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The In(novation) Crowd

June 27, 2017

It's perhaps one of the most common storylines in Hollywood movies, right up there with the "Wacky yet adorkable hero/heroine moves to a new place where they're treated like a weirdo and encounter a series of upsetting disasters until the whole town falls in love with them just for their crazy ways", "Tightly wound office worker who has diligently followed the rules for his or her entire life hits the final straw, goes wild, then realizes what's truly important in life and finds a happy medium for the rest of his or her days," and the plot for pretty much every big rom-com movie ever. If there's anything that the Britney Spears circa. 2007 incidents taught us (and about a million other examples in history, but that's just one of my personal favourites), America - and the rest of the world - loves to root for an underdog. The gang of misfits, the outcasts, the weirdos - no matter how much they might try to fit in, the happy ending always comes around when we discover that they're the most lovable, and successful at whatever they've endeavored to do (be that wooing the man or woman of their dreams, taking over a high school, world domination, whatever) when they are just able to be themselves. "Why be different when you were born to stand out?" is the life philosophy we're left with, along with "Being normal is boring," and "There is nothing more beautiful than being yourself." And I, like most people who have made it through high school and swum unsuspectingly into the tricky waters of adulthood (which is basically like high school but with jobs and stuff, in many ways), am inclined to agree. The bottom line here is always that being the strange, dorky, unpopular kid in high school winds up being a blessing later in life, even if you may not see it that way back then. So why is it, then, that a number of experts have claimed that being popular actually does make us happier, richer, and more successful later in life? 

 

Photograph: Shutterstock.

 

According to research from the Institute of for Social and Economic Research (ISER) back in 2009, if you were popular with your peers at school, then you're more likely to earn more money later in life as an adult. In fact, a 2012 paper from the US National Bureau of Economic Research not only said the same thing, but even claimed that "moving from the 20th to 80th percentile of the high-school popularity distribution yields a 10% wage premium nearly 40 years later". Meanwhile, Popular: The Power of Likability In A Status-Obsessed World, a new book by Mitch Prinstein - a psychologist and the University of North Carolina John Van Seters Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience's Director of Clinical Psychology, claims the same: That a worldwide study conducted in the professor's own lab found that adults who were popular during their childhood were the most likely to report that they had happier marriages, stronger work relationships, and were, in general, more successful members of society. 

 

So what happened to this idea that being the unpopular kid, the inbetweener, or simply put, someone who wasn't the cool kid, makes you more successful later in life? I mean, there's countless examples of people who weren't necessarily popular in high school who have wound up being definitely successful later in life - more than half of the Hollywood actors (which can arguably be defined as one of the adult world's greatest collectives of cool kids) claim that they were geeks in high school, often bullied, before growing into their blessed good looks (or the income that allowed them surgery, in some cases), and their hard-won grown-up confidence. It's character-building, people say - and as someone who could only be classified as an In-Betweener - an occasional geek and weirdo, with dorky tendencies that sometimes saw me as an outcast, but enough friendliness and surprising charisma or misled confidence that I had enough social clout to still be friendly with the so-called popular kids and be invited to the parties - I'd have to say I agree with the latter camp. I mean, it's logical isn't it: Those kids who were busy sitting in their basements studying while the others were out drinking, or who were jeered at during school because they were great at science and maths, for instance, are the ones who grow up to dream up ideas like the next ground-breaking technology, right? And in the case of those actors, being into musical theatre when you're in high school isn't considered "cool" (or at least it wasn't back in the day - who knows what the kids nowadays are into). Just take Zac Efron in his High School Musical days (and imagine what things must have been like for him way before that, to get there) and fast forward to him in Baywatch now, for instance. We may have all cringed as he sang and danced his way through "Bop To The Top" (yes, I've seen it, admitted with only a smidgen of shame), but you can bet most women I know (yes, myself included obvs - Zac, I heart you, and did even when you were Troy, hah!) wouldn't hastily kick him out of bed nowadays. 

