The Nerd Amongst the Social Order

Last week I alluded to a somewhat serious link that I wanted to share, that I wanted to make into a topic all to itself.  Today is the day.

A week or two ago, in some random happenstance that I don’t clearly remember, I found a link to this essay:  Why Nerds Are Unpopular by computer scientist Paul Graham.  I read it, and found it utterly fascinating.  I won’t say that I agree with it 100%, but I will say that nothing in the essay can be dismissed out of hand.

I think we all in adolescence begin to feel an inkling of the falsehood and/or uselessness of our day-to-day lives, and I think that’s where Graham has touched on an important truth.  Other parts are arguable, but there I believe he’s onto something.  When we have nothing else, we create a hierarchy right out of Lord of the Flies and we’re too busy fighting to survive to notice the pointlessness of the entire structure.

Speaking personally, I vividly remember a good friend of mine – one slightly higher than myself on the totem pole by virtue of size and athletic ability – talking to me one day and saying that maybe I could be a little more popular if I wasn’t so…you know…out there. He said he’d been asked as my friend on more than one occasion, “So, TB…what’s wrong with that guy?”

What my friend didn’t know was that I was secretly flattered by the question.  If it was being asked, then my strategy was working, at least to an extent.  Those who were asking themselves and each other what was wrong with me at least weren’t telling me what was wrong with me.

So if you’re so inclined, take ten minutes to read Graham’s essay and share your thoughts.  I’m genuinely interested to hear a dialogue on the subject.  What is it about adolescence that creates such hierarchies?  How are they to be negotiated, or at least survived?  How did you make it through?


8 Responses

  1. I find that I disagree with some of the fundamental principles of this essay.

    Graham claims that smart kids simply don’t want to do the work to be popular, because being popular is work. I find this totally contradicted by my experiences. When I was in high school, I was neither capable of nor interested in living the kind of lifestyle that the popular kids lived: they were rich and they liked sports. I had neither of these qualities, and no amount of effort on my part would have changed that. The popular kids did not come around to enjoying my company for just what it was until the end of my senior year, when I became friends with some of the golden girls somewhat by accident. But that’s the thing: you are who you are, even in school, and you can’t flock with birds not of your feather for long before you realize you are just not in the right place. I had nothing in common with those girls, and we would have had no fun together for most of high school.

    I think his argument is slightly different: either that the nerds don’t understand that being popular requires work, instead believing it to be an innate quality which they lack; or that they just don’t have the time and energy left over from what they believe to be more important pursuits to put in the work to be popular.

    In my own experience, I may not have been capable of living the lifestyle of the popular kids, but I would have been interested in at least part of it. But I don’t imagine that there was the same social stratification at my high school that there was at yours. “Rich” was a relative term at best…although “poor” definitely not. There was also a fairly heavy bit of racial self-segregation, so you could say that there were parallel communities of “cool” and “lame.”

    I also think Graham makes an exceedingly self-important argument in favor of nerds, when nerds are no more noble than football players – merely different. It’s a difference that is to the nerds’ personal detriment, but that is entrenched and is no one’s fault.

    I think that any nobility among nerds is the nobility of the downtrodden. Given equal access to power within a hierarchy, nerds are just as petty, as some time around the right crew in college can attest.

    Graham’s argument that if you set kids to more useful tasks they will be happier is meritless, in my opinion. We are living in a time of extracurricular overload for kids, and the most overscheduled person I knew in high school was incidentally one of the most popular. I don’t know that her life ever stopped enough for her to wonder whether she was happy or not, and…is that the model that Graham is seeking? I don’t remember being often idle when I was in school; there was always homework or choir practice or a newspaper deadline or something. Being idle wasn’t what made me miserable; it being forced to go to fucking school every day instead of doing what I wanted. Not necessarily the kids (although they were no fun), not necessarily my own unpopularity, not necessarily the utter pointlessness of it all. It was the lack of freedom that I hated.

    Here I will diverge with your opinion. My interpretation was not that kids weren’t doing enough, it’s that what they are doing isn’t meaningful. They’re not tilling the soil or running a printing press like Abe Lincoln or Ben Franklin as teenagers. They’re not supporting their families or serving a useful apprenticeship. They’re checking off another box on their college application. That’s the extent of the real meaning behind their work.

