Just Admit You Were Popular

I’ve had this question on my mind for some time now—well, ever since I’ve mysteriously become an adult.  I’m curious about whatever happened to the popular kids in high school, especially since I never considered myself one of them.

Big surprise I know, but if you’re anything like me, you might not have been particularly popular growing up either.  Now, I wasn’t especially unpopular or shunned.  I was just someone on the fringes and in between groups.  And in high school, if you’re not especially popular, a prudent survival strategy is to simply keep a low profile and remain invisible.

But all I hear around me today (and I’m guilty of this too) is unabashed pride in being a nerd and growing up not fitting in.  Maybe Seattle (and the blogospehre) just happens to be a magnet for formerly unpopular geeks, as opposed to say, Hollywood.  But I find that these days, it’s almost a badge of honor to look back and to brag about how awkward and socially rejected you were as a kid, another point in my premise that nerd-dom’s popularity remains.  Hipsters living in our current “Age of Irony” have since taken over the world (and the interwebz, obvi) and so what remains for the jocks and pretty girls?

I’m also wondering who as an adult today actually admits that they were popular?  Who flaunts the fact that they were voted Homecoming or Prom Royalty?  It almost seems like a shameful secret to admit that you were wildly popular in high school—so much so that I suspect many formerly popular kids now falsely claim that they were actually unpopular in school.

I find this strange reverse-popularity contest a bit puzzling, where the more rejected you claim to be as a kid, the more “nerd street cred” you gain as an adult—assuming you weren’t permanently scarred as a result.  I am well aware that in many cases, severe bullying in school results in dire lifelong consequences for kids who are hapless victims, and I hate bullying.  I’m just simply making the argument that some of us tend to hyper-dramatize our own unpleasant memories of social rejection, particularly in our formative school years.

The media also seems to celebrate how many of our hallowed politicians, innovative business leaders, and even certain celebrities grew up as nerds, geeks, and to a certain degree, social outcasts of one kind or another.  It’s certainly a more compelling American fairy-tale, illustrating how an underdog is able to overcome adversity (be it physical, financial, or social) in order to become the intelligent/kind/powerful/wealthy/famous/influential/well-adjusted adult they are today.  Way before Bill Clinton became one of our more popular presidents, he was just “the fat band boy wearing unfashionable jeans” growing up.  Who isn’t inspired by that?

I suppose those of us who learn about being left out as kids also learn quickly about the dos and don’ts of “playing well with others.”  These sometimes painful but valuable lessons teach us about life, pain, and rejection in the real adult world.  Some of us learn that the best way to cope is to keep our eyes wide-open and to tread lightly on the world for fear of upsetting the status quo.  Others learn how to shatter the rules in exchange for a totally new paradigm.

So, I guess there are some advantages to growing up a wallflower.  (I still have yet to see this, but maybe over the Thanksgiving holiday!)

Perhaps I’ve got this all wrong and backwards.  Among my friends, no one really admits to being popular in school.  So, it’s quite plausible that I’ve simply self-selected other like-minded nerds as friends my whole life.  I guess it still boils down to who is willing to be friends with you and vice versa, even when you’re all grown up.

My theory is that in order to be popular in school, you generally must possess at least one outstanding character trait.  You’ve got to have something superior and extraordinary relative to everyone else, be it athletic ability, good looks, friendliness, charisma, daring and chutzpah, humor, or something else.  The majority of us lie somewhere in the middle.  However, a caveat to this rule is that brains alone seem to trade at a discount relative to the other traits, unless coupled with some of the aforementioned qualities.  Hence you see the preponderance and staying power of the stereotypical “nerd group” in high schools today, as well as in the modern canon of movies about American high schools.

