Watching my kids navigate the waters of high school, and now watching the first one acclimate to college, I realize how much of our lives trades not only in monetary currency, but how much of it depends on the cultural currency you carry.

For kids, we easily lump this into material things, like clothes and what video game console you have.  But if you look beyond the surface, it becomes clear that knowing and sharing the newest and latest stuff, or even finding a new niche of things to share with friends helps define your social worth.  All of this becomes ever more transparent in the age of social media, where finding out what you like or don’t is only a Facebook page away.

I have one pretty shy kid, who travelled in the high school “slow lane” so to speak.  And that was fine by me, to be honest.  Eventually, he found something unique that gave him an “in” with making new friends and expanding his teen cultural horizons, and that same small trick is working equally well in college for him.

My other kid is the sort who has always liked the unusual, and doesn’t mind, and I think actually prefers, being thought of as “Different” and maybe even a little odd by some of the kids at school.  He’s the kid who was one of the first to wear vibrams to school, becoming the “toe shoe” kid, and rather than feeling conspicuous and going back to more normal footwear, he wore it as a badge of his differentness and cool.  He marches to his own beat, and is our link to what’s hip and not in high school these days.  He is a culture vulture.

There are other kids who can get lost in the shuffle of school, kind of like my older kid.  Their interests don’t match the mainstream, but they don’t have the self-confidence yet to help other kids see that their interests are equally cool and worthy of attention.  These kids aren’t necessarily picked on, but they don’t necessarily feel or engage in the pulse of the kid culture, for whatever reason.  I was one of these kids in high school myself.

By my junior year, I had found a couple of things I liked and began to run with them.  I ended up queen of the geeks, in many ways- captain of the math team and ran Model UN not only on my school but on the district steering committee.  I played competitive squash (a niche sport, to be sure) but I got to be nationally ranked, which certainly earned some respect, even from the more traditional kids in school.  I met and became good friends with many more kids from other schools, and had a wider and more eclectic group of friends than the 40 kids in my high school class.  It took time to get confident enough to become this person, and it took another kid who had their own sense of cool, to kind of take me under their wing and show me the way. (Thank you, Linda- I will always be grateful.)

Watching kids go through this high school cultural economy and watching them trade its currency, I realize that things haven’t changed very much, even with adults.  The social groups may change and even be profession or work based, but knowing the ins and outs of the politics, keeping up on information, and trading stories still remains vital.  You still have to know what’s going on, hang with a decent group of folks, and worry about reasonable comportment, since we are all now judged by what we post (or don’t) on our social media channels.

The cultural economy, and needing its currency in order to maintain and enhance relationships is as present in business as it ever was (and is) in high school.  The trick in all of this, as I’ve learned from my kids, is to stay true to yourself, confident, and in touch with both the main stream as well as the niche.  Your niche interests are what make you special and interesting, but your confidence and enthusiasm for them are what make you attractive and fun to the people you know.  They can count on you for information and advice.  You know what’s happening and can bring them up to speed.  And your new ideas and interests are all that more appealing because of your confidence and self-assurance.

We can boil this down, some what crudely, into the marketing of the idea or presentation, is as important as the message itself.  Excitement, genuine enthusiasm, and the ability to get other people excited about your idea or interests is the economic engine of cultural currency.  It’s the infectious agent of the idea virus.  Without that passion and commitment, ideas and interests are about as interesting as the extra paperclips on my desk.  They become background and largely irrelevant.  But given the right platform and passion, those work-a-day ideas can begin to spread and sow seeds of their own.

How to translate this into language that helps teens get through the tough bits of high school is hard, since confidence is something that, for me at least, comes more easily with time and experience.  It can also disappear, even for adults, at the most inconvenient times, when self-doubt racks your brain.  Confidence backed up by knowledge and mixed with enthusiasm is the critical mixture.  If we can keep the shadow of self-doubt at bay, we’ll all be a lot better off, in every aspect of our lives.