    Rereading the article before I posted it, I looked back on my teenage years and my attitude toward what I was doing at a given time, and I have to say that my outlook was entirely different when I thought I was doing something useful or meaningful. I hated being a manual laborer/helper on the lumberyard – but the summer after I turned 18 I could drive the company’s trucks and I was as much a real part of the crew as anyone else, and my attitude was vastly more positive and engaged. Even the summer I spent in the tobacco fields was better mentally for me than the three summers that I worked as a warm body slash laborer in a couple of stores afterward. It was something being done, not Same Shit Different Day.

    That said, that may be something of a gender bias. It’s fairly well documented that men define themselves by what they do to a somewhat greater degree than women; perhaps this is a bias that Graham shares.

    I don’t think that the system of shutting kids in with a mediocre education for 12 years and then expecting them to suddenly be productive members of society is a good one, but I don’t think that eight-year-olds getting chewed up by turn-of-the-century machinery on an assembly line is a particularly good system either. Find me a solution that works, and is not abusive, and helps kids to learn what they need to know, and I’ll reconsider whether we should retire the semi-broken one we have.

    I agree. I think Graham would, as well; I read his argument as recognizing that most of modern American business life has no place for a teenager. Plain and simple. It requires maturity and skills that they simply don’t possess, and can’t possess until they’ve reached several prerequisites that just can’t be taught by age thirteen. There’s no simple answer to the broken system, and for the time being, keeping kids out of the way while teaching them the bare minimum seems less ridiculous than throwing them headlong into our urbanized, knowledge-worker modern life and expecting them to sink or swim.

    How is this to be negotiated or survived? Put your head down and wait. That’s the best advice I can think of. No kid wants to hear that high school isn’t important and that this will pass and so on, because school is the entire world as far as they’re concerned and will go on forever and ever (since it’s already gone on for as long as they remember). I learned a lot from all the yucky things that happened to me in school, and although I definitely wouldn’t do it again, I wouldn’t trade it, either.

    I make this argument myself. Secondary school is to be survived, period. You just have to recognize it for what it is – a series of obstacles, institutional, social, and personal, put in your way to force you to surmount them.

    But realizing in a less-than-subtle way that the Lord-of-the-Flies-ness of it is a) bullshit and b) long but temporary is a vital strategy for maintaining your sanity in the face of a less-than-sane environment.

    The other thing is, all the misery and conformity and doing what you dread and mingling with people who suck – this really prepares you for the working world. The dreary reality of school being exchanged for the dreary reality of a cubicle is sort of all that happens to change what you do with your days. For me, at least, even the underestimation due to age has persisted long beyond my school days.

    “Underestimation due to age” – you mean people look at you and think you’re too young to be capable? I had that same feeling when I was your age, but in the last couple of years either people have quit underestimating me or I’ve quit giving a shit.

    As for preparing you for the working world – this is true. I’ve never found the office to be as bad as high school, but whenever there are things that are high-school-esque, I can at least apply what I learned then to the present. Especially if it’s the nerdly knowledge that “this is bullshit and I’m not playing that game.”

  2. Overall I think the essay was okay, but according to his own perspective. My own perspective isn’t the same and wouldn’t come to the exact same conclusions as he did because of the position of the hierarchy I was in – I wasn’t ‘nerd’ material, but nor was I popular. We can’t really think that smashing that many people of the same age into one building and expect them to all think the same thing, or behave in the same manner is going to happen. It’s not possible. As humans, we tend to gravitate toward hierarchial structures in our society, we just do. So it isn’t so shocking to me that it happens within our school systems. And the claim that adults aren’t cruel? Are you kidding me? Racism, pedophilia, spousal abuses, murder, theft, etc, all I’d have to say is ‘Rodney King’ and that ‘adults aren’t cruel’ argument goes out the window.

    I think adults are more cruel, but more kids are cruel. If that makes sense.

