Quirk Cachet: Why 'Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth'

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:00 pm

If there wasn't a spot for you at the cool table in the cafeteria, fear not: In her new book, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, Alexandra Robbins argues that the teen losers of today are the adult success stories of tomorrow.

Robbins wasn't an outcast in high school, but she wasn't a popular kid either. "I was what's known as a floater," she tells NPR's Liane Hansen. "I could sit at the edge of most cafeteria tables, but was never a part of any one group. I was also a dork. And still am. And proud!"

Robbins, who has authored several books about young people, says she was inspired to write Geeks after meeting students all over the country who felt that there was something wrong with them because they weren't in the popular crowd. There are two messages she wants today's teens to hear, she says: "No. 1, being excluded in high school or middle school doesn't mean that anything's wrong with you. And No. 2, popularity also doesn't make you happy."

In The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, Robbins presents "The Quirk Theory," in which she posits that the interests and passions and idiosyncrasies that get kids teased in school are the very same quirks that turn them into cool, interesting adults. "Many of the differences that cause students to be excluded in school are actually the same qualities or skills that other people are going to admire, respect or value about that person in adulthood," she explains.

Just look at rock legend Bruce Springsteen. He wasn't always "The Boss." He was a loner in high school and started a band because he felt like an outsider. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was a daydreamer who had her nose in books all the time — not unlike some of the fictional characters she creates today. Rowling remembers being bullied in school. So does fashion icon Tim Gunn; kids made fun of him because he liked to make things ... now he makes things for a (very successful) living.

In Geeks, Robbins follows seven students through one high school year. She describes them as "the loner, the gamer, the nerd, the new girl, the band geek and the weird girl." The seventh was a well-liked cheerleader. "She was in the popular crowd, she had been a queen bee," Robbins says. "And yet she was struggling with the way her clique demanded things of its members."

Teens feel stuck in their cliques, she adds. "Students today think that they can't switch groups. But it turns out you can, you just have to give people a chance."

Though many frustrated high-schoolers find popularity to be more of an art than a science, Robbins actually spent a lot of time researching the psychological science of popularity. She explains there are two kinds of popularity: perceived popularity (based on reputation) and sociometric popularity (based on who is actually liked). Those two aren't always one and the same; just ask any teen the difference between "mean popular" and "nice popular."

When it comes to enforcing social hierarchies, Robbins argues that teachers and administrators aren't really as agnostic as they would like to seem. "There are three elements to perceived popularity," she explains. "A student has to be visible, recognizable and influential." Athletes and cheerleaders — students who generally score high on perceived popularity — are the students the school promotes as role models for the student body, Robbins argues.

For all the thousands of dollars some schools are spending on anti-bullying campaigns, by promoting some activities above others, the school is "telling students essentially who should be picked on and who shouldn't," Robbins says.

But there are plenty of positive things that teachers can do. Robbins recommends pairing unlikely students to work together in class, and making sure students from all different cliques are treated equally. Teachers should also be mindful of their own friendships at school, Robbins reminds; students are extremely sensitive to social hierarchies and can sense cliques among their teachers, too.

These days, geeks seem to be enjoying a moment in the sun: Things that were once geeky — video games, science fiction, fantasy books — are now quirky-cool. And geek-glorifying shows and movies — think: Glee, Napoleon Dynamite and Big Bang Theory — have enjoyed enormous popularity. And then there are the geeks all grown up: Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft's Bill Gates and Apple's Steve Jobs. Have geeks already inherited the Earth?

"I think in the adult world, they're getting there," Robbins says. "I think people are much more accepting and much more embracing of differences." Perhaps this generation of high school losers will prove Robbins' Quirk Theory once and for all.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LIANE HANSEN, Host:

The book is called "The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth," and Alexandra Robbins is in our studio. Welcome to the program.

M: I'm thrilled to be here. Thank you.

HANSEN: Were you a high school misfit?

M: I wouldn't call myself a misfit. I was what's known as a floater, which means I could sit at the edge of most cafeteria tables but I was never a part of any one group.

HANSEN: You spent 10 years analyzing the behavior of high school students. What drew you to the subject?

