There’s a very good article in the New York Times about “positive procrastination.” Yes, that’s right, procrastination that’s a good thing.
They talk to Dr. John Perry, author of The Art of Procrastination, who explains a good method for leveraging your laziness:
Dr. Perry was a typical self-hating procrastinator until it occurred to him in 1995 that he wasn’t entirely lazy. When he put off grading papers, he didn’t just sit around idly; he would sharpen pencils or work in the garden or play Ping-Pong with students. “Procrastinators,” he realized, “seldom do absolutely nothing.”
A modest insight, perhaps, but it eased his conscience and disabused him of the old idea that procrastinators should limit commitments. The key to productivity, he argues in “The Art of Procrastination,” is to make more commitments — but to be methodical about it.
At the top of your to-do list, put a couple of daunting, if not impossible, tasks that are vaguely important-sounding (but really aren’t) and seem to have deadlines (but really don’t). Then, farther down the list, include some doable tasks that really matter.
“Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list,” Dr. Perry writes. “With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.”
To quote Robert Benchley:
…anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.
A similar technique is described by Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation:
“My best trick is to play my projects off against each other, procrastinating on one by working on another.”
Dr. Steel says it’s based on sound principles of behavioral psychology: “We are willing to pursue any vile task as long as it allows us to avoid something worse.”
My two favorite methods for beating procrastination are here.
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Is a little bit of awe what you need to be a better person?
Is your calendar the secret to happiness?
What makes for a meaningful life?
These are some of the things I talked about with my friend Jennifer. She’s a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and has published fascinating papers on happiness, meaning, money and how we spend our time. Her book is The Dragonfly Effect.
The big big power of feeling very very small
You did some research on awe and how it affects us. Can you talk a little about that?
Absolutely. The awe and time work is done with Melanie Rudd and Kathleen Vohs, and is based off of Melanie’s dissertation. One reason we started to examine awe is that it is an understudied emotion – particularly relative to happiness. A second reason is that it has unique consequences. When you feel awe, you are experiencing a positive emotion that feels vast and big, and as a result is capable of altering one’s view of the world. Our studies focus on the effects of awe on how people may alter their sense of time – that is, the way they perceive and use time. We show that when people feel awe, they feel like they have more available time on their hands. And as a result, they are more willing to volunteer to help others, and spend time on others. They also tend to make very different product choices, preferring experiential products over material products. They even experience a boost in life satisfaction.
(Note: Want to try this yourself? Here’s the commercial and the slideshow they used to provoke awe in test subjects. How do you feel after you watch them?)
Want to be happier? Track time, track your happiness and plan ahead.
You did another study on how to spend time in order to increase happiness. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Sure. A lot of research has examined the relationship between money and happiness (see an excellent new book by Liz Dunn and Mike Norton called Happy Money), but there is less work on the relationship between happiness and time. Yet time is one of the most important resources we have, and there are many reasons to think that a deeper examination of how we spend time might move us closer to the elusive goal of improving happiness. One reason is because time, relative to money, tends to be laden with personal meaning. Another reason is that time fosters interpersonal connection (see Cassie Mogilner’s 2011 paper in Psychological Science). Since both personal meaning and social connection are critical to happiness, it makes sense that how individuals spend their time may shed light on the happiness puzzle. As a result, Cassie Mogilner, Melanie Rudd, and I ask the question – can we rethink how we’re using time? The main premise of that Journal of Consumer Psychology paper is to suggest that, if we rethink how we spend time, and be more intentional on how we spend time (with whom and on what activities) – that may impact the happiness we feel.
More recently, I am also exploring whether we can maximize time, expand time, and design time more proactively (rather than passively). For example, if people are asked to monitor how they are actually spending their time, and then later rate themselves on a variety of measures including how happy they feel, the results show that people who spend more time on projects that energize them and with people who energize them tend to be happier. However, what is interesting is that there is often a gap between where people say they want to spend their time and how they actually spend their time. For example, if you ask people to list the projects that energize (vs. deplete) them, and what people energize (vs. deplete them), and then monitor how they actually spend their time, you find a large percentage know what projects and people energize them, but do not in fact spend much time on those projects and with those people.
