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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Jock vs Genius: Does the High School You Really Make a Difference?

One of my not-so guilty pleasures is watching a bit of escapist TV from my high school years. More frequently than I care to admit, I'll check in on the gang at Bayside High on "Saved by the Bell". There's Lisa Turtle, the ebony fashion plate and gossip; Kelly Kapowski, the cheerleader and object of desire extraordinaire; A.C. Slater, the muscle-bound hunk who made his cheesy brand of misogyny look adorable; Ms. Spano, the brainiac and uber-feminist; Screech Powers, the nerd whose heart belonged to Lisa Turtle, even after Tori Spelling's guest stint as Violent, the Nerdette; and, of course, the blond haired Adonis, that smirking, acid-wash denim wearing charmer, Zack Morris. These kids ruled the halls of Bayside, well, at least from 1989-1993, and while the actors who played these characters grew up, with some becoming porn stars (Screech), and others becoming Las Vegas strippers with a heart of gold (Ms. Spano), with the power of TV and TBS in particular, their "Saved by the Bell" alter egos live on 5 days a week.

For those of us well past our own high school years, it's interesting, to me, how much who we were in high school informs who we are as adults. I can look at the thirty-something mom rocking the booty shorts in Starbucks and wonder if she was the high school homecoming queen or the most popular girl. And maybe that faux celebrity attempting to stretch her Fifteen Minutes was the creepy girl who roamed her high school halls friendless and is still yearning for attention and validation. 

This is more than just a fun past time, though. Sometimes these high school dramas extend to the adult workplace. In fact, one of the most epic battles I've ever seen, between a manager and her right hand man, looked more like a high school cafeteria brawl than a disagreement between two professionals.

Let me set the scene: The manager was over-the-top efficient, and a practitioner of what I will call Blackberry Jujitsu, blazing back lightening fast emails and responses, with her thumbs flying across that wee keyboard. She arrived early and left late, and in between she left her office only for meetings. There was no lunch for her, rather, she was on a regimen of multiple little meals, eaten methodically at her desk. Conversations were terse and pointed affairs, and were kept as short as her close-cropped hair. Her right hand man was her complete opposite. His conversations with office mates and clients were languorous and organic. Lunches were eaten away from the office, and there were even 15 minute walks thrown in to get the blood and ideas flowing. He arrived on-time and he left late only when there were deadlines to be made. And, while he had a Blackberry, he preferred to let the first barrage of emails and responses go out from his boss, and then, when the waters had calmed, he'd chime in and get the information that was needed.

At first, their styles appeared to complement each other, like good cop/bad cop. The right hand man was collegial and made fast friends of everyone from the mail room bunch to the CEO. And when his manager sent one of her screaming emails to one of the staff, it was her right hand man who smoothed over her off-putting tone and made the offended party feel valued. But over time, his manager became suspicious of his intentions.

Educationally, the manager and her right hand man were similar, and while the argument could be made for gender issues fueling their different styles, a rather important piece of the puzzle resides in their high school days.

The manager had spent her high school days as one of the outsiders - working with the theatre people, going to hear garage bands in seedy bars, wearing black jeans and black t-shirts on every occasion. She was ostracized and bullied for her style of dress and for her weirdo associations. She was "Carrie" without the witchcraft. Her right hand man, though, had been popular in an effortless sort of way. He'd been a social gadfly, hanging out with all of the cliques, while still maintaining several close friendships. He sang in the choir and played sports. He'd not only known acceptance, but he'd known it on an epic scale. Any wonder, then, that later on in life, these two would clash?? If you think about it, this fight had been brewing since high school.

Sound ridiculous?? You bet it is! But how many of us have been there?

Try this experiment: At your next staff meeting, I want you to look around the table, and watch, really watch, and listen to them. Remember that old Toastmaster's tip where you should imagine everyone naked in order to calm your nerves before delivering a speech? Well, imagine them with their old high school gear! See the 40-year-old senior partner who doesn't look you in the eye and spends the whole meeting glued to his Blackberry as that 16-year-old sporting his Dungeons and Dragons t-shirt and military surplus shop field bag. And take a long enough look at his long-suffering admin and you might see the shy and mousy 18-year-old girl who dutifully tried to get all of her classmates to sign her yearbook, even though none of them was her friend.

OK, so this method hasn't received the institutional seal of approval of a Myers Briggs, but it's a hell of lot more fun - I'm just saying:)

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