All Articles Leadership Management 3 reasons to hire student outcasts rather than “popular” students

3 reasons to hire student outcasts rather than “popular” students

3 min read


Alexandra Robbins is the author of the book “The Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School,” a New York Times best-seller.

Companies often look to hire the graduate who has maneuvered his way to the top of the social hierarchy at school. But if these companies want to keep up in a rapidly shifting global marketplace, they’re barking up the wrong tree.

Traditionally, “popular” students typically haven’t honed the qualities that make for valuable, forward-thinking employees. Outsiders, however, are more likely to exhibit traits such as creativity, innovation, originality, vision, authenticity, curiosity, love of learning, hardiness and, most of all, courage — all of which brand an organization far better than the Machiavellian savvy of, say, a “mean girl.”

Here are three less obvious and similarly important characteristics that are more common among outsiders than popular students.

1. Self-awareness

Self-aware individuals are people who know who they are and what they stand for. They possess an authentic self-security that makes them less vulnerable to pressure to betray their values. “Self-awareness is fundamental to leadership growth,” according to University of Houston professor of management Warren Blank. Self-aware people “know their strengths, weaknesses, and assumptions. They understand their motives.”

2. Integrity

If self-awareness involves being true to oneself, then integrity involves being true to others, fulfilling expectations and promises. Popular students, who often attempt to manipulate people and engage in gossip, backstabbing, and other relational aggressions, are just the opposite. Consider the description of integrity in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”: “Avoiding any communication that is deceptive, full of guile, or beneath the dignity of people … One of the most important ways to manifest integrity is to be loyal to those who are not present. In doing so, we build the trust of those who are present.”

Beyond the obvious reasons that integrity is vital in the workplace, having that quality also improves discussions, collaboration, and brainstorming among colleagues, who are more likely to contribute ideas in front of people they can trust.

3. Free-thinking

While popular cliques typically demand that members conform to arbitrary, robotic standards of dress, speech, behavior, and thought, outsiders are more likely to be free thinkers who are able to appreciate multiple perspectives. Jack Welch, Fortune magazine’s “Manager of the Century,” has said that he sought in senior-level leaders “the ability to see around corners. Every leader has to have a vision and the ability to predict the future, but good leaders must have a special capacity to anticipate the radically unexpected.”

Outsiders are well-suited to seeing around corners; their place on the margins puts them both at the threshold of new movements and, as National Book Award Winner Don Delillo phrased it, at the “perfect place to observe what’s happening at the dead center of things.”

None of these characteristics generally describe popular cliques in schools. This is not to say that populars don’t possess these characteristics. But they are less likely to have developed them than the geek, nerd, rebel, weirdo, floater, or loner, any of whom would make a smarter addition to a workplace than the empty shell of a popular kid.