Taking an inventory about where you’re spending your time is revealing. And then once you identify the activities and people with whom you want to spend more time, calendaring your time thoughtfully becomes critical. When you put something on a calendar, you’re more likely to actually do that activity – partly because you’re less likely to have to make an active decision whether you should do it – because it’s already on your calendar. For example, if working out is important to you but you find yourself skipping your workout far too often, calendar time for the workout in the same way you might calendar business meetings. When you make these dates with yourself, you don’t have to actively ask yourself, should I go work out? If it is on your calendar, your behavior is more automatic and consequently you are more likely to spend time on activities that you know are good for you.
Stories and Social Media can change (and save) lives.
Can you talk about your book, Dragonfly Effect?
Absolutely. This was a personal project, inspired by a story that my student Robert Chatwani shared a few years ago. His best friend, Sameer Bhatia, was diagnosed with leukemia and there was no match in the bone marrow registry for him. Robert, friends, and family launched a campaign that harnessed social media to get 20,000 South Asians into the registry. And they surpassed their goal; getting 24,611 South Asians into the registry in 11 short weeks. It was this story – how they accomplished this goal– that inspired The Dragonfly Effect. The reality is that there are almost 10,000 people every year who are in need of a bone marrow match. So the book allowed us to grow Robert’s story, and also provide a roadmap for anyone in this position. The Dragonfly book was about this idea of the power of a story to move people. The use of social networks was just a mechanism by which you could see that any individual with a single focused goal and a story that’s powerful to them and that might resonate with others might be able to do something quite remarkable which is to move others and achieve that single focused goal.
Another reason why The Dragonfly Effect was important to me personally was because we were able to integrate in the new work on happiness and meaningfulness. As you summarized when writing about our On Happiness vs. Meaningfulness paper (with Roy, Kathleen and Emily), meaningfulness is associated with being more of a giver than a taker, and the desire to have a positive impact on the world. Those basic motivations are at the core of the Dragonfly Effect model. And in fact writing the book was deeply meaningful. I think all of us have had that urge to do something that matters and hopefully help others in impactful ways. Every now and then, we get lucky enough to be able to do that. So for Andy, Carlye and I – that motivation was a big reason why we wrote The Dragonfly Effect.
Stories are the secret to meaning in life.
What’s the most common thing people are doing wrong in terms of their lives being happier or more meaningful? What mistakes are most people making on a day-to-day basis?
I’m convinced the questions of (a) what is really meaningful and (b) how you spend your time are useful filters by which you can make better decisions. However, the question, ‘What is meaningful to me?’ is a difficult one to answer. How do you begin to get your head around that question? Some new studies suggest if we spend time thinking about stories in our lives, that might be a more effective way of figuring out what is meaningful versus not. For example, if you ask people simple questions like, ‘Tell me one story in your day’ or ‘Tell me the top 10 stories that define your life,’ you can get individuals thinking more about what is meaningful to them. One hypothesis is that when you do that, you’ll make choices and decisions in a way that might be not just wiser but also potentially also more interesting, distinctive and impactful.
Here’s what to do next.
What’s one thing people can do that’s simple and accessible that can make them happier or their lives more meaningful?
One useful exercise is doing an audit on how you are spending your time. To what degree is how your time being spent aligned with how you want to spend your time? Interestingly, often small shifts in how you spend your time have a bigger impact on your ultimate happiness than you might imagine.
In general, people have an overly positive vision of themselves and their abilities. What flaw are they most honest about? Self control.
Of the two dozen “character strengths” listed in the researchers’ questionnaire, self-control was the one that people were least likely to recognize in themselves. Conversely, when people were asked about their failings, a lack of self-control was at the top of the list.
So if this is something most people can agree on, what can you do to increase willpower?
1) Don’t resist, just postpone
Telling yourself “Not now, but later” is far more powerful than “No, you can’t have that.”
…people who had told themselves Not now, but later were less troubled with visions of chocolate cake than the other two groups… Those in the postponement condition actually ate significantly less than those in the self-denial condition…The result suggests that telling yourself I can have this later operates in the mind a bit like having it now. It satisfies the craving to some degree—and can be even more effective at suppressing the appetite than actually eating the treat.
2) Take it out of your hands
Daniel Akst, author of We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess, explains how we can use “precommitment devices” to rein in desire:
How can you use precommitment to keep yourself from giving in to unwanted desires? You’re probably already doing so—for example, by asking your significant other, on the way to a restaurant, not to let you order dessert when you get there. Dan Ariely, that tireless student of human irrationality, has collected several interesting precommitment anecdotes from regular people, including one who placed her credit card in a container of water in the freezer, thereby requiring a cooling off—er, that is, warming up—period before use, and another who, before a date with a guy she knew she shouldn’t sleep with, wore her “granniest” underwear—presumably to deter herself from disrobing…
3) Increase willpower by not relying on it
Manipulate your environment so you don’t have to exert self-control. Throw out the donuts. Hide the booze. This has been shown to be surprisingly powerful.
