Being popular in school sets you up for a more successful career too (Sorry nerds)

Of course you’ve heard the notion that after graduating from high-school, once you get out there in the ‘real world,’ the former nerds will get to have their revenge.

You know how the story goes. After high school, all of the unpopular geeks will quickly be running tech companies or earning huge piles of money as doctors and dentists, engineers and actuaries. Meanwhile their cool-kid tormentors find themselves stuck in menial jobs daydreaming about their glory days when they scored the winning touchdown while making out with the prom queen and stuffing nerds into trash cans.

Having never been the coolest kid in my class, I’ve always liked this story. It’s encouraging for us nerds to think that we will win in the end. The geek will inherit the Earth. Unfortunately, it turns out that it’s not true. The popular kids are still on top after high school, and actually earn higher salaries throughout their careers as well.

Analysts from the US National Bureau of Economic Research followed 10,000 high school graduates for roughly forty years to measure the correlation between their popularity in high school and their earning potential afterwards.

They calculate ‘popularity’ by measuring how many friends each person had. They asked each student to write down the names of all the people they were friends with – and the cross referenced all of the lists. The people who were named the most often had the most friends and were therefore deemed the most popular. Those who turned up on few friends list were considered to be unpopular.

Over the course of their careers, the more popular students earn 2% higher salaries than the average of their peers. When you compare just the most popular students’ salaries to the least popular students,’ the difference is a more striking 10% premium for the former cool kids.

Of course, having no friends isn’t exactly the same as being a ‘nerd.’ Nerds can have lots of friends; their friends are just likely to be other nerds. The cool kids might have a small group of friends – they’re just the narrow clique that identifies itself as ‘popular.’

Since this study measures popularity by how many friends you have – the results are actually not that surprising. There’s probably a reason why somebody would end up on no one’s (or very few people’s) friend list. The isolated person could be terribly shy and keep completely to his or her self. They could be lacking in basic social skills necessary to get along with others. There are any number of reasons, but the fact is that to succeed in almost any career path, a certain amount of sociability is necessary.

People who were lacking social skills in high school, and didn’t learn to make friends from a young age, start out with a disadvantage. A disadvantage that can affect their earning potential throughout their careers. They also have smaller networks of connections to help them along the way.

Surviving the social minefield of high school can “train individual personalities to be socially adequate for the successful performance of their adult roles,” write the report’s authors. “Consistent with our view, we interpret our measure of popularity as a measure of the stock of social skills of a particular individual.”

Social skills matter. As we mentioned earlier, the very first thing you say conversationally to an employer even before your job interview has begun can make or break your chances of being hired.

And job descriptions across industries list collaboration and teamwork as essential sought-after skills. In fact, recent research found that “communications” is the single most in-demand skill by employers.