    I also don’t think the ‘adults have no economical use for teens anymore’ argument doesn’t fly, and that is the reason they are in school. Most adults do believe that kids learn there, and I guess they do … in a way. As a homeschooler, I’m a bit biased though.

    Biased, and clearly a masochist, to voluntarily lock yourself in with your OWN kids all day! 😀

    I think kids do learn in school – just often against their will, and not as much as they could if somehow they could be engaged in learning as much as they are in the grand game of popularity.

    Junior high is brutal, there is no doubt about that. However, the cruelty that runs rampant through the halls isn’t blatently ignored by every teacher, but the sheer quantity of it is hard to catch (30 students for every 1 teacher). I do disagree that teachers are more wardens than teacher – speaking on a personal basis I know too many teachers (now and back when), much more than not, that are there for more than a good paycheck and a great pension (I’m in Canada, teachers are well paid here).

    I think teachers also know that there’s a point beyond which they can’t help – because they just can’t be there all the time. They’re duty-bound to deal with the most egregious and open violations, but run-of-the-mill cruelty? If a teacher interfered every time that happened, a) no education would happen, b) as soon as the teacher’s back was turned, the victim would catch hell twice over for the interference.

    I do think he’s missing one point about general nerdiness. He ignored the physical differences between the ‘nerds’ and the popular. That’s not to say that the nerd crowd is an ugly bunch, but there’s usually something physically different as well as intelligence. It could be glasses, shorter, skinny frame, uncool clothes, fat, etc. If I could line up the popular crowd and the ‘nerd’ crowd of my school, the physical differences would be staggering, even to my own eye. Once we reached HS I know a few in the nerd’s crowd that you could tell stopped caring about whether or not they were popular at all and refused to work towards that. They had many more lofty goals in mind by that point.

    I agree with you, but I also think it’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Are they physically different because they’re nerdy and unpopular, or the other way around?

    I would’ve been at the D table because I smoked and followed my own fashion advice. I probably had a moment or two where I wanted to be at the A table, but probably forgot about it in no time laughing with my nerd, skid, and fat friends.

    I think I was in a C minus range. 😀 But truthfully there was almost a full year (11th grade, I think?) in which I literally refused to play the game entirely and ate my lunch alone. I remember a (female) friend remarking that she would never, ever have the strength to do that. I don’t know if it was strength to endure, or weakness in terms of an inability to take the first step to fit in SOMEwhere. But the next year somehow I was a different person, or was looked at differently by everyone, or both.

    (Either way, it was an improvement, let me tell you.)

  3. I think my comment would be longer than your blog post and perhaps rival crisitunity’s. So, rather than address you both in one giant comment, I will say this:

    Kitty is in high school. The environment is different today in some ways than when we were in school. Being nerdy is kinda cool, at least at her school. Kitty is beautiful, popular and well liked. However, SHE doesn’t see it, even though her friends and other classmates tell her so. She is liked for her smarts. She is liked for being a choir geek. She is liked even though she’s an Honor’s student. She is liked even though, in her own words, she sucks at track.

    However, again, SHE does not see it. So, perhaps, popularity is a bit of how we perceive ourselves? Or is it that times have changed drastically? I think that perhaps it’s the former.

    First off, DING DING DING, this is my 4,000th comment! Woohoo and 5,000 bonus cool points to OS!

    Your point is quite interesting. My son just got an award today – essentially they gave one award from each class for the one student that best exemplifies the ideals of the school. He won for his class. His classmates? Actually congratulated him. That would have been downright alien in the elementary school I attended.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure he sees himself as popular. But then again, he’s not quite at the age to be concerned about it.

    I will definitely give you a “hmmmmm” on your comment. I’m not sure you’re right, but I am sure that you’re not wrong.

    • Oh darn! Now you know how lame I am via Twitter! I didn’t even come look to see if you’d responded to me before I replied to your tweet!

      Here’s some more Hmmm for ya:

      I never considered myself popular. I knew a lot of people. I wasn’t part of any one group. Rather, I had friends in lots of different cliques. I had my horsey friends, choir friends, DECA friends, Honor’s Friends, the downright weird, alternative, nerdy friends, some jock friends, and yes, I was friends with some cheerleaders too. Not especially good friends, but still friendly. I wasn’t extremely social. I didn’t spend all my time on the phone with a hundred different people. Actually, my phone was quite quiet.