Manipulate your environment so as to make what you should do easy and what you shouldn’t do hard.
Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt, and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.
4) “If-Then” Plans
That’s a fancy way of setting a standard response to a situation so you don’t have to think. When someone asks you to vote for that “other” political party, to inject heroin or consider murder you probably don’t actually consider it. You have a knee jerk script in your head that says “I don’t do that.”
If everything you did required a thoughtful decision, you’d never get out of bed in the morning. Too much of this and you’re a computer. But used deliberately it can be quite powerful.
It’s called if-then planning, and it is a really powerful way to help you achieve any goal. Well over a hundred studies, on everything from diet and exercise to negotiation and time management, have shown that deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal (e.g., “If it is 4 p.m., then I will return any phone calls I should return today”) can double or triple your chances for success.
5) Make sure your goal has an emotional component
If you’re really going to be motivated to control yourself, you need to feel something. Having an abstract goal in mind isn’t enough.
Chip and Dan Heath say that the emotional mind is key in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard:
Focus on emotions. Knowing something isn’t enough to cause change. Make people (or yourself) feel something.
When we don’t feel meaning, when what we’re doing doesn’t have a purpose, motivation goes out the window. Noah Goldstein, author of Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, reviews a study:
Adam Grant, a scholar in the field of organizational behavior, realized that workers often fail to live up to their potential because they’ve lost track of the significance and meaningfulness of their own jobs. He figured that if he could remind employees of why their jobs are important, they might become more highly motivated, and therefore, more productive individuals.
The feelings associated with something are far more powerful than the ideas. Make sure they’re on your side.
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Andrew Goldberg and I met about 12 years ago when we were in grad school together. He was always funny but for the past five years that’s been his full time job — as a staff writer on “Family Guy.” I talked to Andrew about creativity, comedy and why fatherhood is the best cure for procrastination.
The full interview was over 30 minutes long so for brevity’s sake I’m only going to post highlights here.
Subscribers to my free weekly newsletter get access to extended interviews.
You’ve been at “Family Guy” five years. Is there a process for you guys in terms of creativity, writing, turning out such great comedy consistently?
I’m not one of those writers who likes to sit alone in a dark room by himself. It’s nice sometimes, obviously. But, I like that I go to work everyday and we work in groups. We have a really big staff. I mean, we have a lot of part time people but if everybody were to show up on the same day there would be like 25 of us there. Usually there’s like between 15 and 20. And the way we usually go through a script is one main room will go through the script itself rewriting it. And then we’ll get to certain places where it’s kind of an isolated stand alone gag. Whether it’s a flashback or a scene and they’ll send out four or five of us for a couple hours to go write five different versions of what it might be. We call them “alts”. And then we come back, and we pitch them and they pick the funniest one. And it goes in. Seeing in terms of “Family Guy” works versus how most sitcoms work, we usually have three or four rooms going at once, which is unusual. Most sitcoms just have one or two rooms going at once. But, our show is so dense with jokes, it’s a joke driven show. We find that it works better if we have a lot of rooms working at once.
It sounds like you guys are big on producing a lot of options, iterating. How do you feel that helps the process?
I’m a big fan of writing alts. If I come to a joke spot, even if I’m working on my own stuff, I’ll often write three or four or five different alts, and then I’ll show it to friends, show it to my wife, show it to my manager, show it to a director or somebody on the project, and ask them which they think is funniest. Usually the first joke you think of isn’t the funniest. You can, you know, one thing that I’ve learned from TV and working in a big group is, whatever joke is there, you can always beat it. There’s always a funnier joke somewhere out there. So I’m a big fan of writing different versions to, kind of find the funniest and the best version.
Are there any tricks that work for you in terms of getting yourself to generate something different? To get your head unstuck from the one vision, and to look at it from different angles?
