Discover more from Where the Map Ends by Kyra Evans
A letter about popularity (for all of us who’ve always been uncool)
This week I find myself thinking about group dynamics.
It’s back to school season here in Canada. I have a 14-year-old who is returning to school this week and so I’m right in the suck with them, listening to confusing cycles of anticipatory social politics and buying overpriced packages of rainbow coloured gel pens in a weak attempt to soothe the anxiety (theirs and mine).
I find myself personally feeling anxious this time of year, outside of parenting, simply because my body so vividly remembers the terror of my own back-to-school experience.
As I’ve mentioned often in my writing, I’ve never felt like I fit in anywhere, but my school experience was, by far, the time when I was most painfully aware of this fact.
It’s been illuminating (if agonizing) to watch my own child enter the teenage years and deal with so many of the same problems I faced… but with the added weight of a digital social life that extends past school hours.
The experience has clarified some things about group dynamics that I’d like to share with you.
My hope is that if you, like me, have never felt like you fit into this world, that you might find some peace in what I’ve uncovered.
Remember how, when you were a pimply-faced teenager who had been subject to some cruelty at school, adults would tell you that it’s because you’re actually cooler and nicer and more awesome than the mean kids, and that that’s the reason they were excluding you?
And you didn’t believe them?
And it didn’t help at all?
Well guess what? … they were right.
What I’ve realized in watching high school as a third party is that the kids who rise to popularity at this age are always, ALWAYS, mediocre in every way possible.
They are kids who are not particularly great at any one talent (and thus do not threaten the other kids’ sense of self worth), not particularly emotional (and thus can easily feign detachment from most circumstances), and not rigidly attached to any particular loyalty or moral compass (and thus are willing to change allegiances at a moment’s notice in order to remain in the good graces of the pack).
This is the cream that rises to the top when you’re 14.
If you were a kid who had a talent (excellent grades, a beautiful singing voice, exceptional painting skills, etc.), who wore your heart on your sleeve (finding it difficult to put on a brave face when someone stabbed you in the back), and who felt compelled to remain loyal (even when one of your friends suddenly committed some completely innocuous crime that led to their exclusion), chances are you were not the “popular kid”.
During adolescence, the social environment is constantly shifting. As each change occurs (based on a text, a crush, a minor infraction during some random lunchtime exchange), kids need to make split second decisions on how to respond.
The unfortunate thing is that humans have evolved to be really, really bad at this.
Scientists have studied herd mentality for decades and have come to the conclusion that the vast majority of humans will always choose to copy the people around them, rather than make their own decisions. As a result, humans (in a group) are notoriously bad at effectively responding to changes in their environment.
When faced with changes to their social environment, teenagers look around and copy what everyone else is doing. The kids who are best at reading the room, finding a safe middle ground, and quickly cutting ties with anything that’s currently being shunned are the kids who will always find themselves with a chair when the music stops.
The kids who respond honestly and thoughtfully in accordance with the changes (for example, refusing to exclude a kid even though the group has ousted them, or continuing to memorize lines for the school play and deliver an amazing performance even after the other kids have decided it’s “lame”) will suffer as a result: Either by being pointedly alienated or rendered completely invisible.
“But,” you might think, “At least we outgrow this tendency to elevate and worship the most mediocre among us and punish the high performers. At least as we grow up, we learn to promote and reward exceptional behaviour and ethics.”
Unfortunately, you would think wrong.
Many of you know that I quit a job back in June and took a new role (I’m now working as a senior editor in addition to providing corporate mindfulness workshops. Unrelated, but please HMU if your company would like a virtual mindfulness sesh, I’d love to book a few more this fall).
At my last company, I noticed something that I’d seen again and again throughout my career; something that had also dogged my husband throughout his. It is this:
The people who get promoted and praised in a corporate environment are the ones who are best at “playing the game”, not the ones who are best at doing their actual jobs.
For those of us who always strive to turn in work that accords with the best of our abilities, this is infuriating.
We see people who, just like in school, are mediocre at best, placed on a pedestal; their work showcased in PowerPoint presentations and lauded as revolutionary, when really it’s a shadow of what others have produced.
In 1837, Hans Christian Anderson published “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Though it’s the most well-known version of this tale, various renditions can be traced back as far as the year 1052.
This “fable” has felt painfully more like non-fiction to me for my entire life. It’s soothing to know that people even one thousand years ago seemed to agree.
You may remember, but in short:
Swindlers enter a kingdom pretending to be famous fashion designers. They sell the emperor on fancy new garments but they have no materials. They take fake “measurements” and mime dressing the emperor. They ooh and ahh over their non-existent creations to such an extent that the emperor decides to walk a parade in his new outfit, which means he’s strolling around town naked.