      One day, about 10 years ago, I ran into a woman who was one of the most popular girls at school. I may have grazed the edge of her circle a few times, but was not part of it. In school, I didn’t think she even knew I existed.

      However, this particular day, in the midst of the grocery store, she stopped me and was actually interested in my life. When I commented that I was surprised she remembered me, she went on and on about how SHE, Ms. Uber-Popular remembered me and thought I was so cool and was jealous, JEALOUS that I had so many friends.

      Wait! Me? Cool? Um, I sure didn’t think so when I was in high school. I always felt like I didn’t fit in and didn’t really belong- anywhere!

      So, just another point to go along with my theory about how popularity is a bit of how we perceive ourselves.

      (Do you know how many of my high school friends I still talk to on a regular basis? ONE. Just my bff Dawn. I have a couple others I talk to occasionally that I’ve known since kindergarten- the others, not at all).

      Interesting. On the other hand, sometimes I feel sorry for those super-cool popular kids, because it sure would be hard to top having the ground you walk on worshipped. It sure would suck to peak in high school. But for lots of people, that happens – especially athletes who aren’t quite good enough to make it at the next level.

      I speak to precisely zero high school classmates. One works with my mother, and I’m friendly with her when I see her, but I don’t go out of my way to do so. She was in charge of our class reunion, and working with Mom she had my address, so she posted it on the web site. I emailed her and asked her to take it down. I just wasn’t interested in being contacted by any of them.

      • I can understand the sentiment. In my case, the ones I’m still friends with are either older or younger. I talk to 0 people who graduated with me, because, well, I just don’t like them any more.

        Dawn is younger than I am by 2 years. The others I referred to knowing since kindergarten are older than me. Because, well, that’s just how I roll! 😉

  4. A very interesting essay and comments. My comment is simple…

    The educational system is just one big social experiment that does more damage to people than it does good…in it’s current form.

    • At this very moment I am agreeing with you. In our case, we have a teacher doing damage.

      UGH. I’ve been there. NOT good. At least you’re moving, though!

  5. I will start where Crisitunity started: Nerds don’t want to be popular. I disagree, of course I went to a REALLY weird high school. There was actually a high school sorority and people likes your’s truly wanted to be part of it because that meant you went to dances and people “liked” you (or at least pretended to). We nerds tried but while popular people enjoy those who suck up, they find nothing more disgusting than wanna bees.

    Because wannabes are bigger threats, perhaps?

    But where I take issue with the author is that he says the smart kids are the nerds. Not all AP classes are full of socially disabled people who are borderline autistic. Nerds aren’t always smart… they can be the smelly kid who talks too much and doesn’t use deodorant. Some of the smartest kids/honor grads are also the Homecoming Queen.

    True, but I think those Homecoming Queen brainiacs are rare. And I think you’re lumping “nerds” together with “outcasts” while I would argue that all nerds are outcasts, but not all outcasts are nerds.

    I do agree when the author says: “Popularity is only partially about individual attractiveness. It’s much more about alliances.” If you’re friends with the popular crowd, it doesn’t matter how you look… you’ll be popular.


    But maybe what the author is missing is that it’s not so much gaining popularity as it is having SOME kind of attention whether that be friends, academic, athletic, acknowledgment from teachers, music, etc. Maybe in his world the nerds were fine being lonely losers but I believe that if people just get involved in SOMETHING, there would be more equality among the masses.

    Some schools don’t really offer a lot of options in terms of getting involved that aren’t athletics. Mine had an academic competition team, and I joined it eventually, but for a while I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be a part of that any more than I wanted to play for the basketball team. And for some, neither are options.

    Did I mention I did some teaching a few years ago? Yup… I liked the juvenile delinquents the best. They had much more character.

    Well, in my school there were the lovable delinquents and then there were the delinquents. The ones with lengthy arrest records, weapons upon their persons, etc…

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