Fight Back by Changing the Rules

“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.

This shirt actually got me a lot of friends.

This shirt actually got me a lot of friends. I still own those hammer pants. They bring me joy.

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!

make the rules

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27 Comments

  1. Being short, small, and with a higher pitched voice through most of my elementary school days, heck, even into high school, I got teased a LOT. Some people I’d try and thrash (I was also really scrappy) and then they’d leave me alone, but other people it wouldn’t make any difference. They just liked being a bully.

    I didn’t have any cool ideas like yours, but I did manage to make friends with almost all of the “groups” cool or not. When I switched middle schools, I just embraced me, and joined French Club, Science Club, Student Government, and even ran the lights for our theater/drama group. I wasn’t popular by any means but I was well known and liked by most, so most of the teasing stopped.

    Having at least 1 friend in almost every group tended to work best for me though.

    • MaggieBanks

      I totally agree! In high school I did drama, mock trial, international club, National Honor Society – between all those, I had a pretty good association base that worked. 🙂

  2. I love that you’re bringing back middle school in Pf blogland today! The time of my life that most makes me want to barf. 🙂 Haha.

    I moved to a new city right before middle school happened, and for the briefest time at the start of sixth grade, I was one of the cool kids. But I have never regretted that that didn’t last (thankfully I was spared the bullying of formally getting kicked out, or whatever happened to your friend), because I feel 100% sure that if I’d “stayed cool” instead of living more authentically as the nerd and overachiever that I am, that I would have been pressured by the popular crowd to take different classes, do fewer activities after school and not do academic competitions — all of which earned me a free and excellent college education. So finding my own path without giving a flip about what they thought was the way better option. And my version of free candy was editing the school paper — you better believe that nerds got way more coverage than the popular crowd during my time in charge. 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      Ah… school paper! Genius! I had a really good friend on the yearbook staff and am all over my senior yearbook because of it! An early lesson in “who” you know not “what” you know! I’m not saying I loved middle school. It’s a horrible time. But I also didn’t hate it.

      • Haha — same here with the yearbook. One of my best friends edited that, so between us, we made sure there was nerd saturation. Looking at my senior yearbook, you’d be pretty convinced that I was a popular kid. 🙂

  3. Impressive outfit!

    I love this line of thinking. The only “rules” for how to live life are the ones we impose on ourselves. We perceive that it’s normal and expected to work until 65, so we plan for that rather than envisioning our own ideal lives. Better to take control and define our own paths!

    • MaggieBanks

      Thanks! And I agree. There are so many “unwritten rules” that make no sense for me. Going against the grain has always worked in my favor in the past. Hacking life is way better than trying to abide by ever-changing rules.

  4. You were really smart with that candy thing!

    I really hope my kids don’t waste effort on trying to fit in and be cool. Your idea to be kind to everyone seems like a really good approach. I spent way too much time and effort on things like figuring out the right sneakers to wear or bookbag to buy. Even as an adult, I racked up debt buying name brand clothes because that’s what I thought was normal.

    I made a lot of mistakes as a result of trying to fit the mold. My husband used to tease and call me a “sheep.” The important thing is that I woke up and decided to design my own life and go after my own goals. Better late than never, I guess.

    • MaggieBanks

      Once you realize it’s all some game you can’t win, you can’t figure out why everyone else hasn’t figured it out too! I’m lucky to have figured it out early. Obviously I don’t have it all figured out, but I have never had a problem going against the norm.

  5. Tawcan

    You’re definitely smart not to care what other kids think about you. That’s a great way to get through high school. Trying to fit in just doesn’t make sense. You’re better off doing your own things and have high self-esteem. I’ve tried to fit the mold in high school but really was a bit of an outcast. It didn’t really bother me though.

    • MaggieBanks

      Outcasts are where it’s out. If you’re not cast out of the herd, you won’t be able to see how silly the herd is. You can’t see the cliff coming from inside the herd, but standing alone, you can see farther down the path.

  6. That outfit is incredible!! I moved cross-country a lot (in elementary, middle & high school). I was always the ‘new girl’ which kind of put an awkward spin on things. No one could figure me out sometimes because I associated with a lot of things – I was on dance team, but also hung out with the drama kids when I did the spring musical. I was on Student Senate, and also volunteered with the committee to put on the Festival of the Arts. I worked for Radio Disney, and took all AP/IB classes with the smart kids (which I realized fast I wasn’t naturally gifted, I just studied as hard as I could lol). I was all over the board! But having a widespread group of people to socialize with really allowed me to learn, which translated well once we all went to college & then graduated to the real world. I like the idea of changing the rules, and you sure did with your “wear orange” weeks – I mean, you seriously started Orange is the New Black before it even become a netflix series!!