M: So I wanted to write this book to get across the message that number one, being excluded in high school or middle school doesn't mean that anything is wrong with you. And number two, popularity also doesn't make you happy.

HANSEN: You present what you call the Quirk Theory. What is the Quirk Theory?

M: I love it, Quirk Theory. So many of the differences that cause students to be excluded in school are actually the same qualities or skills that other people are going to admire, respect, or value about that person in adulthood and outside of the school setting.

HANSEN: There are some real-world examples of dorky high school kids who are successful today - Bruce Springsteen.

M: Yes, Bruce Springsteen was an outsider in school. And he has said that he started a band because he was on the outside looking in.

HANSEN: And J.K. Rowling.

M: J.K. Rowling has said that she was bullied in school. She was a daydreamer and had her nose in books all the time, much like some of her characters today.

HANSEN: Tim Gunn.

M: Tim Gunn was made fun of because he liked to make things. Now, he makes things for a living; he's famous because of it. He's a fashion icon and his catchphrase is, make it work.

HANSEN: You followed seven high school students through a school year. Can you give us some brief examples of who they were, or what they represented?

M: Yeah, what I did is, I followed six outsiders and one popular cheerleader throughout a school year. The outsiders included the loner, the gamer, the nerd, the new girl, the band geek and the weird girl. I followed the popular cheerleader to get the opposite side of the story - and that turned out to be one of the most interesting stories, I think.

HANSEN: Tell me about it.

M: Well, she was in the popular crowd. She had been a queen bee, and yet she was struggling with the way her clique demanded things of its members.

HANSEN: So was she beginning then to know what an outsider felt like?

M: She didn't realize it at the time. In fact, what I ended up doing is, I ended up giving each of the main characters a challenge in the middle of the year. I didn't begin the book expecting to do that, but I saw so clearly that this girl needed to get out of the popular clique in order to regain her self-esteem. And I realized she thought it was impossible. The only way I could get her to do it was to say, this is an official challenge for the book. Then, she did it.

HANSEN: Interesting. And what kind of challenge did you give, say, the gamer?

M: Students today think that they can't switch groups, but it turns out you can. You just have to give people a chance.

HANSEN: And what did you give to the nerd?

M: The nerd - actually, he was the one person who decided he didn't want to do a challenge because he had given up on his high school social life altogether. So many students have so many wonderful things going for them, but they don't realize it, they don't see it, because when you're mired in that high school group, you start to see yourself as you think other people see you, and that can be distressing.

HANSEN: Does the school itself contribute to these divisions between insiders and outsiders?

M: Absolutely. And in fact, you hear so much about schools trying to change the bullying, the clique warfare, the tension in schools. And they don't realize that they are doing things that end up contributing to the hierarchy and end up telling students, essentially, who should be picked on and who shouldn't.

HANSEN: Really? How would they do something like that?

M: So what happens is, there are three elements to perceived popularity. A student has to be visible, recognizable and influential. Well, who do you think these schools are thrusting in front of the student body as people who are visible, influential and recognizable? It's the athletes; it's the people at the pep rallies; it's the cheerleaders.

HANSEN: Is there anything teachers can do?

M: There are so many things teachers can do, from pairing unlikely students in class to making sure they don't treat students in different cliques different ways. Also, probably the biggest surprise in my research was that there are teacher cliques out there. And this is happening even in schools that are paying thousands of dollars to try and curb bullying among students. Well, the students see it's going on among the teachers, so schools have to address that as well.

HANSEN: Given the popularity of like, "Glee," "Napoleon Dynamite," "Big Bang Theory," and the fact that things that were once geeky are now cool - things like video games and science fiction, fantasy games - and the amazing success of Mark Zuckerberg with Facebook, and Bill Gates with Microsoft, and Steve Jobs with Apple, have the geeks already inherited the earth?

M: I think in the adult world, they're getting there. I think people are much more accepting, and much more embracing, of differences. And that's why Quirk Theory ends up working.

HANSEN: Alexandra Robbins is the author of "The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive after High School." Thank you so much for coming in, Alexandra.

M: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.