 

This concept of "Revenge of the nerds" translating to "The best revenge is success" later in life is a satisfying one, there's no doubt about that - and while it's hard to see when you're still in the thick of it in high school (and not just because I was a four-eyed glasses wearer who hadn't discovered the joy of contact lenses yet), it makes sense: Nerds are smart, so they get into better schools, get better jobs, and then wind up making more money, which can then buy them the best haircuts, wardrobes, and other makeover-worthy grooming money can buy (not to mention personal trainers, fancy gym memberships, and high-quality healthy food that's #OrganicEverything), leading them to live more successful, and probably more attractive lives as adults. They can take a bashing - along with constructive criticism that helps them constantly improve - and have learned how to build real confidence that perseveres no matter how much adversity they've faced, and have a good sense of humor about it too. They have, from a young age, strongly stuck by their passions, whatever that may have been - a key ingredient to success in the bigger picture. If things don't always go their way, they don't throw hissy fits - they'll not just survive, they'll learn how to thrive. They learn to not care what people think, social norms be damned if you're ready to stand out from the crowd. You don't hit your peak when you're in high school. I could go on, but there's a reason why those misfits-done-good stories are so popular: Because honestly we can all relate a little bit. You see, real life isn't like the movies, where everything tends to be a little more black and white. Whether you were a cool kid or a nerd, we all had our own insecurities, and the moments where we doubted ourselves, or felt like the odd one our or the underdog. And it's that ability to relate, and to know that we weren't in it alone - that someone else understood us - is what draws us to these tales, in my opinion. 

 

So what exactly about being a popular kid makes us so great later in life, according to this scientific research then? Well, it's not necessarily that you had to be your high school Prom King or Queen in order to reap the benefits of the popular effect: The idea is that once you've learned how to manage social hierarchy, you have developed the social skills and know-how to earn a fair amount of points in social currency, which is still an important factor in an adult world that's obsessed with status. Described as "social information processing", the idea is that the way we react to social situations is often automatic, and what we've learned through the experiences in our youth is what will help to develop that knee-jerk reaction as an adult. We are social creatures, and this does admittedly also make sense. To put it simply, if you know how to talk to people, make people laugh and smile and like you, and make people feel good about themselves and want to spend more time with you, you're going to be better in social situations - which, in adult life, can lead to better networking, more promotions at work, making a better impression on potential mates or spouses; the list goes on. Alternatively, if you never really figured that out and are still struggling through your social awkwardness as an adult, these traits could still cripple you, or at least trip you up, in social situations, thus potentially affecting your rank in the social pecking order. Psychologically, it's also harder to un-learn what we were trained to feel even dating back to high school, in terms of whether we view ourselves as a submissive or dominant type in social situations. It's not impossible, but it is harder.

 

And this also makes sense. Just look at Instagram, for instance - in the everlasting quest for more likes and followers, it's basically a giant popularity contest. Some of the cool kids are actually brilliant, smart, and funny, and some of them are vacuous idiots yet boast countless followers anyway - and no matter whether you're genuinely a great person underneath the Likes and Followers or not, aesthetics do matter. And while it's easy to think that the nerds have won, in our modern world where it's cool to say you love Star Wars and Harry Potter, or wear glasses - all things that wouldn't have been seen as cool back in the day - how much do we disdain those who don't subscribe to our passions and beliefs? After all, aren't the dot-com geniuses out there, the innovative people creating startups and hunkering down over their MacBooks after traveling across the globe (the more obscure the location, the better), drinking fair-trade raw coffee and wearing anything that isn't a mainstream label, now the new crowd-pleasers? In a world where "nerd is the new cool" (hipsters, I'm looking at you), are we guilty of simply turning the tables in the popularity stakes, and making those with the now long-gone formerly-respected cool kid traits feel like the outcasts we once were ourselves? If this is the true revenge of the nerds, then I think we're only shooting ourselves in the foot here, since honestly, that makes us just as bad and shows that we haven't really learned anything from how that made us feel when we were younger.

 

Because the fact of the matter is, it doesn't really matter how old or how young we are - the concept of "cool" is something that changes over time, as fluid and permeable as water. There is no set rule of what's cool and what's not - the only certain thing is that that list constantly evolves, with not just our age, but with the way the world around us changes too. And in order to stay popular - or perhaps relevant is a better term here - we've just got to stay in the loop, so we aren't passé. At the end of the day, it's social acceptance, and a need to fall in that line between fitting in and leading the crowd, in a way that makes others adore you. It's the ability to influence others, and hold the key to an immense social currency that opens doors. And if that's the case, then the boffins are right: It does matter. As usual, while I do like that it makes you think, I don't think there's a right or wrong answer here per se; it just depends on how you want to look at it, and your own individual circumstances. Whether you were a jock or a geek, I'd still say when it comes to success, the ball is in your court. And spoken like a true nerd, I'd say that the way to beat the system is to persevere, be true to yourself, and use your brain to get around it: No matter what floats your boat, you've just got to learn to work what you've got in the best way you can. Write your own definition of success, and the currency will eventually change - in your world anyway. And that's all that really matters in the end, right? 

 

 

 

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