wishes well for others, rooting for their success, understanding that it is no threat to their own.

By contrast, and the message of this song, by placing your standard of self-worth within others, you give them immense power over you, and you will necessarily fear and resent others—fear their disapproval or resent their success. Either way, you are not in control of your own happiness (and the result is not peace and brotherhood among people). An intellectually independent person whose standard of self-esteem is objectively set according to reality knows nothing of this kind of nightmare up-and-down emotional existence. So why not heed the message of this song and become one of them? Don’t waste your life trying to be cooler. Just be cool.

Reviewing all that I’ve said, I now wonder whether I ought to publish it. What are people gonna think? Maybe some won’t like it. Maybe I’ve revealed too much of myself. People aren’t going to think I’m cool. Curb your enthusiasm, boy. But here, I’m going to have to give my wife the last word and take heed. As I was discussing this theme with her the other day, she agreed that it was especially relevant to Korean students and told me to say to them: “You want something? Go straight ahead and go for it. Don’t look around at everyone else.”

(What am I wearing, acid wash?) And…publish.

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