Nick Riggle dropped out of high school to become a professional skater, participating in world-class competitions such as three ESPN X Games. After completing a BA in philosophy from UC Berkeley, he went on to receive a PhD from the top philosophy program in the country, and is now a professor at the University of San Diego. He recently sat down with Heleo’s Jeremy Price to discuss his new book—a fascinating dive into the history and meaning of awesomeness, and a guide to living an undoubtedly awesome life.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full version, click the video below.
Jeremy: Of all the topics that I imagine philosophers tackling, awesomeness is not usually one of them. And yet if somebody is qualified to talk about it, it’s definitely you, with your pro-skating background. How did this book, [On Being Awesome,] come about?
Nick: It does seem like an unusual topic, but there’s a tradition in philosophy which makes it seem less unusual. It goes all the way back to Socrates, who was running around in the town square, asking people what they meant by various terms that were really important to them. He would ask people who were going to the courtroom to accuse their father of impiety, “Well, what do you mean by ‘piety’?”
And that would get them to reflect on what their values were, whether they were living correctly, and also reflect on the culture they were in. So doing that kind of thing is the bread and butter of a certain tradition of philosophy.
But the book also taps into an emerging genre of philosophy book that started with Harry Frankfurt’s book, On Bullshit, where he’s like, “Everyone seems to use this term in a certain way, but what do they really mean? What is bullshit?” It’s not that you’re lying. It’s not that you’re telling the truth. It’s something else.
Jeremy: It’s bullshit.
Nick: It’s bullshit, right? So that’s the approach I’m taking in this book. If you’re alive today in the West, especially in American-influenced Western culture, you’re going to hear people saying, “That’s awesome.” Or, “That sucks.”
On immediate reflection, it’s not clear what we mean by that. What we don’t mean is that those things are awe-inspiring, right? We’re not using [the word “awesome”] in its literal, traditional sense, so the question I raise in the book is, “Is there something deeper behind it?”
“Awesomeness is about creating communities of mutually appreciative individuals.”
Jeremy: So there is something deeper behind when we say, “Awesome,” and when we say, “That sucks.” What exactly is that? What is awesomeness?
Nick: What I argue is that being awesome is a matter of being good at creating what I call “social openings.” Social openings occur when we break out of our roles, routines, and norms to express ourselves in a way that gets other people to express themselves as individuals. The result is this mutually appreciative community of individuals.
Let me give you an example: ordering coffee. Normally, when you order a coffee in a café, you enact the role of coffee shop customer. There’s an easy script that we [follow], and the cashier or barista enacts the role of cashier or barista.
Jeremy: Right, where if I’m the barista, it’s “Hello, what would you like?”
Nick: “Yeah, I’d like a large coffee, please.”
Jeremy: “Oh, okay. Here you go.”
Nick: Yeah. When we do that, we’re just enacting these roles, and in doing so, we don’t express much about ourselves as individuals. You can create a social opening by breaking out of that role and expressing yourself as an individual. You could crack a joke, or [offer] a compliment, or do any number of things that riff on the role or break out of the role. And when you do that, you create a social opening, allowing the barista to break out of her role and express herself [too].
Being awesome is being good at creating these social openings. Suckiness occurs when people [refuse to] take them up for no good reason. So, imagine if you crack a joke, and the barista was like, “Yeah, whatever, here’s your coffee.” That would suck.
Jeremy: Gotcha. You also talk about awesomeness as a modern innovation. In particular, I loved when you were talking about the high five, and that it hasn’t existed for more than 50 years or so. That blew my mind. I can’t picture life without being able to high five someone.
Nick: I feel the same way. Journalist Jon Mooallem notes that it’s widely credited to this baseball player, Glenn Burke, who was an exemplar of awesomeness. He was really good at creating these social openings, and he’s recognized by Major League Baseball as the first openly gay baseball player.
The high five was invented when Dusty Baker hit his 30th home run of the 1977 season. He approaches home plate, and Glenn Burke is standing there with his hand way up in the air. [Later] Dusty Baker said, “I didn’t know what to do. It seemed like he wanted me to hit his hand. So, I reached up and slapped his hand.”
And then Glenn Burke goes up to bat, and hits his first major league home run. When Burke comes around to home plate, Baker is standing there with his hand up in the air, ready for the high five. That’s an awesome moment, breaking out of the normal way of recognizing people and inventing a new way to do it.
Jeremy: What is it about the high five that makes it so emblematic of awesomeness?
Nick: If you ask people what the high five means, they’ll say something like, “Oh, it’s an appreciation of excellence.”
But in NBA basketball games, when the free-thrower misses the free throw, what happens after that? Everyone high fives the free-thrower. That can’t be a recognition of excellence. I mean, you just missed, right? I argue that the high five is actually a recognition of the achievement of mutual appreciation. It’s a symbol of, “Hey, I recognize you as an individual, and you recognize me.”
Jeremy: I love that. In the book you go into the different ways that we can suck and the different ways that we can be awesome.
Nick: Right, there’s a whole taxonomy. There’s the idea of the social opening, right? You can create one, in which case you’re on the awesome side of things.
“You can create a social opening by breaking out of that role and expressing yourself as an individual.”
You can [also] take one up, in which case you’re also on the awesome side of things, because awesomeness takes two to tango. If someone creates a social opening, someone has to be down to take it up, so down-ness is an important category. You can be game (enthusiastically down), or you can be chill, or you can be up.
Then you can opt out or decline. You can do it by being wack, or simply sucky. You might take up [a social opening] and then underperform, or overperform, or just be kind of a bore.
