Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Why Nerds are Unpopular

I actually read this essay years ago, but it just occurred to me that perhaps not everyone who might read my blog has heard of it or read it, and I just felt like sharing it.

Paul Graham has written a lot of other essays as well, which you can find on the same site. I check back every month or two to see if there is something new. I like his writing.


Nicole said...

Wow...I'm hoping this guy isn't too far away from high school graduation. Because if he's over 30 and still analyzing his own "nerd-dom" then that's kinda sad.

This entire dissertation made me think of a quote (I have a sinking suspicion that this is from Dr. Phil, but it's very fitting here) "You wouldn't worry so much about what people think about you if you knew how seldom they did." I wasn't a member of the "D Table" at my school, but I never remember spending time worrying about where I fell in the social hierarchy. My parents were smart enough to teach me that having a few good friends was what was important, and those were the people whose opinions really mattered to me.

There were SO many things I think are misguided about this essay..."smart people are made fun of" (um...not in my experience...but I have always disliked "know-it-alls" who want to tell you how smart they are), "popular people were trained to be pleasers" (isn't there such a thing as a person who just has a great personality and is therefore well-liked by his peers?) and the notion that "nerds have interests that they are focused on and therefore have no energy left for seeking popularity" (the kids I remember being socially shunned were one girl who was so painfully shy that I never heard her say a WORD in 6 years of being in classes with her, a boy who barked like a dog in class - yeah, now I know it was probably Tourette's, but back then we just thought he was doing it on purpose, and a kid who smelled like pee. I don't think their main problem was their high IQ or their preoccupation with high-minded matters.

So I feel bad for the nerd essay guy, but to me, the whole thing read suspiciously like a treatise on "How Brilliant People Such As Myself Are So Misunderstood".

DBB said...

It sounds like you did not read his followup essay when he addressed many of the points you bring up, including why he even wrote about it in the first place (he and his friends had kids and they were wondering what they could do to help them have better school experiences than they did). I wonder the same thing for my children.

I'm sure shyness matters alot - I was always shy and that probably contributed to my school troubles.

As far as worrying about what table one was at, he wasn't just talking about the thoughts of others - those at the D table were the people actively targetted by others in the school. Even if you don't care what the guy who is throwing punches at you or who is actively yelling at you and taunting you every day is thinking, you still have to deal with the reality of the bruises and the ringing in your ears.

I'd be curious to see what you thought of his followup. So you reject his thesis altogether?

Nicole said...

I don't reject every point he makes. I'm sure it's much harder for unattractive kids to be "popular" and painfully shy kids are at a major disadvantage, too.

I guess what I ultimately reject is the tone of his essay. As if popularity is something only the superficial kids with no "real pursuits" would bother to strive for. I just think that as far as being "well-liked" goes, plenty of kids exist who are smart and don't work at popularity, but who just are. And I'm not talking about the clique who roams the halls wearing matching outfits and talking about where the next kegger is. I'm talking about those 150 kids who are well-liked by students and teachers, who have varied interests, one of which is the other children in their class, and who don't have to dumb themselves down but are respected for their intelligence.

Maybe it's because I went to a school that valued intelligence. We had a self-contained "gifted" class through 8th grade (they selected about 8 kids from each class of 250 based on IQ scores and teacher recommendation), then honors classes in high school. And throughout my experience in that program, I think the closest thing I heard to an insult was "I used to think you gifted kids were stuck-up, but now that I know you, I don't think that anymore."

Obviously the writer's experience colors his view of the American School Experience, just as my experience makes me see things differently. I just don't agree with his assertion that taking an interest in other people isn't worthwhile. I think that relationships with other people are what we're ultimately here for, and when one looks back on their life, it's the relationships they're going to value the most. And maybe a person can be a complete ass and still do "well" in the world (if doing well just means having a high-paying job, or discovering a cure for something), but I think it's a whole lot easier and more fun to do well with the help of all the people you are acquainted with. I live in a smallish town...do I have a better chance at people advertising my piano teaching services by word-of-mouth if I'm an asshole who is a good teacher, or if they think I'm a good person who has their child's best interests at heart? Do I have a better chance at the next "regular job" I apply for if my ex-boss (who is also popular around here) gives me a glowing recommendation about how I was so well-liked that I doubled the population of his choirs within 3 years, or if he says something along the lines of "she's very knowledgeable."

