Upon entering middle school, my once-sensible friend Amy suddenly wanted us to spend our time sifting through teen magazines and deciding which models were pretty. I was utterly perplexed as to why this was interesting, but I tried to offer insightful comments on the Bonne Bell lip gloss model’s peaches-and-cream complexion.
As the school year wore on, I dutifully learned our junior high’s byzantine rules of fashion, makeup, and cliquery. But my heart wasn’t in it, and my friendship with Amy petered out as she ascended the middle school hierarchy. Sometimes I wondered whether I could have joined her up there, if only I weren’t so.. so… serious.
But of course I had no choice about being serious. I just was. I loved the company of the quirky kids who stayed up til 2 am writing bad poetry and published it in the school literary magazine. Eventually I became the editor of said magazine; I was the official center of an off-center tribe.
I was doing what felt right, but when I saw Amy in the hallways, I always felt a sharp pang. Her new life seemed so enviable, at least from a distance. She was always laughing and surrounded by smiling, glittery friends.
I thought of all this when I re-read the investor and programmer Paul Graham’s brilliant and provocative 2003 essay, “Why Nerds Are Unpopular.” His thesis is that nerds are unpopular because they have more important things to think about than seventh grade personality politics. Here he is:
“…[W]hy are smart kids so consistently unpopular? The answer, I think, is that they don’t really want to be popular.
If someone had told me that at the time [I was in school], I would have laughed at him. Being unpopular in school makes kids miserable, some of them so miserable that they commit suicide. Telling me that I didn’t want to be popular would have seemed like telling someone dying of thirst in a desert that he didn’t want a glass of water. Of course I wanted to be popular.
But in fact I didn’t, not enough. There was something else I wanted more: to be smart. Not simply to do well in school, though that counted for something, but to design beautiful rockets, or to write well, or to understand how to program computers. In general, to make great things….
[But] popularity is not something you can do in your spare time, not in the fiercely competitive environment of an American secondary school.
Alberti, arguably the archetype of the Renaissance Man, writes that “no art, however minor, demands less than total dedication if you want to excel in it.” I wonder if anyone in the world works harder at anything than American school kids work at popularity. Navy SEALs and neurosurgery residents seem slackers by comparison. They occasionally take vacations; some even have hobbies. An American teenager may work at being popular every waking hour, 365 days a year…
Nerds don’t realize this. They don’t realize that it takes work to be popular. In general, people outside some very demanding field don’t realize the extent to which success depends on constant (though often unconscious) effort…The main reason nerds are unpopular is that they have other things to think about. Their attention is drawn to books or the natural world, not fashions and parties. They’re like someone trying to play soccer while balancing a glass of water on his head. Other players who can focus their whole attention on the game beat them effortlessly, and wonder why they seem so incapable….
When I searched for photos to go along with this blog post (I googled “popularity images”), I found that all the pictures of popular girls depict them with shopping bags, just like the above shot of Alicia Silverstone from the movie “Clueless” — thus making Graham’s point.
But I don’t totally agree with Graham. I think he implicitly downplays social skills too much. The ability to navigate tricky social situations with ease is, in the end, what high schoolers prize, and it’s a substantive skill that kids like Amy take with them long after they graduate. Others learn this skill later in life, as they mature, and they benefit from it too. Those who never acquire it are at a real disadvantage.
Also, some kids are popular not because they’re shallow or Machiavellian but because they have a winning combination of warmth, freedom from anxiety, and social grace.
But Graham is right that in high school these are the only skills that seem to matter. In the real world, other characteristics count too. Know-how. Passion. Curiosity. Empathy. Drive. Serenity. Conscience. Follow-through. Independence of Mind. Creativity. Love.
The list goes on and on.
Here is Graham again:
“In almost any group of people you’ll find hierarchy. When groups of adults form in the real world, it’s generally for some common purpose, and the leaders end up being those who are best at it. The problem with most schools is, they have no purpose. But hierarchy there must be. And so the kids make one out of nothing.
We have a phrase to describe what happens when rankings have to be created without any meaningful criteria. We say that the situation degenerates into a popularity contest. And that’s exactly what happens in most American schools. Instead of depending on some real test, one’s rank depends mostly on one’s ability to increase one’s rank. It’s like the court of Louis XIV. There is no external opponent, so the kids become one another’s opponents.”
If your child is not the most popular kid in school, if s/he is more self-conscious than smooth, then please! Let him or her know that there’s a life beyond high school, a vastly different landscape from one s/he’s ever seen, a place with multiple forms of social currency and an endless variety of ways to make oneself useful.
How about you — do you agree with Paul Graham’s ideas on popularity? And do you think it’s even possible to convince kids that there’s a life beyond high school? After all, they’ve never experienced it for themselves.
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This problem has its zenith in American high schools – I was raised in Australia and the atmosphere was completely different, so I look at US high school movies with amazement. It’s a wonder anyone survives!
Today’s Middle School simply sux. No nice way to put it. And kids caught in it, need all the help they can get, to keep their heads above water. -sigh-
@Tricia, that’s really interesting! What was school like in Australia?
I do think parents have an obligation to tell their little nerds (who are probably very like they were at that age) that life is so different after middle and high school, that their interests and skills will matter and be valuable as early as their college years. BUT. Parents should also be prepared for this to not affect their kids at all. I remember getting that talk from my mom numerous times over my incredibly miserable middle school and fairly mediocre high school years, and ultimately it did little to make me feel better. Most people have to experience things for themselves to understand it, which is why the “I’ve already done stupid things and learned my lessons; don’t follow in my footsteps” speech so rarely works – you can’t possibly learn and understand without living through it personally. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let your kids know that you lived through it and life does get better, though – it might give them just enough of a nugget of hope to get through without taking drastic action.