Perhaps some of us do better later in life because we feel we have something to prove.  Or maybe many of us are trapped in the rat race of approval-seeking that Will Rogers so eloquently captures in his quote: “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like.”  Funny these days, we (incorrectly) attribute this saying to Will Smith, but it’s a terrific quote, and so very appropriate in describing the root causes for many of the insecurities and anxieties we face in our real adult lives.  Having to prove ourselves to win approval again and again, day after day, either at work, or among the social circles in which we choose run, can be exhausting.  But many of us still unconsciously fall into the rodent wheel without question.  And the cycle continues.

Despite my personal theories, it seems that popularity in high school has proven to be a valuable social survival skill that ends up paying much larger dividends in promoting success, particularly later in life.  And the earlier you learn it, the better off you are.

According to a recent article published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in October, findings indicate that popular kids (those in the top fifth of the high school popularity pyramid) garnered a 10% wage premium nearly 40 years after graduation, compared to those in the bottom fifth.

The NBER study used data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, an on-going study since 1957 that examines webs of relationships between students to determine who was actually popular (in terms of friend nominations) in school.  The NBER working paper made a media splash, spawning parodies and many other news articles.  Of course the NBER academic study is limited in scope, but it does touch upon a larger topic of social savvy and capital, particularly how people skills can and often times trump technical skills and intelligence.

While much of the discussion is about high school, I also think it’s worth exploring the social dynamics after high school and into college.  College for many of us on the fringes was a fresh start and a clean slate.  And it was totally liberating.  For me, it was a time to be challenged and to even shine.  The tiny social wading pool of high school was now the huge lake of a large public university.  And so the stereotypical five or six cliques in high school bled into hundreds of diverse social groups and clubs in college.  There really was Something for Everybody (a terrific album btw, but alas, I’m dating myself!)

The friends I made in college remain friends for life.  But I also think it was precisely because many of us had so much in common that we became such good friends.  We might have all mutually self-selected each other.  In college, I was still kind of shy and nerdy and lived in the dorms.  I wasn’t interested in ”rushing” or joining the Greek system because I knew I’d get weeded out early on.  So, all of my closest friends also ended up living in the dorms too.  And while we weren’t anti-fraternity or sorority, we definitely weren’t interested in running that particular gauntlet, despite certain attractive perks and benefits like epic parties, free flowing booze, and an instant social life with a systemized network of friends.

So I remained a nerd because in my view, the litmus test of who was popular in college (in the traditional sense) was who got involved and joined certain fraternities or sororities.  I can’t say what my college experience would have been like had I been a sorority girl, but I’m sure it would have been radically different.  I’m sure I would have benefited from the strong social ties that Greeks forge amongst themselves (along with a unique set of pressures in terms of booster club donations and joining the right tennis and golf clubs, etc.)

The Greek system is one that is uniquely American, and traces back to the 18th century.  The Phi Beta Kappa Society was the first Greek-letter student society in North America, founded in 1776, at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.  However, as Phi Beta Kappa developed, it became an academic honor society with membership given as recognition of academic achievement rather than a social selection.  Most standard Greek organizations on today’s American collegiate campuses remain social fraternities and sororities.

And I’m sure you are aware that most/many of our most powerful American politicians, businessmen, writers and thinkers were also part of certain ultra elite secret or senior societies on college campuses, the most famous of which include senior societies like Skull and Bones or Scroll and Key at Yale.  Tap Day is the day where juniors are “tapped” for membership into these secret societies. (Remember The Skulls?  It’s ok, you don’t have to admit you watched it.)

At the end of the day, the data and the theories seem to prove that who you know is equally, if not more important than, what you know.  Although to succeed in life, having both brains as well as savvy social skills is the ultimate killer combination.  Smarts are still necessary to succeed in today’s world, but don’t forget that people skills are just as important.  And most importantly, don’t forget to be kind to everyone around you.

So those of you who were popular should just let yourselves out of the closet.  Don’t worry; we won’t judge you, especially if you were kind and honorable to the rest of us on your way up the ladder.  The real world is actually big enough for all of us.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that in my opinion, nerds actually make great friends.