For me, the best way to do that is to work in a group. It’s like automatically infusing new creativity. Somebody might pitch a joke that doesn’t really work, but the area leads you to something that works. Or, you pitch something that’s halfway there, and somebody adds to it that, you know, makes it really work. That’s one way. You know? I think for me, I watch a lot of TV, I watch a lot of movies. Started listening to books on tape in the car. Partly to prevent myself from going insane. And partly to read when I have a full time job. Plus, I have my own projects. Plus I have two small children, so, you know, there isn’t, you know, a lot of time, like leisure time. But I do try to pack it with kind of ingesting, you know, pop culture, and stuff like that. I thought you were going to ask how do I get myself to sit down and write. And my answer was going to be have children, because then as soon as you have a moment, you take advantage of it. It’s a really good cure for procrastination and writer’s block.
Yeah. That’s my advice. To any writers who are having trouble focusing.
Does it matter, legitimate, illegitimate kids? Does that make a difference, or…?
Well, no, as long as you’re sticking around and caring for it, then it works. If you’re just impregnating somebody, then splitting, it doesn’t help much.
Can you talk about the dynamics in the room? You said that like a great way to create those alts, create those options, was to have other people all working together. What about those dynamics? How do you get the best out of other people? How do they decide who has the best idea? Can you just talk a little bit about dynamics?
The way it works on our show is when the show runner sends out the room, he’ll usually say, “So and so take so and so and so and so and so and so.” And whoever is taking, you know, the other people, that’s the person who’s in charge. So, any of those rooms, it works best when there’s one person in charge, who makes, you know, the decisions of what goes in the script or what doesn’t. And, the different people in charge create different room dynamics. Personally, when I’m in charge we’ll pitch a bunch of ideas, and I’ll say we should write up the ones that I like, but I’ll always be like, “Is there anything else that anybody else loves and thinks should have a shot?“ And, you know, people are usually comfortable enough to pipe up if they do. And then there are some people who when they’re running a room, aren’t that interested in other people’s opinions or maybe they’re just more confident in their own opinions than I am. But everybody has their own dynamic. It’s like in any job. Anybody you’re working with, any group of people you’re working with, based on their unique personalities create their own dynamic. But when it’s working really well, it’s one of those things where the total is more than the sum of the parts, where people are feeding off each other. And helping each other figure out how to do the best versions as certain bits.
Once you guys come out of the rooms, and get back into the original pool. Where does it go from there?
One of the nice things about working in animation versus live action is in live action mostly it’s like, in a week you’re producing a show. For us, it kind of bounces around from day to day, what we’re working on, because we’re working on different episodes in different stages of production. But, you know, it’s best when we go in and there’s a goal for the day, you know, we’re going to finish the rewrite on act one of this script or we’re going to rewrite this rough color version that we watched this morning. So, in terms of like, what the goal is, it kind of changes from day to day.
What part of the process is most interesting to you and why?
Pitching on jokes. In some ways it’s the hardest part but, you know, you can argue back and forth about a story. I spend a lot of time now in editing and story boards and animation. And, you know, writing dialogue or action or whatever is fun, but to me pitching on a joke, stopping on a joke area, and people pitching and pitching with each other and competing against each other to be the one who gets the joke in is the funnest part for me.
Have you noticed any patterns when stuff really works? It generally has this quality, or when everybody loves it, there’s this feeling or this consistency about it? Are there any trends in kind of when things really are creative or quick or funny?
For most shows, I think it’s when the jokes are really character based. And they feel very unique to that character and the character’s relationship. For our show, I think it’s a little different, just because we have so many jokes that aren’t character based. And the way our characters are created, they often kind of break character. Somebody like Peter Griffin, can do almost anything at any given moment. So, it’s not as character and relationship driven as other sitcoms. It’s more joke driven, yeah.
So in terms of creativity, you mention working in teams and going to break out groups, what are things down the line, if you were to do another show, if you were to be writing on other projects, what are some things, where you’d say “These are real takeaways, these are real methods, tips, or tricks that I would bring with me because these are some of the best things that I learned there“?
Mm-hmm. One of them would be doing alts, which I mentioned before, and taking the funniest one. Another thing that we do on “Family Guy” that, I don’t know of another show that does it, you come up with the idea for the show, you beat out the story, we call “breaking a story.” Whether on a white board, or on index cards or whatever. And then the writer of that episode goes off and writes the outline. And on most shows, they get notes and they go off and write their first draft. On our show, they get notes, and then we spend a day or two in a group of, you know, five or six people doing what we call gag tests. Which is going through the outline, scene by scene, and just pitching jokes and ideas for each scene, for bits in each scene. And the reason we do it on our show is because it’s the show is so dense with jokes. It’s useful to go out with a document, with ideas, and areas for jokes to come back to as you’re writing it. You know, on another show, on a live action show, I’m not sure I would spend two days on it. But, to spend a day or an afternoon with five funny people before you go off to script can, you know, really elevate the product that comes back, I think.