I was getting a little nervous reading Graham’s words here and was relieved when you said you don’t totally agree. The kids he describes are far too black and white, leaving out the non-academic nerds and the non-shallow popular kids.
Personally, this was not the experience I remember from high school. (And please don’t assume I was one of the popular kids now trying to defend my previous self – I most certainly wasn’t).
Maybe it was because I attended a somewhat “niche” school (all-girls, uniforms, religion-based), maybe it was because it was a very large school, or maybe just by accident, but it seemed to me that the most popular people were the most well-rounded. The might have been the athletes, the artists, the AP/honors, the internationals, but were often cominations of those. And kindness, generosity was definitely taken into consideration of who was liked by many.
I agree with Graham up to a point. I belive that kids work at being popular. My middle schooler thinks they are going to die because they aren’t allowed to play the “cool” games. I’ve watched them spend their entire allowance to buy something, only to set it aside because someone “beat” their rating. Telling them that there is life beyond school doesn’t help – their focus is on the here & now. We get “you just don’t get it” and “things have changed since you were a kid” as responses.
I also don’t agree with Graham. Many kids, nerds or not, would give up everything that interests them in exchange for popularity, but they don’t know how to go about it. I was a “nerd” growing up but more significantly an introverted, socially-awkward one. I had friends that were equally nerdy (in the academic sense) but seemed to be blessed with social skills that made others attracted to them. I am now raising a 12-year-old boy who is a chip off the old block. He’s as smart as they come, and his interests do not parallel those of most other kids (he’s into learning foreign languages and studying other cultures and is obsessed with the idea of traveling the world). However, he just does not have the skills to relate well to other kids. I’ve told him that social skills are like any other skill, like music or art or math–some people are born with the ability to perform a particular skill well while others have to work at it. We’ve been working at it, and he’s getting better. But I also decided that childhood is supposed to be fun and should not be a source of anxiety and stress. I did not want him to have to wait to start enjoying life until he’s all grown up. So, my wife and I started homeschooling him about a year ago. It’s been great for him. He’s had the opportunity to make friends with those as awkward as he is and is not in an environment in which he feels he has to compete for the attention of other kids. That’s a solution that has worked for our family. Everyone must figure out what will work for them.
We have taught our only child from day one to be true to yourself. He is a very quirky, extremely intelligent yes nerd who spends his free time researching a host of what others consider to be odd things. We have travelled with him extensively and have always been told what an interesting well socialized guy he is. His only problem was school. In Elementary school he was bullied and ridiculed because the other students thought he was too smart. His school valued athletics above anything but we kept on telling him it gets better people. Strangely once he got into High School he just blossomed. He met like minded people who were in all his academic classes. It is a small private school that is very academically oriented. He has actually said that what he put up with in Elementary school gave him a thicker skin to put up with the rare poke he gets from the non like-minded people at school now. I really think what you value as a family will guide your children. They will stray most likely but you know your voice is in their head somewhere and if those values are good ones they will come back to them. Personally I just hated watching all those hurtful years when he was at his most vulnerable and the only thing I could do was say, “It gets better.”
I have a more sociobiological view of high school. In any setting there will be the alphas, the betas (the wanna-be alphas) and on down the line. In high school, it is most often looks (for girls) and athleticism (for boys) that determine the alphas — hate to say it but it comes down to sexual desirability and indicators of successful genes. Just like in any primate group. I think more “adult” social groupings are more dependant on other characteristics of desirability: wealth, intelligence, emotional stability. But it all comes down to the inescapability that we share 99% of our genes, including ones that determine social behavior, with chimps. Can we rise above that? YES! But probably not in the mass social-sexual marketplace of public high school.
I agree with Tricia – the American high schools are different at this point. I live in the Czech Republic and I went to high school 1987-1991. The atmosphere was completely different, at least at the time (it was the time of the breakdown of the communist regime, which, perhaps, influenced us too). Yes, we had also our nerds and popular kids, but it was not this much about “social ladder”.
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Susan, I went to a small, uniformed all-girl school (hooray!) where it was accepted that we were all different, but one day when I picked up my son from his elementary school in England he burst into tears and said, “How do you begin to talk to people who don’t even KNOW they have a subconscious?”
I told him it got better once you hit high school, and when he did, it did.
I go to school in England but I don’t go to a high school; though naturally I have been surrounded by how the year I was in became a microcosm that degenerated, as he said, into a popularity contest. I pretty much failed in every aspect of being popular and I don’t think biology was ever going to let me be more than I was; I’m introverted and only figure that out in the past year or so (I’m 18), and I have red hair & freckles, just everything working against me; in many ways I am lucky because there were many ‘outcasts’ for various reasons (brains, looks, demeanor etc) and we all kind of came together and had a great enough time.
From what I’ve seen and heard American High school sounds like it would have been absolute torture for me; luckily where I am in (UK) College I can sit alone on a computer instead of having to socialise, and this is a common room rather than the library (a place I loved, naturally).
I keep trying to tell my (5 years younger) sister that there is more to life than what she’s going through (she’s introverted too) and that all the homework and the drama of friends is totally forgotten when you’re older and that it doesn’t have to be so damning. At least she knows now, aged 13, that she is introverted and I can help her work through it, rather than have her go through what I did (and am still) – being constantly misunderstood, isolated & judged: not fun.