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The Breathtaking, Life-Altering Power of Being a Dork


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I have always loved the band Chicago. I used to love them because I heard their music so often on the radio when I was little, and because their songs comprised much of the slow-dance soundtrack at school dances. But until one particular night in college, I never paid much attention to the horns.

That night, I was playing cards and listening to music with Sean, a guy I had a crush on. Chicago’s “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” came on. He turned it up and we kind of rocked in our seats, the way people do when they’re liking the music but feeling a little shy. Then, as the song progressed, things took an unexpected turn. Most guys I knew, when they were moved to really rock out to a song, would play air guitar. Maybe air drums. Or they’d sing. Not Sean.

See, Sean was a trombone player. So when Chicago came on, Sean played air trombone. I laughed at first, thinking he was just goofing, but he kept it up. So I let my cards rest in my lap and just watched him – enthralled, his eyes closed, his trombone arm sliding back and forth in perfect time with the music, pure joy on his face. As the song sped toward its crescendo, I really heard, for the first time, those kick-ass horns. It was kind of breathtaking, and it forever changed the way I listen to Chicago.

If Sean had played it cool, stifled his passion and just bobbed his head like most people, I would have no memory of that moment, and I probably wouldn’t appreciate the horn section the way I do now.

I’m so grateful he didn’t worry about looking like a dork.

Cool is a Waste of Time


This was me in high school, around 1987.

What I see in this picture, apart from a girl who desperately wants to be Lisa Bonet, is a girl who desperately wants to be cool. I managed to pull it off sometimes, but now I wish I hadn’t worked so hard at it. I think I missed out on some things. Sports, for one. (It’s hard to be an athlete when you’re smoking cigarettes in the parking lot.) Or maybe taking up a strange hobby. Or making friends with some of the smarter, quieter kids. I might have really liked some of them. But I didn’t bother.

Looking back, I’m trying to recall what I hid, what my secret passion was. What was my horn section? Here’s what makes me sad: I can’t think of anything. I don’t think I had anything like a horn section, even in private. I never bothered to explore the things that might have made me a little dorky. When you spend all your energy in the service of looking cool, what you ultimately do is erase yourself.

I think I would have been better off if I’d been more like this guy:


If you’re familiar with the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies, you know Rowley. Rowley is a dork in the best sense of the word. Not exactly a nerd – a nerd is super smart about one thing, and maybe lacking in social skills. And not exactly a geek, either. Geeks have achieved their own techie glory spot in the universe; nowadays, when a person calls themselves a geek, they’re basically bragging. No, Rowley is pure dork – blithely unaware and unconcerned about other people’s opinions of him. When he encounters something he likes, he’s ALL IN. Although Rowley’s dorkiness tortures his best friend Greg, the main character, it usually ends up working in his favor. Few scenes illustrate this better than the one at a school dance, where Rowley performs a choreographed number — with his mom — to the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic.” Instead of this resulting in his becoming a social pariah, everyone cheers him on.

What would happen if we all started aiming for less Lisa Bonet and more Rowley?

How Dorking Out Can Change the World

Allowing yourself to quit worrying what other people think, to embrace your real passions without apology, can have an impact that stretches beyond anything you can measure. More specifically:

1: Being a dork teaches other people to love learning.

Whenever you demonstrate a genuine passion for anything – the details of a sports car, unusual words in Japanese, the perfect blend of spices to rub on a steak – you model a love of learning. That’s not something we often celebrate, even though it’s one of the keys to happiness. To be able to feed your soul by developing a talent or pursuing a hobby is one of the healthiest things a person can do – it generally doesn’t damage the body, it develops independence rather than co-dependence, and it gives you a reason to get out of bed. Finding and following a passion can replace a more damaging addiction. Most importantly, it can be a real source of joy.

Some people are lucky enough to be born into families and communities where this kind of joy is everywhere – they have a father who never stops talking about his Civil War memorabilia, a mother who obsessively picks at her guitar, a neighbor who shows off the gorgeous beets he just pulled from his garden. In these environments, a person will naturally find and pursue their own passions. But others don’t know anything like this. They are surrounded by people who pursue toxic addictions, who spend all their time and energy on work, or whose primary obsessions are texting and napping. You think you don’t belong in this second group? Consider this: If you’re publicly stifling your enthusiasm for the things you love, then from the outside, it might be hard to tell the difference.

As a teacher, you’re in a position to actively model this love of learning for your students. One way we do this is by treating the work like it’s worthwhile. In Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, Peter Johnston describes a teacher reading a book aloud to her students. She stops, re-reads a sentence, and says, “Oh, I love that line.” By demonstrating an emotional response to the text, this teacher powerfully impacts her students – she shows them what loving good writing looks like, taking the work beyond the classroom and into the real world of rich human experience.

2: Being a dork frees the dork in others.

Consider a party buffet. A table laid out with delicious-looking food, ready for the taking. In a room of well-behaved adults, what usually happens to that buffet? For far too long, it sits untouched. Because no one wants to be the first to walk over and eat a piece of quiche. Once someone finally does, it’s all over for that buffet. But someone has to go first. By being brave, you make other people brave, too.

