New Paper Hats

My more evolved friends don’t appear to be having an issue with this, so I want to make something clear from the outset. I’m writing about my own hang-up here. When did it stop being cool to wear paper hats?

Paper Hats - Tim McDonnell - Change On Purpose

Photo by Chance Agrella, courtesy of

One morning I was picking up doughnuts for work (yes, and extras to scarf in the car) and noticed a family with small children ahead of me in line. Besides the sudden sugar high, it was clear that the paper hats with the bright franchise logo were a big draw for the little ones. It seemed to be a family ritual – all the kids marching back to the minivan like a row of downy ducklings wearing their new paper hats.

I noticed something else, too.

Nobody my size was wearing one unless they were working behind the counter. What happened? Not so long ago I was unselfconsciously eager to be crowned “Burger King.” I was lord of the post-nutritional realm, knighting my subjects with a royal french-fry, which had become a starchy Excalibur under the power of my golden paper crown.

Where IS that person now?

The hat was a portal and all I cared about from the time it touched my head was where my imagination was taking me. It didn’t matter to me that there were other people in the room. It didn’t occur to me that anyone would feel one way or another about my fantasy of the moment. If I noticed them at all, they were nothing more to me than extras in my show.

When and how did the opinions of other people become so important?

Once I passed a certain age, it’s almost as if I entered into an implied contract with the rest of the world that paper hats weren’t dignified anymore. Now it takes a national holiday and a fair amount of alcohol to get one of those things on my head.

It’s one thing to mourn the loss of your childhood pass to turn into a cartoon mascot without fear of being institutionalized. It’s quite another to consider how this involuntary agreement spills over into other areas of adult life where it doesn’t belong.

Here’s what paper hats turn into for grown-ups:

  • Sharing your new idea out loud in a meeting.
  • Talking about anything in front of lots of people.
  • Getting up the nerve to share your feelings with someone who may not return them.
  • Trying a new dance step in a room full of strangers (especially tough for me).
  • Daring to write or sing or paint or play an instrument when you’ve been told that you’re not the “artistic” type.

Rejection is scary. Our reaction to it is primal and it’s connected with biological reactions we don’t necessarily control. Julia Cameron presents some inspiring ideas for dealing with all kinds of creative rejection in The Artist’s Way. For some people, it just gets easier over time to pretend they never really wanted to do any of those things in the first place.

But here’s a liberating idea that came to me in yoga class.

For months I crammed myself into the most hot and isolated corner of the room. I could barely see what I was doing in the mirror, which sort of defeated the purpose of the class. My fear was that all those hard-body yogis would see me struggling with my poses. Guess what? They never knew I was there because they were all focused on their own poses. I missed out on a lot of benefit for nothing.

Sometimes “paper hats” are okay, even for grown-ups.

If you’ve stopped wearing some of your modern day “paper hats” like I have, I’m daring to say that it’s time for us to take back permission. What about new ones you’ve been wanting to try on? These are the passions in our lives that cause us to lose track of time and connect with authentic imagination. Ultimately they’re the channels through which we’re empowered to give our highest and best gifts to the world.

I’m not suggesting that it’s good to hog the spotlight or behave in ways that are uncaring, disruptive or disrespectful. What I am suggesting for myself (without getting too preachy) is that maybe it’s time to stop being so concerned about what others are thinking of me – and start realizing that they’re usually not. As Dr. Seuss reportedly said, “the ones who mind don’t matter and the ones who matter don’t mind.”

Questions: What symbolic “paper hats” have been trying to re-emerge in your life? How have you been able to free yourself from the imaginary judgments of others when too much self-consciousness comes up?

  • Karen Dickens Emerson

    When we went from elementary school into middle school at the ripe age of 12. I was 11 at the time, and I was fairly appalled that there were no swings or monkey bars. Suddenly our free play was structured with requirements to dress in gym outfits which we all thought were perfectly hideous. Now we had to be naked in front of one another in the gym showers which was fairly horrifying with our adolescent bodies in varying degrees of development. What happened? Why then? We were forced to grow up and fit into a structure. I could not wait to go home where I could run and play with neighborhood kids.

    I still play. I wear silly hats sometimes, burst into song or dance. I don’t know what people think. I care but I don’t. I love those flash mob videos where everyone breaks into song and dance. The world would be a sweeter place if we all allowed one another to express open joy.