Lagging, apparently, 7 years behind, I just read Why Nerds Are Unpopular.  Well, OK, I skimmed it.  It’s long, and my study habits and powers of concentration are not what they once were.

If I understood correctly, the thesis of the piece is that smart kids, “nerds,” choose to be unpopular.  Maybe they aren’t really aware of the choice at the time — it’s high school, after all, and how many of us are that self-aware in high school?  The idea is, though, that smart kids could (and some do) choose to use their intelligence to figure out the social game.  Or, they can focus on academic pursuits — become “nerds,” in other words.  It’s a trade-off.

I had never really thought this all through with the kind of clarity and thoroughness that Paul Graham brought to the issue.  I love it.  I do think of my life now as a series of choices; I’ve just never extended that realization so far back.  I wish that I HAD been aware of the choice I made in high school, so that I could have been as proud of it then as I am now.  Which is not at all, I hasten to add, to say that choosing popularity would’ve been the wrong thing to do — it just wouldn’t have been me.

I hope to be able to convey this sense of choice and power to my kids, too.  Maybe when they hit those difficult tween and teen years, the knowledge will give them more confidence in their choices.  Maybe.

In fact, just a week or two ago we were having a conversation about the very same thing.  It was, ahem, a teensy bit less academic that Mr. Graham’s essay: it centered around the plot of Wicked.  They love the music from the show, but they didn’t come along when Robin and I saw it, so they have a lot of questions about the plot.  In this case, they were asking me why Elphaba and Glinda were arguing at the beginning of “Defying Gravity.”

It is, essentially, the same conflict: Glinda wants people to like her, she likes the power and influence she gains from being popular.  Elphaba feels really strongly about what is right and wrong, and she will not compromise just to “get along.”  In the end, as I was careful to point out to my kids, they both look at the other’s life and realize what they have given up in making the opposite choice.

Which is all just to say, I’m pretty sure my decision to take a Broadway musical and turn it into some social-emotional exercise cements my place at the nerd table.  But I’m good with that.


About Grape

I've got the world's best kids and husband. Great house, steady job. I'm living the American dream. The trick is to appreciate it. I'm working on that part.
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One Response to Choices

  1. Jody says:


    We were just yesterday discussing popularity in the fourth grade, on the way home from choir. The consensus was that popularity was a bit hard to define, and it wasn’t clear how the popular kid got so popular, or why.

    In general, I’d prefer a message that gives my kids more agency, and yet — even in preschool, there was the kid that every other kid wanted to befriend. I finally understood the charisma piece of Dungeons & Dragons.

    Which isn’t to say that a smart kid couldn’t figure out how to create that charisma for herself. Maybe. But isn’t there a difference between consciously playing a game, and just having “it”?

    And yet, I don’t want my kids to think any “it” they don’t naturally posess is out of their reach, either. (Although I’m a nerd, and I tend to think I made the right “choice” in high school not to use my smarts to crack the social code.)


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