Obviously not everything can make it. Some things have to get cut. People are going to disagree on what’s funny. That’s a very qualitative personal judgment. How do you guys arrive at something that is objectively good?
It’s very difficult. It’s probably one of the hardest parts of the job. One thing you brought up is how do you deal with it, when you think something’s funny and everybody else doesn’t. One of the nice things about growing as a writer in TV and breaking in, in TV as you learn you’re forced to not be too precious with your material.
What about dealing with different or difficult personalities?
And, in terms of dealing with different personalities, I think it’s like any business. It’s tough to deal with different personalities. And I think our staff kind of has a reputation and probably earned for being pretty tough. I mean, we’re pretty vicious with each other in a joking way, sometimes. But, you know, there aren’t a lot of polite laughs. If something gets pitched and we don’t think it’s funny, we don’t laugh. Because on our show the laugh is kind of king. If it gets a laugh, it goes in. If it’s something that can get by broadcast standards and practices. But, it’s tough for me to speak on this because I’ve only worked on one show and I know that each show has it’s own personality and you just, I think when you go in there, you gotta figure out quickly and figure out what your place is in there.
Got you. So when you are alone in that dark room working on that outline for the show or working on another project and you do have to work by yourself, how does that change your process? How does that change how you work when you’re not in a room with a group?
It’s interesting, because like I said, I like to work in a room with a group, because it’s fun and it’s boisterous, but like, when I’m by myself, I actually prefer like no distractions and silence. Like, I’m not somebody who can like listen to music in the background and write. Or write in like a crowded coffee shop. For me, the biggest thing when I’m writing myself is just to set a goal, to set a goal for morning or for a day, and just try to get to there. If I set a goal to finish an act of a script by the end of the day, and I get there, then I feel good. If I don’t get there, I feel nervous and jittery.
In terms of coming up with original ideas, coming up with stuff that’s funny, what do you think most people do wrong?
I think it’s a volume thing. I think some people make the mistake of thinking that the first thing that they think of is perfect, and they fall in love with it. You might write five different versions of it, and ultimately come back to the first version and decide that’s the best. But I think writing different versions kind of, of the same thing, frees you up to be more creative and to, you know, look for different paths, you know, in that, different ways to go with that same moment in whatever you’re writing.
Do you think there’s any kind of danger in terms of “groupthink”? Is there any times where a group makes it worse? Where a group wears it down?
Yeah. If everybody’s not working in the same direction. Absolutely. I mean, it can, one person can totally grind things to a halt. You know, one person is not on board. Or you know, one person who’s not fitting in and working out can really bring a room down. And then, the other dangers of “groupthink” is, you know, when it’s one o’clock in the morning and you guys, you all think something’s hilarious, and then you’re reading it at a table read the next morning and nobody is laughing, and you realize we were just stirring each up. Like, this is only funny to us, and it was only because it was so late. Yeah.
Can you talk about “funny”? What’s it mean? I’ve known you for, what, 12, 13 years, you know? You were always a funny guy. How has your kind of concept of funny, what is funny, changed, in five years of Family Guy?
Wow, that’s an interesting question. One kind of sad thing about being a comedy professional is, there’s like a little element of arrogance, where you see something and it might make you laugh, but you’re like, “Oh, I shouldn’t laugh at that.” Or I shouldn’t tell people I think it’s funny. For instance, I went with my wife to the last Adam Sandler movie, “That’s My Boy.” And I thought it was funny. I laughed the whole time. And if I said that in my room at work, they’d be like, “How could you laugh at an Adam Sandler movie?!?!?” I think now, I challenge myself to be funnier than I did five years ago. I challenge myself to find the new joke or the fresher joke more than I would have when I was a younger writer.
That’s interesting. So, what you find funny hasn’t changed dramatically but it’s just a matter of working harder, working longer, generating more ideas to get another 10 %, another 15 %.
Yeah. Yeah. I think so.
Were there any books that helped you, were there any movies that helped you, anything that you were like, “Wow, this really inspired me, this really helped me”?