The townspeople also ooh and ahh over his new duds, assuming that he sees something they don’t. That is, until a child blurts out “The emperor has no clothes!”. The townspeople come to their senses. But the emperor remains convinced, and continues his procession.
Friends, in most cases in human life, the emperor has no goddamn clothes.
I’m here to tell you, if you’re watching someone rise to confusing heights in a social group or professional setting, and you’re scratching your head because they haven’t really contributed anything special,
YOU’RE NOT CRAZY.
Kakonomics is an ancient Greek term, with a rough translation of “the economics of the worst”.
It’s a studied phenomenon that describes humankind’s practice of “tacitly agreeing with the companies and people we work for, as well as our friends and even partners, to do mediocre work and not deliver what we promise.”
Kakonomics, in other words, thrives on a mutual exchange of mediocre work.
It is built on the maintenance of an ongoing lie in which all parties involved agree to praise mediocre work as excellent (i.e., agreeing that the emperor’s new clothes are the most majestic works of haute couture to ever grace the runways).
If anyone breaks the terms of the agreement, by either calling out the mediocrity of the work, or – heaven forbid – delivering exceptional work, they will be ostracized and excluded from the group.
(i.e., In the real word, the precocious child would be either fired or demoted as a result of their willingness to call out reality rather than participate in the group delusion.)
Social scientists point to the fact that humans prefer to avoid the pain of trying to give something your all, and failing.
Understandable, BUT, while Kakonomics keeps people feeling safe in the short term, in the long run it dramatically reduces the functioning of the overall system.
If you’ve ever wondered why some of your favourite music, film, television, and literature is so niche and under the radar, while every fucking Avengers movie and Pitbull song rakes in endless cash; or why you can deliver incredible work in your career and remain invisible while Chad can sneeze and get promoted to VP, Kakonomics might be the answer.
In a wonderful example of both the dangers of Kakonomics and awkward teenaged social dynamics, Juniper and I just discovered, and are bingeing, an awesome show called PEN15.
It’s a semi-autobiographical comedy/drama series about the absolute gut-wrenching terror that is adolescence. If you have Hulu, I believe it’s on there. If you’re Canadian you can also stream season 2 (they just removed season 1) on CBC Gem.
In PEN15, creators and executive producers Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle star as two 13-year-old social outcasts in the year 2000. The show is masterfully written, hilarious, and insightful, and the core of its brilliance is the fact that Maya and Anna are adult women playing 13-year-olds, while the rest of their peers are played by actual 13-year olds.
Friends, this is EXACTLY HOW I FELT at 13.
It’s such a perfect visual representation that at times it’s painful to watch. This show is an absolute masterpiece of truth telling.
I’m sure it won’t surprise you then, that PEN15 was not renewed past season 2.
It didn’t achieve the fame and fortune that many other less impressive shows have amassed (hello season 9 of 90-Day Fiancé).
The fact is that most of society is frightened by vulnerability.
As it stands, the pack doesn’t favour tenderness and truth.
Those of us who act in ways that are honest and loyal, react in ways that reveal our sensitivity, and invest fully in the things that matter to us take big risks; we are rarely rewarded with popularity as a result.
Those of us who choose to make art or turn in professional work that is wise and heartfelt, work that resists being forced into the mediocrity necessary to please the pack take big risks; we are rarely rewarded with commercial success.
It’s never the safe bet.
The full quote is:
“But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve / for daws (birds) to peck at.”
In wearing our hearts on our sleeve, we knowingly leave our hearts open to criticism, judgement, and attack.
Some of us continue to do it anyway.
Could it be that it’s somehow worth it?
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
Maya and Anna from PEN15 may have been awkward teenagers who later made art that only reached a niche audience.
But for the members of that niche audience (including JUNIPER AND ME!) their art has touched us so deeply that we will be devoted to their success for the rest of our lives.
You and I may have been awkward teenagers who desperately wanted to find soul friends to connect with.
We’ve likely had some ups and downs in this pursuit:
People who, like Iago in Othello, pretended to be on our side so they could stab us in the back later.
And people who have surprised us with their tenderness and loyalty.
The latter are rare and beautiful connections. They’re what keep us wearing our hearts on our sleeves, despite the looming threat of the daws.
I’ve been explaining it to Juniper like this:
“Imagine you’re marching into school with a bright light above your head, like a taxi available for hire. Out of 1500 other kids at your school, you might only see 8 other kids in that crowd with their light on. So it may take a while to find them.
But don’t stop looking.”
If you, like me, are reliving the back-to-school jitters, or you’re feeling the crushing weight of invisibility at work despite your best efforts, you’re not alone. You’re not crazy.
Keep looking for the light in others.
Keep shining yours.
In the eternal words of the great Lester Bangs (as brilliantly portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous):
“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”
I seriously love you all.
Sending you so, so much love.
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