Life After High School

We're obsessed with those four years. But new research shows we're not defined by them

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Danielle Levitt for TIME

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Another study, by economists Jeffrey S. Zax and Daniel I. Rees of the University of Colorado, examined the connection between individuals' IQ and academic performance, measured in the last year of high school, and how much money they were making in their mid-30s and then in their early 50s. Using data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, they concluded that "previous analyses have overstated the role of intelligence in economic success." Hard work and the development of capacities like conscientiousness and cooperation also matter for success--not to mention personal satisfaction and fulfillment. Coveted as they are in high school, brains and popularity get you only so far in the real world.

The Quirk Factor

That's a message many of today's high school students need to hear. An increasing number of American teenagers feel excluded by a relentlessly conformist school environment, says Alexandra Robbins, author of the new book The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth. They're the casualties of a Lord of the Flies social scene defined by the pressures of standardized tests and college admissions, the hypersexual and hypermaterialistic advertising of retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch and the mean-girl dramas of shows like Gossip Girl. Robbins calls them the "cafeteria fringe": the kids who can't find a seat at the table at lunchtime, who are rejected for infractions as minor as wearing the wrong jeans.

An author of several best-selling books on young people, Robbins began thinking about these students' plight when she was visiting schools across the country to speak about her 2006 book, The Overachievers. "Kids would come up to talk to me after my readings, and the ones I found most interesting and appealing were often those who described themselves as outsiders," she says. "I wanted to know what their experience of high school was like and what happened to them after graduation."

The result was The Geeks, which contends that young people will be well served in adult life by the same characteristics that made them unpopular in high school. She calls this premise "quirk theory" and describes it this way: "Many of the differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the identical traits or real-world skills that others will value, love, respect or find compelling about that person in adulthood and outside the school setting." If Robbins is any guide, high school outcasts have a lot to look forward to. Attractive, confident and successful, Robbins cheerfully admits that she was a dork in high school. "I was a floater," she says, "someone who could sit at the edge of a lot of different groups in the cafeteria but who never felt fully part of any of them." Finding herself at home on many weekend nights, Robbins threw herself into her studies. She was admitted to Yale and flourished in college and in life.

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