    • MaggieBanks

      So… now you know we’re practically the same person except I’m a lot less cool and fashionable as you. 🙂 Also, Radio Disney?! Can you get any cooler?

      • Hahah no way! I know, isn’t it silly? I received the job after responding to a CraigsList ad and worked there for over 6 years! It’s pretty ridiculous how many High School Musical dance moves I know, and trivia facts oh geez lol!

  7. Oh my gosh, are these stories real? This is amazing!

    I actually had a very odd middle school experience: my parents sent me to this teeny-tiny, extremely religious school from 6th-8th grade, which I liked okay at first and then grew to detest. In any case, there were ten kids in my grade — nine of them girls — and I think the politics/popularity stuff just functioned differently than they would have at a regular-sized school. I am very sorry to say that I spent 8th grade shunning my former best friend, for unclear reasons. I think that means I was one of the mean kids. 🙁

    Anyway, changing the rules, or breaking the rules, is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately in the context of career decisions. I’ve been pondering taking an entirely different path than what’s expected of me, career-wise, and that feels weird because I’m usually a rule-follower…but this is too important of a decision to make because someone else wants me to.

    • MaggieBanks

      100% real! A tiny, religious school sounds like a crazy experience. Life is about doing what feels right for YOU. If you’re not living a genuine life, you’re living in the abyss between your own life and the life someone else wants for you. You’ll never be able to match the standards of someone else, so you might as well get out of the void and start living the ones that are true to you!

  8. Love this sentiment, am going to try to pass this lesson on to my kids (bullying started at pre-school with my kids).
    I was a total nerd at school, and then ‘dumbed-down’ to fit in, much to the frustration of my parents.
    Shame, but now I’ve found my online nerds (you guys) … Yeah!

    • MaggieBanks

      Yay for the revenge of the online nerds! I worry about bullying with my kids as well. But the best thing I can give them is confidence to be who they really are. There’s a great book called “Stand Tall, Molly Lou Mellon” that teaches exactly that!

  9. I love how you changed the rules. You were very wise with how you did it, especially the candy thing. There was a girl at my high school that used gum to break barriers. She always! had gum and it worked.

    I had a similar approach to school as you because I tried to talk to everyone. I stuck to my close group of friends in the hallways and at events, but in small group/ class assignments, anyone was fair game for a chit chat. I’m one of the rare birds that loved junior high. 7-9th grade were my peak cool years and I rode the wave doing whatever I wanted through high school. I see so many sad stories about bullying and school divides, and I’m thankful I never had to deal with any of that.

    • MaggieBanks

      Being nice generally helps. Bullying is so sad. And I never witnessed stereotypic in the halls bullying… but my years were the beginnings of cyber-bullying and that led to devastating consequences for a lot of people. It’s horrible to navigate a world that’s hard enough with a whole bunch of people suddenly out to get you. I worry for my kids, but confidence is key. I hope I can give them that.

  10. Kim from Philadelphia

    I love this, Maggie!
    My son will enter middle school next year. Just the other night I was tucking him in, and we were chatting about the changes that next year will bring. I told him (I kid you not) “If you are kind to everyone, and if you make your own decisions without influence from others, you will never go wrong”. Good lessons for middle school, and life in general.

    I was a very shy kid who was bullied by mean girls. It took me awhile to feel confident enough to not care and stand up to their comments. I befriended people on the “fringes”, and didn’t care about the cool kids opinion. In my experience the “cool kids” aren’t so “cool” once they hit their 30’s!!

    • MaggieBanks

      We are truly parallel thinkers, Kim! Oh and the mean girls?! Most of my friends were boys because I was horrified by the cannibalism among the girls. And I agree with the “cool kids” not being so cool anymore. I always called them the “compromisers” because they were the ones that were always changing based on the latest and greatest. It was hard to tell who they really were.

  11. Mel

    Ahhhh! I LOVE THIS POST! I did my best to fly under the radar by just being nice to everyone too. I had 4 best friends, who are still my closest friends, and that was plenty for me. It’s true that the rules don’t mean much if you refuse to play by them.

    • MaggieBanks

      Thanks Mel! So many rules we follow are arbitrary and ridiculous. Social rules are among those. My 3 best friends in high school are still close friends as well. Though most of them did better about flying under the radar than I did! 🙂

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