The Lexicology of Personal Development

Sunday October 10, 2012
These days, everybody talks about geeks.  Geek chic, the "age of the geek"; even the New York Times op-ed page has been talking about the rise of "geeks" for years.  Bowing to popular usage, even I use the word as it's currently being bandied about.  But I think that the real success story is that of nerds.

A pernicious habit I've noticed in the last decade of the growth of geek culture is that it has developed a sort of cargo-cult of meritocracy.  Within the self-identified "geek" community, there's a social hierarchy based on all kinds of ridiculous pop-culture fetishism.  Who knows the most Monty Python non-sequiteurs?  Who knows the most obscure Deep Space Nine trivia?  This is hardly a new thing – William Shatner famously complained about it on Saturday Night Live in 1986 – but the Internet has been accelerating the phenomenon tremendously.  People who had a difficult time in their teens find each other as adults through some fan-club interest group, and then they make fast friends who had similar social problems.  Soon, since that's the shared interest that they know all their friends from, they spend all their time in the totally fruitless pursuit of more junk related to some frivolous obsession.  That can be okay, almost healthy even, if the focus of this accumulation is a productive hobby. However, if it's just a pop-culture franchise (Harry Potter, Star Trek, World of Darkness) what was originally a liberating new social landscape can rapidly turn into a suffocating, stale dead-end for personal development.

So I always feel a twinge when I identify myself as a "geek".  I usually prefer to say that I am - or at least aspire to be - a nerd.

A nerd is someone who is socially awkward because they are more thoughtful, introspective, intelligent or knowledgeable than their peers.  They notice things that others don't, and it makes interaction difficult.  This is especially obvious in younger nerds, where they're a little above their age group's intelligence but not quite intelligent enough to know when to keep their mouths shut to avoid ostracism.  But, even if they have learned to keep a lid on their less-popular observations, it's tough to constantly censor yourself and it makes interaction with your peers less enjoyable.

A geek is someone who is socially awkward because they are obsessed with topics that the mundanes among us just don't care about that much. They collect things, whether it's knowledge, games, books, toys, or technology.  Faced with a popular science fiction movie, a nerd might want to do the math to see whether the special effects are physically plausible, but a geek will just watch it a dozen times to memorize all the lines.

A dork is just socially awkward because they just aren't all that pleasant to be around.  Nerds and geeks have trouble with interacting with others because they're lost in their own little worlds of intellectual curiosity or obsession: dorks are awkward because, let's face it, maybe they're a little stupid, a little mean, and just not that interesting.  A dork is unsympathetic.

By way of a little research for this post, I discovered that I'm apparently not the only one who has this impression of the definitions, and even Paul Graham seems to agree with me on word choice.  Still: from here on out, these are the correct definitions of the words, thank you very much.

Maybe you've heard these definitions before, and this is all old news. Also, these are words for the sort of tedious taxonomy of people that fictional teenagers in high-school movies do.  It's obviously not karmically healthy to start labeling people "nerd", "dork",  and "geek" and then writing them off as such.  So, you might ask, why do I bring it up?

Because you, like me, are almost certainly a nerd, a geek, and a dork.  And, as you might have inferred from my definitions above, nerds are better than geeks, and dorks are worse than both.

First, consider your inner nerd.  It's good to be intellectually curious, to stretch your cognitive abilities in new and interesting ways, to learn things about how systems work.  Physical systems, social systems, technological systems: it's always good to know more.  It's even good to be curious to the point of awkwardness, especially if you're a kid who is concerned about awkwardness; don't worry about it, it'll make you more interesting later.  It's good to foster any habits which are a little nerdy.

Second, your inner geek.  It's okay to enjoy things, even to obsess about them a little bit, but I think that our culture is really starting to overdo this.  Geeks are presented in popular media as equally, almost infinitely, obsessed with Star Wars, calculus, Star Trek, computer security, and terrible food (cheese whiz, sugary soda brands, etc).  No real people actually have time for all this stuff.  At some point, you have to choose whether you're going to memorize Maxwell's or Kosinski's equations.

One way that you can keep your inner geek in check is to always ask yourself the question: am I watching this movie / playing this game / reading this book because I actually enjoy it and I think it's worthwhile, or am I just trying to make myself conform to some image of myself as someone who knows absolutely everything about this one little cultural niche?

There are people who will treat being a fan of something that someone else created as morally equivalent (or, in a sense, even better than) creating something yourself, and those people are not doing you any favors.  Do not pay attention to them.

Of course, there's some overlap.  People who like playing with systems in real life enjoy the fluffier, more lightweight intellectual challenges of playing with the rules of fictional universes, especially the ones from speculative fiction.  When I was a kid, I went to a couple of Star Trek conventions and let me tell you, there were some legit nerds there; astrophysicists, rocket scientists, and experimental chemists, all excitedly talking about how they were inspired to pursue their careers by fiction of various kinds.

So go ahead, take a break, and geek out. Just don't tell yourself that it's anything other than for fun.

Finally, your inner dork.

As you're enthusiastically cultivating your nerdiness and carefully managing your geekiness, you will be accumulating a little bit of dorkiness as you go: at some point you have to make decisions about whether to do some minor social obligation in order to spend some time on learning a new thing (or re-watching your favorite movie).  You have to decide whether to restrain yourself so you can listen to your friend talk about a rough day at their job or to start spouting facts about the progress of the repairs on the large hadron collider.

Sometimes, on balance, it's acceptable to be a little bit inconsiderate in the pursuit of something more important.  People worth being friends with will see that and understand.  Heck, practically every movie plot these days puts at least one awkward and abrasive nerd in a sympathetic and even heroic position.  But be careful: once you decide that social graces are your lowest priority, it's a hop skip and a jump from being a lovable but absent-minded genius to being a blathering blowhard who just will not shut up about some tedious Riemannian manifold crap that nobody cares about even we just told them that somebody died.

The goal of the nerd or the geek, after all, is not to be awkward; it's easy to forget sometimes that that is an unintentional and unpleasant side effect of the good parts of those attributes.  Being a dork is just bad.  After all, if you're so smart, why aren't you nice?