But then there’s this last category of the non-starter. The non-starter is someone with whom you can’t create social openings. One non-starter is the asshole, who places himself above everyone in the social order. So if you were to try and create a social opening, the asshole would just say, “I may or may not take it up. It’s a privilege to you if I do.”
The other category [of non-starter] is the fake-ass person. They’re someone who seems to take up the social opening, seems to be presenting their individuality in response to individuality that they’re confronted with. But in fact, they’re faking it. They’re not actually presenting who they are. This relation of mutual appreciation, what I call co-personhood, can’t be formed, because they’re presenting a fake persona.
Jeremy: I was also hoping to zoom in on a couple of ways of being awesome. For example, I loved that dogs are the paragon of gameness.
Nick: Yeah, the advice for being game is to think like a dog. Because dogs don’t just want to go for a walk. They are game for a walk. They’re not like, “Yeah, I guess I’ll just take a ride in this car.” They’re like, “THE CAR! I’m going to stick my head out the window!”
When someone creates a social opening, the game person is enthusiastically down to take it up. They recognize this offering of expressive individuality, and they’re right there with you. Co-personhood is formed.
What’s so great about being game is that that enthusiasm tends to spread to other people. It draws your attention to features of the social opening that make it worth taking up. So even if you’re disposed to be kind of sucky, people who are game might help you snap out of that and see, “Oh, this is something I want to engage with.”
“Awesomeness takes two to tango.”
Jeremy: A question that I’ve been wondering about for some time is, what makes someone a badass? Because my role models are academics, athletes, and everything in between, and I consider almost all of them to be totally badass. I just can’t figure out what that means.
Nick: So, all the categories I define in the book are social categories. They’re interpersonal modes of existence, or ways of being. Being down, being game, being chill, even rocking and ruling, it’s about the way you exist socially. Awesomeness is about creating a certain kind of community through your expressiveness as an individual.
My thought with badassery is that the badass just owns shit, right? What they choose to do with their life, they do it with expertise and confidence. You could be badass socially, in which case you might be awesome, but I think badassery in general is more a matter of tackling what you set out to do with your life, and doing it with confidence and a kind of presentational verve.
Jeremy: That makes a lot of sense. To me, “badass” also entails a certain degree of risk tolerance. Throwing caution to the wind, and being like, “I don’t care what anybody says. I’m going to do this thing,” and then they do it really well.
Nick: I agree. People connect the idea that you only live once or carpe diem with the idea that you should be adventurous or risky. But philosophically, it’s not clear what the connection is between having only one life and living in any particular way. You might think that if you live only once, you should not be adventurous or risky, you should preserve your life and be careful.
Jeremy: So how can we be more awesome people?
Nick: I think one major thing is to start noticing when you’re enacting social roles, then being attentive to how you can break out of them in virtuous ways that create these social openings. It’s not easy—you can really fail at it. We can be insensitive and awkward, even quite rude and offensive. It’s a skill that you have to develop.
But another thing is that stereotypes can [make us] see the mere appearance of someone, and then dismiss them as “not my type of person.” But we would be way more awesome if we did that less and, instead of dismissing people, attended to the ways in which their individuality is interesting, or worthy of engagement and interaction.
And it doesn’t have to be too complicated. An acquaintance was at the airport, and an airport employee was being a badass at their job—handling luggage, dealing with irritated passengers, and stuff like that. And in the spirit of awesomeness, [my acquaintance] went up to the worker and said, “Hey, you’re doing an awesome job.” And their response was to turn around, give them a high five, and go right back to work.
And that’s a simple opportunity, right? Just going out of your way a little bit, like you’re not just the standard airline passenger. Break out of that just that little bit, and that creates more awesomeness.
Jeremy: That feeds perfectly into my last question: why do you think the world needs more awesomeness right now? Because there are so many other words that we could throw out there. Like, “Oh, we should be more generous,” and “We should be more kind.” It’s not that [those aren’t] true, but why do you think the world needs more awesomeness, specifically?
Nick: Awesomeness is about creating communities of mutually appreciative individuals, and one of the things we’re struggling with right now as a society is a problem that emerged after the cultural, political, and legal revolutions of the sixties. It became a cultural priority to allow people to be whatever individual they want to be. Our individualism, in the sense of emphasizing the importance of the individual, started to shape culture and law in a more dramatic way.
As a result, and there’s a lot of good research on this, a lot of traditional forms of community fell away. As people were focusing on individuals, people focused less on community-building.
“For a society like ours that wants to emphasize the free cultivation of individuality, we also have to find ways to create community.”
Jeremy: Like religious communities and social clubs?
Nick: Exactly. We do want to develop our style and be individuals, but we also deeply want to be part of a community. We want to feel like we belong, and feel like we’re loved and appreciated as part of the community.
But these desires are in tension, because if you’re too much of an individual, then you won’t be intelligible to the community—you’re going to seem wack or like a floater. But if you’re too deferential to the community, too willing to just blend in, then you’re going to come off as kind of basic or a bore.
We care about being awesome because the result of being awesome, and someone [else] being game or down, is what I call this co-person community, this community of individuals who are appreciating one another’s individuality. It’s not a community where we all have to share the same values, or we all have to be Christian, or we all have to support a certain political candidate. It’s a more forgiving and appreciative community.
For a society like ours that wants to emphasize the free cultivation of individuality, we also have to find ways to create community, because that’s also something we really need. We suffer when we don’t have good communities in our lives.
We see in awesomeness an ideal, beyond just being generous and kind and thoughtful, that promises to reconcile these deep desires we have in a way that would be great for the future of our society.
Jeremy: There was one phrase from the book that I thought encapsulated that perfectly: awesomeness allows us to “stand out but stand together.”