I just think it's a sad excuse when one tells oneself that "taking an interest in other people is a waste of time that would be better spent reading books." I know 100 examples of people who successfully do both, and are better off for it.

DBB said...

I didn't get the impression that the author rejected the notion that it is good to be well-liked. I think he at one point explicitly stated that some nerds are really just unpleasant to be around.

I do know he explicitly stated that not all popular kids work at it - he said that those who are good-looking, natural atheletes, or siblings of popular people just get to be popular from that rather than from working at it. In other words, if you were smart and good-looking, you would be one of the popular people. So it isn't just about intelligence or lack thereof. And someone smart could also decide to play the popularity game and get good at it, so I don't think he was saying that only unintelligent people do that. Though he might have implied that by stating that since high school popularity is so transitive and meaningless, that anyone who actively pursued it was wasting their time, he does acknowledge that social skills are very important in real life as well.

Did you read his followup essay? I tend to agree with his general premise. I can't say I had exactly the same experience as anyone else, but my school was probably closer to his than yours, particularly in Junior High, where there were no real gifted or advance classes, and where things were unpleasant, to put it mildly. But I was not good looking and I was also shy and also very poor at social skills then, so I had the trifecta of nerddom.

The main thing I liked about the essay was the analysis of what it takes to be popular in high school, and why it seems to be so important to some when that sort of thing doesn't seem to happen that way in real life (with some exceptions, which he notes). I liked the Versaille comparison as well.

humbition said...

This essay hits the mark in a lot of ways. But one thing it misses as a causal factor is the anti-intellectualism of the Anglo-American countries and particularly of the United States. I would love to know whether people who grow up in other parts of the world, particularly where English is not spoken, have as deep a sense of "nerd unpopularity." I have heard stories that it exists to some extent, but I doubt it exists to the same extent.

From my experience in other parts of the world a major reason for the lack of anti-intellectualism, where it is (relatively) lacking, would be nationalism. Smart people are valued in much of the world because they add prestige to the national or local group. Artists and poets, who are not respected in the US for example, are respected for this reason as well.

We are very mobile in the Anglosphere, often ending up far from where we are born. We have little local patriotism, except in trivial matters such as sports teams (which become important because there are so few other idioms for local pride). When we achieve, maybe a few members of our family are proud of us, but who else? Whereas in places with local patriotism everyone is invested in the local person's success, or at least that is how I think it used to work.

Then again, if I think about sports teams, and high schools, again these are foci of local pride, but not so much the intellectual achievements of high school students. So maybe I'm kind of back where I started, with anti-intellectualism just as a fact of Anglosphere culture.

nicole said...

Maybe it has to do with the fact that Americans are about as individualistic as they come. If you achieve something, it's something you are proud of, but other people don't share in your pride because they didn't have anything to do with your achievement. In other countries people feel more connected to their families, their neighborhoods and their communities. That type of connection is much rarer here.

It's pretty easy to latch on to a sports team and decide that you're going to share in their success (or failure). But even if you're a big fan of an artist or poet, there's no moment of screaming "SCORE!!!" when they publish their next brilliant work. So I don't know if it's that individual achievements aren't admired in this country, or if they're just not openly celebrated among groups of people (not associated with the achievement) or in the media. Then again, I sure hear a lot more stories about Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan than I hear about well-respected actors.

I've come to realize that there's a limited amount of people in my life that are really interesting to me. So I can either spend time with those people or I can spend my time looking around me and shaking my head as I watch people with stickers on their cars of Calvin peeing on the Ford sign or who have an extra pair of testicles hanging from their trailer hitch drive by. So yeah, maybe they don't value the same things that I do, but that doesn't make those things less valuable to me. But, it takes all kinds, right?

ballgame said...

humbition: I agree with you that the writer seemed to be oblivious to the notion that there is a distinct anti-intellectual aspect to American culture which plays out in a vicious way in high school.

For the most part, much of his essay seemed to echo a lot of the points that Paul Goodman was making back in the 1960s, particularly the notion that one of school's unacknowledged purposes was to keep kids 'on ice' and out from underfoot.