“It builds character.”
…said every parent or adult trying to comfort a teen or young adult trying to cope with being unpopular.
“Boy, you have a valid point and I shouldn’t care what other people think of me.”
…said no teen ever.
Today, parents, I’m giving you the gift of a list. A list that will prove to your son or daughter that, yeah, it can suck to be unpopular, but look at the things you might just accomplish by doing things the unpopular way.
Ada Lovelace. Man, do I have a lady crush on this woman. Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Yes, she was Lord Byron’s daughter. Yes, she was married to an aristocrat. Yes, her name is perfect for a 1950’s pulp spy novel. But you know what she really did? She only came up with the first computer program ever written…in the mid 1800s! That’s right, this woman was the original lady hacker. Unfortunately, because she was blessed with a uterus, she found it hard to be taken seriously by her contemporaries.
Henrietta Lacks. OK, so she didn’t change the world as much as her cancer cells did after she passed away. For some reason, this woman’s cells never stopped reproducing even after she died. No kidding. It sounds like something straight out of X-Men, I know, but these cells are STILL alive in research labs around the world today. HeLa cells (because scientists like to shorten everything) have helped researchers develop the Polio vaccine, test cancer treatments, and develop treatments towards managing various infections. So why didn’t we ever hear of this woman before? Well, she was black in 1951. She passed away in the “black wing” of a hospital and doctors never even obtained permission from her family to take samples and run experiments on her after her death. In fact, it was decades before her family even found out about HeLa cells.
Gregor Mendel. Chances are that you probably studied Mendel in high school science class. But since it was high school science class, you were probably either asleep or doodling on your Trapper Keeper to pass the time. Mendel pioneered genetics before it even had the name “genetics” attached. Oh, and he was a monk AND a scientist. He developed the “Laws of Mendelian Inheritance” that explains genetic inheritance in most plants and animals. However, his findings completely conflicted with how science thought inheritance worked at the time, so he was completely disregarded as a whack job. Oh, how time can change things…
Samuel Mudd. This guy. I’m fairly certain that most people haven’t heard of this guy. As far as human beings go, he was kind of an ass. He was outspokenly pro-slavery and anti-Lincoln (yeah, Abraham). He was sent to life in prison after being convicted of conspiring in the assassination of President Lincoln when he set John Wilkes-Booth’s leg after he broke it during the assassination. But here’s where it gets… different. While he was in prison, there was an outbreak of yellow fever and after the prison doctor contracted the fever and died, Mudd stepped up and took over. He treated both the guards and the prisoners equally and pretty much stopped the epidemic. This guy is definitely a head scratcher of a person and he was certainly a very unpopular human, but he held to his ethics and his code of conduct as a doctor, even through prison.
Jane Austen. That’s right, guys. The alliterative author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice was not very popular during her life. But not because she was a jerk or anything — she was unpopular because she was unknown. All of her work that was published during her lifetime was attributed to “Anonymous Lady.” People totally loved her stuff, but she really didn’t care. She was all, “Here’s this awesome literature. Don’t you dare put my name on it.” It was only after her death that she was given credit where credit was due.
Ashok Gadgil. Gesundheit! Sure, his name doesn’t roll off your tongue like John or Bear Blu, but this inventor has and still is changing lives in third world countries. He invented a UV light that allows people to quickly and cheaply disinfect their water supply, as well as a highly efficient wood-burning stove that makes it so that women in Darfur don’t have to spend days out of every month gathering wood in war-torn danger zones of their country. So why haven’t we heard of this guy? Well, to put it bluntly, his work is boring and it’s not commercial. He’s not sending out press releases letting everyone know how much good he’s doing for the world. He’s just plain doing it. And apparently if you don’t care about your image when doing charity work for the Third World, no one cares back.
Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov. Vasili single-handedly saved the world and prevented World War III. (I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty impressed.) On October 27, 1962, he was a Soviet naval officer on board a nuclear submarine, which was under attack by the U.S. Navy in waters near Cuba. The Soviet government authorized the officers on the submarine to launch a nuclear missile, but only if the three officers aboard agreed unanimously to do so. The other two officers, who outranked Vasili, voted to launch, knowing that it would start a worldwide nuclear war. Vasili voted not to. Instead, the submarine surfaced and surrendered (risking the lives of everyone aboard), the Cuban Missile crisis began, and the world continued to exist. This man voted against the wishes of his government and his superior officers, and risked his own life and those of everyone on board his submarine, and he refused to fight back when attacked—all because saving the entire human race was higher on his priority list.
Nikola Tesla. Tesla’s inventions and theories are largely responsible for wireless technology, alternating current electricity, electronic devices, and radio communications as we know them today. He was a great inventor and theorist. Tesla came into conflict with Thomas Edison, who was very good at being popular, marketing his inventions, and discrediting anyone he didn’t like. Tesla also, as The Oatmeal puts it, “suffered from a disorder we now commonly refer to as ‘being batshit insane.'”His mental illness made him unable to socialize, promote himself, or fit in well with regular society. He also swore off dating or sex in order to focus more fully on his scientific research. Poor Tesla died alone, penniless, and confused. He’s becoming a very popular icon for steampunk enthusiasts, science lovers, and fans of underdogs, but only today.
Captain Silas Soule. Soule was born into a family of Civil War-era abolitionists, and from an early age participated in many revolutionary activities in support of racial justice (including helping with the Underground Railroad and trying to spring John Brown from prison), but he is most famous for his actions surrounding the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado. By then, Soule was a Captain in the U.S. Cavalry. On November 29, 1864, Soule’s commanding officer, Colonel John Chivington, ordered him (and 700 other soldiers) to attack a village of Cheyenne and Arapahoe camped by Sand Creek. The villagers were peaceful, mostly women, children, and old men—including chiefs who were trying to negotiate a peace treaty with the U.S. The village was flying an American flag as a sign of goodwill. Soule argued against the attack, but Chivington ordered it, anyway. Between 70 and 163 native Americans were killed and mutilated, the soldiers taking trophies (scalps, fingers, ears, genitalia) from the bodies. Soule disobeyed Chivington’s orders and told the troops under his command not to attack. Soule and his company were unable to stop the massacre, but they did not participate, and some historians believe they actually helped some villagers to escape. Soule later blew the whistle on Chivington, and testified against him in court. During the court investigations, mobs outside chanted, “Stand by Sand Creek!” and Chivington and his followers dragged Soule’s name through the mud, testifying that Soule was a drunk and a coward. Soule was cleared of these charges, but he was widely hated and multiple attempts were made on his life. On April 23, 1965, Soule was murdered in broad daylight on the corner of 15th Avenue and Arapahoe Street in Denver. His killer was arrested, but allowed to escape, and never heard from again. Soule was 26 years old, and had been married for 22 days.
Sooooo…unpopular today? It’s not necessarily going to be what your classmates think of you, your glasses, your jeans, or your looks that matters down the line. The above people accomplished some pretty amazing things and guaranteed – people thought they were nuts. Or in some cases, unremarkable. But they did what they did with passion. And remember Henrietta Lacks? She might have been what some would consider unremarkable in her lifetime, but she made history in 2010 and became the subject of a New York Times bestseller when a writer decided to share her “unremarkable” story with the world. An amazing story, an amazing woman…and instead of worrying about your story today, wouldn’t it be better to think about the story people might tell about you for being brave enough to follow your own, perhaps unpopular, path?