February 17, 2003

Paul Graham, "Why Nerds Are Unpopluar" [via chrisb on #lisp].

My first year of middle school, I sat at an "E" table. That changed pretty quickly though--I bet not too many people can say their social standing actually improved when they started hanging out with the Dungeons and Dragons kids.

It's good, though--now that my fashion acumen and social adroitness have caught up to my staggering genius, my early experiences keep me humble.

Posted by jjwiseman at February 17, 2003 11:03 AM

I was pretty shocked by the pain that Paul Graham obviously carried into his adult life from his experiences in secondary school. This article was a shrill screed complaining bitterly about the injustice of intelligent people not getting their due. Not one moment of the article was dedicated to genuine introspection.

Yeah, I was with the D&D, Chess, & Bridge crowd. Yeah, I was picked on. Yeah, I grew up to be a succesful nerd. But I didn't get to be succesful until I learned that being intelligent is worth nothing if you can't interact with people well. Maybe you'll be in the right spot at the right time and get rich, but all that will get you is a Porsche. To really earn people's respect requires more than being smart. It requires respecting *them*, even if you think they are less intelligent than you.

Obvious belief the the manifest destiny of your own intelligence and public derision of others as stupid pretty much guarantees you'll never earn any real respect. Oh, people will acknowledge your intelligence, but your ability to change the world depends on the respect of others.

Posted by: Lazy Bastard on February 17, 2003 07:25 PM

Through most of my adolescence, I was a pretty smart and very maladjusted kid, getting bad grades in AP classes and feeling unpopular. This was at a public high school in a college town (Ann Arbor, MI), which they told us was the best public high school in the state.

Then, for six months when I was fifteen, my family moved to Geneva, where I went to an "international school". I did very well academically and felt fairly popular, before returning to my familiar misery in the U.S.

The difference? Without a doubt, it was because it was cool to be smart at the Geneva school. When I was the first to answer the teachers' questions, both the other boys _and_ the girls seemed to like it. Although the school in Michigan supposedly valued academics, and had many faculty brats as students, the reward/punishment system around being smart was very different.

I'm not sure I understand Graham's essay well enough to know if he would agree or disagree, but whatever else is going on in the tension between "smart" and "popular", I believe that it's totally a culturally contingent thing, particular to U.S. schools of the last few decades. There's no inherent reason why the two concepts need to be in conflict, any more than high school quarterbacks necessarily need to agonize about whether they'd rather be popular or athletic.

Posted by: Timboy on February 18, 2003 10:47 PM

I think the most interesting thing about Graham's essay isn't necessarily his focus on nerds or popularity at all. It's the idea that adolescence as it's constituted here in the US has become dangerously pointless -- made so sterile that it almost automatically draws forth the antisocial behaviors (cliqueishness, materialism, tormenting of others, depression and suicide, petty crime, sex and drugs, etc.) that adults claim they're trying to protect children from. As I read the essay, Graham suggests this uselessness weighs equally heavily on all teenagers except possibly the lucky few at the upper end of the popularity scale (who presumably put most of their energy into physical activity).

I agree that this is partly a cultural issue -- that Americans in general equate childhood with leisure -- but suspect it's way more of an issue as family income goes up. Kids I've known who were working 40-hour a week jobs to support their families during high school, or caring for younger siblings, might feel like their youths were stolen from them but I'm not sure they feel useless.

Posted by: Troutgirl on February 19, 2003 01:06 AM

My credentials: gangly, bespecaled, slovenly math/science whiz in a crumbling, redneck, (less than) middle class public school. Nevertheless, I was fairly popular, flitted easily between all of Graham's tables, and - as if it matters - several "popular" girls liked me. Though I recognize Graham's Lord of the Flies analogy, I think his essay comes from unresolved personal pain. The question is broader: Why {fat | poor | uncoordinated | ...} kids are unpopular. In fact, sometimes kids who have all the accoutrements of popularity are still picked on. It has little to do with being a nerd. As Graham hints, it is about power. If you want to be part of any group, the gatekeepers of that group have power over you. This is also true in adulthood, though you can segregate yourself into narrow, socially conforming groups. That avoids the issue, but the groups are still there.

I won't bore you with bawdy tales of my youth, but I feel like I came from a deeply disadvantageous position (big freakin' nerd) to achieve a comfortable degree of popularity and a wide group of friends. You can read all about it in my forthcoming autobiography: "I Got Mad Game!" Meanwhile, can we start a collection to send Paul a heartfelt card and a bouquet of bright yellow tulips?

Posted by: Pinku on February 19, 2003 01:20 PM

I find it rather amusing that so many individuals believe that it is so easy being the " high school quarterback ." I know for a fact I currently am one. Ive been the starting quarterback at my high school for three years and even helpd the team win a league xchampionship and got nominated for mvp. You think this sounds great well its not. i face many of the same problems as you do Im aswell attain above average grades and wish to smack half the peoeple in the high school until they realize there vast incompetence. So before you go complaining about your life and wrongfully cast all your problems towards the jocks and in particular the " high school quarterback " realize that your doing to them what you have had done to you your entire life misplaced hate and misguided stereotyping.

Posted by: Walk A Mile on July 1, 2005 05:39 PM
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