There is a scene at the end of “Never Been Kissed” where the main character, Josie (played by Drew Barrymore), the 25-year old journalist who goes back to high school undercover for a newspaper story, castigates the popular people at the prom and says: “All of you people, there is a big world out there… bigger than prom, bigger than high school and it won’t matter if you were the prom queen, the quarterback of the football team or the biggest nerd in school. Find out who you are and try not to be afraid of it.”
You may be surprised to learn this, but I wasn’t the most popular person in high school. First and foremost, it always seemed that being smart was a recipe for “uncoolness” so I had that going against me. I didn’t have a really cool hair cut or a devil may care attitude and I didn’t seem to, for one reason or another, make inroads with any of the cool kids. I was a baseball player but that certainly didn’t qualify me to be a jock because I also had a brain and besides, everyone knew that football players were much cooler than baseball players every day of the week. The only thing I did have going for me was that I was an identical twin, but that also worked as a hindrance because I think some of the cool people didn’t want to take the effort to learn which one of us was which so that acted against me as well. Yes, I was one of the masses who simply could not wait for high school to be over so that the real “adulthood” could begin in college. And, oh yeah, I forgot—the good looking girls always told me that I was a guy they would want to marry, but not date. Hmm, that one certainly sent mixed signals…
Yes, I am sure that this is all a big surprise to you since many of you know me through my networking efforts. And isn’t networking just a glorified popularity contest? Sure, our specific areas of expertise and intelligence are the true attributes that matter to our clients, but none of that becomes apparent if you never gain some level of popularity. No one will know how great you are at your job if you are always perceived as the guy who sits alone in the corner.
But all of these thoughts and insecurities came back this past weekend as my brother and I (along with our wives) attended our 20th high school reunion. It seems like just yesterday we attended our 10th reunion and here we are, 10 more years out of school.
When you are in high school, the thought is always one of what people will turn into once they leave school. Those kids whose popularity was too big even for the school must have gotten a dose of reality when they were the little fish in the big pond of college life, right? Did they experience some sort of identity crisis when they realized that their importance in high school paled in comparison to their anonymity in college? Or did some of them find a way to maintain that popularity and avoid the crash of inconspicuousness that so many of us felt in high school? Or, did a different type of transition take place, the anonymous into the big man on campus?
I never had great plans for college life. From elementary school on, I saw the educational process as a means to an end, the end being some form of job outside of school. High school was a means to college and college was a means to law school (once I decided that was my path) and law school was a course to practice and “real life.” Yet when I got to college my focus on law school and using college as a means to that end resulted in a dramatic personality shift.
You see, law schools like the grades as much as they like the extra-curricular activities such as student government and fraternities and on-campus organizations. The same types of organizations I turned my nose up at in high school were now going to be my best friends. So I changed—I got more comfortable with myself. I got more comfortable with strangers. I got more comfortable with having to be the center of attention. In high school I shied away from the center of attention because it usually would have required something negative, like a rebellion against administration. In college, it was completely different. Being the center of attention meant speaking up for the masses, being a leader to them, rubbing elbows with administration and pressing the right flesh. Did I turn into a quasi-politician? I guess you could say that. Did it do me wonders? Absolutely! It gave me confidence and a comfort in dealing with “adults” and strangers.
However law school was entirely different. It was back to being anonymous. The same cliques that existed in high school reared their ugly head in law school. For instance, on the first day of class it seemed as if everyone already knew each other, except for me who knew no one. How was it possible that the guy from Kansas seemed to be the most popular while Rob Cohen, the local boy, the California kid, the big man on campus in college, knew no one? Argh, it’s the world of popularity messing with me again.
So law school was tough, yet it was a means to an end—get the education, pass the bar, get a job and be on your way. And that’s just what happened. During law school I kept my persona low key—no one needed me to be their leader; we didn’t have student government or the need to interact with administrators. Eventually I stopped caring. I had one goal in mind.
Ahh, but then came private practice and the networking game and my skills came back to me over time. Networking is being popular. Being popular is being liked. Being liked is being a leader. Being a leader is standing up and being recognized. It doesn’t happen overnight, but as I went along in networking, I became more comfortable with the process. I began to like more people and, in turn, began to notice that they liked me. My personality shined through easier, that personality that had been so slow to arrive in high school, then blossomed in college, only to be repressed in law school.
So the chance to go back to my high school reunion was the chance to go back as a new person, someone who wasn’t around in high school, someone who had a larger confidence, a terrific life, a successful life, a tremendous amount of friends and a fantastic wife and family. I felt as if I had conquered the world and was returning home as its golden boy. I felt as if I wasn’t going to the reunion to see anyone in particular, but that they were going to see me.
Ok, so maybe I got a little bit of a big head, huh?
Ahh well, we can all be super in our own minds, right? There is nothing wrong with that, because it is that self-perception that creates such confidence. And so what if no one at the reunion was particularly excited to see me. I was simply excited to be there, feeling as I was 180 degrees different from high school.
Like she says in “Never Been Kissed,” I did find out who I was and I embraced it. I may not have been popular in high school, but I sure feel pretty darn popular now because of all of you.
Have a great week.