The best thing, for me, about graduate school is I figured out what I wanted to do. I went there, I was in the producers program. It seemed like a palatable thing in that both my parents worked for IBM for 30 years, so that was my sense of what a job was. And producer seemed to be the closest thing to, like, a real job in entertainment beyond shows that I knew at the time. And, while I was in the program, I took a sitcom writing class with Fred Rubin. And, you know, a couple weeks into it, I was like okay this is what I want to do. This is, you know, I want to be a sitcom writer. And that was great, especially having that level of specificity. Because when you know exactly what you want to do, it makes it easier to do. Because you’re focused on it. And it makes it easier for people to help you.
Which character in “The Breakfast Club” were you in high school? (It can predict who you’ll be as an adult.)
Which character in “The Breakfast Club” did you resemble the most as a tenth grader? The answer often predicts adult personality:
In 2000, three psychologists presented a paper titled “Peer Crowd-Based Identities and Adjustment: Pathways of Jocks, Princesses, Brains, Basket-Cases, and Criminals,” which asked a large sample of tenth-graders which of the five characters from The Breakfast Club they most considered themselves to be, and then checked back in with them at 24. The categories were “immensely predictive,” according to Jacquelynne Eccles, one of the authors.
This is from a long, fascinating article in New York Magazine called “Why You Never Truly Leave High School.” It references a number of interesting social science studies showing how profoundly that time of life can shape you, damage you and predict who you will be. Some other highlights are below.
Height, weight and attractiveness during high school predict success as an adult better than those factors in general:
…it wasn’t adult height that seemed to affect their subjects’ wages; it was their height at 16. (In other words, two white men measuring five-foot-eleven can have very different earning potential in the same profession, all other demographic markers being equal, just because one of them was shorter at 16.) Eight years later, Deborah Carr, a sociologist at Rutgers, observed something similar about adults of a normal weight: They are far more likely to have higher self-esteem if they were a normal weight, rather than overweight or obese, in late adolescence (Carr was using sample data that tracked weight at age 21, but she notes that heavy 21-year-olds were also likely to be heavy in high school). Robert Crosnoe, a University of Texas sociologist, will be publishing a monograph with a colleague this year that shows attractiveness in high school has lingering effects, too, even fifteen years later. “It predicted a greater likelihood of marrying,” says Crosnoe, “better earning potential, better mental health.”
High school is a very recent phenomenon:
Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage… In their recent book Escaping the Endless Adolescence, psychologists Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen note that teenagers today spend just 16 hours per week interacting with adults and 60 with their cohort. One century ago, it was almost exactly the reverse.
When asked, many popular kids didn’t see themselves as popular. Why? Because staying popular requires so much effort you never really feel you’ve achieved it:
“It’s social combat,” he explains. “Think about it: There’s not much instrumental value to gossiping about a wallflower. There’s value to gossiping about your rivals.” The higher kids climb, in other words, the more precariously balanced they feel, unless they’re standing on the square head of the totem pole. It therefore stands to reason that many popular kids don’t see themselves as popular, or at least feel less powerful than they loom. Their perch is too fragile.
One of the reasons high school can be so painful to some is because few relationships are two-way:
In 2005, the sociologist Koji Ueno looked at one of the largest samples of adolescents in the United States, and found that only 37 percent of their friendships were reciprocal—meaning that when respondents were asked to name their closest friends, the results were mutual only 37 percent of the time. One could argue that this heartbreaking statistic is just further proof that high school is a time of unrequited longings.
Why is it a liability to be smart in high school? Because it can be a social liability to be smart in life:
Kurt Vonnegut wrote that high school “is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.” …Why is it that in most public high schools across America, a girl who plays the cello or a boy who plays in the marching band is a loser? And even more fundamentally: Why was it such a liability to be smart? The explanations tended to vary. But among the most striking was the one offered by Steinberg, who conjectured that high-school values aren’t all that different from adult values. Most adults don’t like cello or marching bands, either. Most Americans are suspicious of intellectuals. Cellists, trumpet players, and geeks may find their homes somewhere in the adult world, and even status and esteem. But only in places that draw their own kind.
And how good you are at navigating high school might predict how good you are at navigating life:
Thirty-five years later, the authors estimated, boys who ranked in the 80th percentile of popularity earned, on average, 10 percent more than those in the 20th… Joseph Allen and his colleagues at the University of Virginia just found that kids who suffer from mild depression at 14, 15, and 16 have worse odds in the future—in romance, friendship, competency assessments by outsiders—even if their depression disappears and they become perfectly happy adults. “Because that’s their first template for adult interaction,” says Allen when asked to offer an explanation. “And once they’re impaired socially, it carries forward.”
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