This principle works in lots of situations: Admitting you don’t know something. Asking the “stupid” question in a class. Being the first one to say hello when passing someone in a public place. Saying you liked a movie that everyone else is making fun of. The chances are very good that you’re not the only one. If you can get over your fear of looking foolish, you can actually change the direction of things, and when you do, others will follow.

In our classrooms, we ask students to be brave all the time. We want them to read aloud, give presentations, participate actively in groups, all under the critical eye of their peers. If we expect them to take on these tasks with any kind of gusto, we have to go first. And we have to really overdo it, putting ourselves out there in a ways we might not in front of our own peers, to lighten the mood, dissipate the nerves, and show them that a little embarrassment won’t kill you.

3: Being a dork puts a dent in the status quo.

The world only becomes more interesting when brave people put themselves out there. Consider the art, the music, the science, the social justice movements that would be wiped from our history if everyone just wanted to blend in. By being something other than ordinary, something less than cool, you reshape the world for everyone around you.

So keep on being responsible. Pay your bills and wear clothes and do your best to spell correctly and follow traffic laws. But let your quirks out, too. You’ll help break down stereotypes and expose people to new ideas. It’s not uncommon for football players to take ballet to improve their performance, but many people credit Lynn Swann with making it more acceptable to do it. Every major invention we enjoy today comes from the work of someone whose friends kept telling them to get a life. And who could have predicted that 2014 would find George W. Bush among the hottest new painters? You are not right now everything you could become, and if you let the other sides of you emerge, the rest of us will be better for it.


My crush for Sean never really developed into anything. He stopped calling after a while, and I never knew why. It has taken more than 20 years for me to realize that one very distinct possibility is that I bored him. I was kind of a cool chick who was fun to have around at a party, and not much more. For someone like Sean, who had already found his passion, I was probably a real snooze.

And in some situations, I know I still am. Embracing your dorkiness takes practice. It takes listening for your own particular horn section, waiting for those moments when you start to feel a little bit embarrassed. That feeling is the universe telling you to pay attention. It’s joy knocking at your door. Let it in, dork. ♥


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  1. Jeff Napior says:

    I 100% agree with everything in this post. In high school I suppose I was a bit of a dork, but was rarely brave enough to put my true self on display for all to see. In some ways I’m still like that. In my old job as an engineer, I would only share my true inner geek with a select few of my co-workers. Your line “The world only becomes more interesting when brave people put themselves out there,” really resonates. Next year is my first year of teaching (math at a private high school near Boston), and I am both excited and nervous to put myself out there every day. I intend to incorporate an “interesting thing of the week” or something similar into my classes. I’d like to share with my students the many varied things I geek out about (space exploration, sci fi movies, 18th century sailing ships, photography, organic gardening, DIY projects….the list goes on). Of course it will also be important to talk about the things that interest them. Sharing my passions with gusto will hopefully embolden my students to put themselves out there too.

  2. Todd says:

    I know this article is not new, but I love it! When I got into education 20 years ago, it was in outdoor ed, and I pushed hard exactly on this. I went full dork to let them be more open and fun. It was hilarious when doing this in the woods. Kids really let their dork light shine. When I switched to classrooms, I brought it there, and it really can make a difference. When you can accept a kid doing the cicada dance, you can accept a lot about other people. Plus, we all smile and laugh more in the classroom!
    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Mamalala says:

    Loved this podcast. I think once you allow yourself to shine your true colors- even the dorky side- students will see the power of being unique and creative. Kids recognize that even teachers take risks and that is needed for kids to try something hard and new in regards to learning.

  4. Deb says:

    I LOVE this post! I also hid my inner dork in high school to be cool and have many regrets about that. Now, I am proud to be a dork and I love working with my students to help them find their passions!

  5. Barbara Paciotti says:

    I love being a dork…always have. My greatest compliment from students? “Ms P, you are so weird.” Being a little dorky with MS & HS students works wonders in allowing them to open up and feel better about themselves when they, too, fear they are dorky.

  6. Cherie Boss says:

    Hi Jennifer,

    I just listened to this episode and laughed and laughed. My husband used to be that guy that stopped and did air band guitar/singer to every Van Halen song. Flash forward, I taught one of the horn players’ daughter from Chicago! Worlds colliding! I am going straight over to iTunes to leave a great review. Thank you for all the great inspirations from these podcasts! I can’t wait to start teaching tomorrow, thanks to you (says the teacher who’s looking at her 35th year in the classroom)!

    • Hey Cherie,

      So glad you enjoyed the episode and could relate! 35 years … so awesome! I’ll make sure Jenn sees this. She’ll love it!

  7. John Reynolds says:

    Long after you published it, I’m thanking you for this great post. This morning, I was reflecting on how dorky I often feel (socially awkward & inept) making public replies online to thoughtful folks like you and Dave Stuart, as I am gratefully interacting with your work. It also got me thinking about the many ways I encourage students to take dorky risks as we read, write, and discuss items in our classes. So, this morning I did a quick search on “dorky learning” and your post showed up. It’s also timely as a great personal essay example for my seniors to consider as they work on their college application essays.

    Best wishes,

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