“Think back to your days on the playground. There was always a big bully and countless victims, but there was also that one small kid who fought like hell, thrashing and swinging for the fences. He or she might not have won, but after one or two exhausting exchanges, the bully chose not to bother him or her. It was easier to find someone else. Be that kid.” – Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek
I love this sentiment. Being a fighter is a great way to survive, but so is getting out of the situation entirely. I changed the rules.
I navigated school with relative ease because I figured out what was happening quickly and created my own path within the system. In elementary school, it was clear there were bullies emerging. I figured out if you were friends with the bully’s posse, you were left alone. I didn’t hang out with them, but I certainly made it a point to be kind.
I remember the first week of middle school vividly. Everyone was excited to go into the big school because we were tweens* now and we deserved it. Within days, ranks were formed among the students. The “cool” table had already been assigned and the outcasts did the best they could to form armies among those that were left. I wasn’t about to ditch my splatter-painted jumpsuit to conform with the new styles of the cool kids. I was determined to do what I wanted to do. I was the loser that ate lunch with her teacher. And I recruited a few friends. With everyone else, I tried to fly under the radar, but that’s not easy when you’re super outgoing. So, instead, I tried to just be friends with everyone. Easier said than done. I got teased. I got ignored. But I just kept going. If I didn’t like a situation, I left. If someone yelled “Hey Loser!” I would turn around and yell “Yes? You called me?” When you change the rules, the system breaks down. At the end of the first year of middle school, I could confidently walk the hallways without ridicule (still in my splatter-painted jumpsuit, of course). I wasn’t invited to the cool table, but I also wasn’t bullied.
A friend of mine hit middle school with the opposite approach. She wanted to be at that cool table. She dressed the part. She acted the part. She followed all the unspoken rules. And it worked. She made it. For two years of middle school, she was a high roller. She had all the right connections. During the third year, however, she was voted off the island. Overnight she became the bullied. She had a target on her back because she was “one of them” that had been “chosen” for ridicule.** It ruined all of middle school for her.
The next year, high school started and three middle schools were thrown into one high school. In the first week, everyone from our middle school banded together. All prior rankings were wiped out. The previous “cool” kids sought seats next to me in class and at lunch. I remember thinking about that poor friend of mine that had worked so hard to be friends with these people and realized that we were now in the exact same spot. She worked hard. I broke the social rules. And the first week of high school, we were all the same.
I realized high school would be a tougher sell on doing my own thing and having everyone leave me alone. I had traded my jumper for bright yellow pants with shiny shoes and orange pants and orange Converse.*** I needed to make a name for myself. Bribery goes a long way. I started hosting “orange week” every fall and every spring. I carried candy around. If I saw someone wearing orange, they got candy. Everyone wants candy. Even the cool kids started trying to incorporate a very not-in color (orange) into their fashionable outfits to get candy. Some tried showing me their orange underwear to get candy. I had to specify that I had to see the orange across the hall. I had the candy. I made the rules. And people started following them to get the candy. Another funny thing happens when you give out candy: no one is mean to you. There would always be another orange week and I could withhold the candy.
Life hasn’t changed that much. There are still social rules people try to navigate. There are still cool kids and bullies. I find it’s best to not be either. Be what you want to be and change the social rules. If you don’t want to work until 65, don’t. Early retirement is becoming more mainstream and many have outlined the path to take to change those rules. If you don’t want to participate in that expensive activity, don’t. You don’t have to impress anyone. Change the rules and do what you want to do.
*This wasn’t a term yet, but I love it.
**Do you see how clearly I did not even care to figure out the system?
***I can’t believe I’m actually showing you proof of how fashionable I was/am!