Paul Graham Essay on Nerds - Agree? Disagree? Worship him as a god?

Paul Graham has written a very interesting essay on nerds (it’s from 2003, so it’s entirely possible that we’ve discussed it before, but that was quite a while ago, I’m guessing) - "Why Nerds Are Unpopular. (It’s a fairly long read, but interesting.) Since there are a lot of people who self-identify as nerds, and from everything I’ve read here a lot of Dopers were bullied in school, I thought I’d run this essay by you guys and see what you thought of it.

Do you agree with his premises, that nerds are unpopular because they’re smart, and also because they simply don’t play the popularity game? That schools are just holding pens for adolescents? That teenagers would be better off and happier if given constructive work to do? Other thoughts, comments?

I agree with a lot of it, and occasionally pass the article on. It described much of my life in late public school and early high school. That said, I’m not sure that ‘unpopular because of smartness’ is the most important concept there; IMHO not playing the social game is much more important. Whether that’s because one can’t or one won’t is relatively immaterial; the effect is the same.

I first read that essay years ago, and most of it resonated true in my mind. But some parts don’t. I don’t think schools are (as he suggests) intended as holding pens for kids while the grown-ups go out and earn a living; I think they really are supposed to teach you useful things and expose you to potentially interesting things.

And then there’s his idea that suburbia exists for the express purpose of raising children, which I think is incorrect. I know of many childless couples (including me and my wife) who live in the 'burbs, and many couples with adult children (such as my own parents) who have continued to live in the 'burbs long after their children have grown up and moved out on their own. The 'burbs are just nice places to live, regardless of whether one has kids or not: quiet, clean, low crime rates, some breathing room between you and your nearest neighbor.

I agree with most of the essay but my main problem is that Graham seems to believe that popularity stops mattering after High School. I’m only 26 but this doesn’t seem to be true at all. Popularity just moves from the primary consideration to the tie breaking consideration. On job interviews the candidate best able to do the work may be passed over for one who is easy to work with.

I use the skills I learned in High School almost every day whether it is mimicking how the other people in the office dress or getting regulators to like me so they won’t examine my permits as closely…

Beyond that though I think the lack of purpose is what makes people unhappy. The kids who had something to focus on, fixing up a vehicle, succeeding at sports or getting into college, were happier then those who just showed up and focused on merely surviving each day. I think that spending large amounts of time in classes that are perceived as worthless also is part of the problem nothing is more soul sucking then watching a clock and that doesn’t change whether you are listening to a teacher pretend an author means something beyond the text of his story, taking a bunch of numbers and turning them into a bunch of other numbers, or staring blankly at the SDMB waiting to get off work.

I also read this essay years ago and it really changed the way I thought about my life. As a kid, I was teased mercilessly for being a nerd and I built up a lot of resentment about it. In grade and high school that expressed itself as anger over how the popular girls were, well, popular, and got attention for what I thought were vapid gifts. Stupid as it may sound, the idea that they were actually putting effort into being popular didn’t occur to me until I read this piece. Considering popularity as a learned skill rather than pure luck has given me a more balanced view on life. I still won’t spend three hours on my hair like the Queen of George Street, but I can understand why some women will make that choice.

The Queen of George Street? Where are you?

Montreal, but I’m a great fan of Great Big Sea :smiley:

I think that there is a lot of truth in the essay, but about half of it is an apologia, offering excuses why the author wasn’t popular. Firstly, it is obvious that there are just as many smart popular kids as there are smart nerds, in terms of a school population. It’s just that there aren’t any dumb nerds while there are popular less smart kids. Part of the definition of nerd is being smart. That leads to a hive mentality and the defense naturally becomes “we’re unpopular because we’re smart” because who wants to say “You know, dudes, we’re unpopular because our social skills suck and we don’t make an effort to look good.”

I think of a couple of examples from my oldest daughter’s class who graduated from high school this year. In middle school, both girls were on a club soccer team that went on to play at the top level of competitive soccer, challenged for state championships in high school, and turned out five college players, two on full rides. These girls were very popular and envied. One of them, H, due to bad genes and poor role models, became quite overweight in eighth grade, and lost her spot on the team. However, she was the kind of person who was very friendly, and would always make an effort to be nice. She never forgot a birthday, and would have a hand made card taped to a kid’s locker on the morning of their birthadays. She remained in the popular group all through high school even as she grew even heavier. She’s got more facebook friends than ahy of the others.

The other girl, N, was pretty, smart, and athletic. She was not friendly, though. When someone would score a goal, there would always be a big group hug. N never participated. She would walk silently back to midfield by herself. N was invited to all the events and parties that middle schoolers do, but rarely attended. She could have been a part of the popular crowd but chose not to be. She ended up quitting the team (she was not, and wouldn’t have been cut), and just kind of embraced the nerd stereotypes. She became unpopular not because she was smart, but because she rejected the popular kids.

I think that intelligence is a common thread in nerds, but it has nothing to do with unpopularity. My kids school had the stereotypical Chinese kid who’s father made him do everything. He was in the engineering program, got almost perfect SAT’s, but he was also a friendly guy. In addition to being a violinist in orchestra, he played in a jazz band. He was a popular kid.

This paragraph, IMO, is pure BS. Being friendly and nice doesn’t require any special effort. Some people just don’t understand the social rules, and some just don’t care. Smart peoples lives can be just as happy and rewarding as the high school quarterback’s, probably more if the quarterback also happens to be dumb.

Neither will I. And I am that fairly rare American who gets the reference. :slight_smile:

I wonder about that idea. There was a thread here just a few days ago about what schools should be teaching students, things they really need to know in the real world, but for some reason they just don’t. It seems like they teach what they’ve always taught, regardless of how effective that is, or what else kids could really use. I don’t think many people could argue with the idea that kids have a really prolonged adolescence now, too.

One thing I’ve learned from teaching high school: the socially awkward smart kids think they have it bad, but it’s nothing compared to what the socially awkward, academically slow kids go through. The underlying tone to a lot of “nerd angst”, in my experience, is “I am so smart, I don’t deserve to be treated like the stupid kids, I should be one of the popular ones”, not “I am a person and no person should be treated like this, the whole idea of popularity is stupid”.

I also think that world has become much more smart-friendly in the last 20 years. A generation ago, “crazy-wicked-smart” wasn’t looked on as a viable path to serious wealth and power. Crazy smart meant wearing a lab coat and working in a basement. Silicon Valley changed that. I really think intelligence is more respected among high school kids today than it was even when I was in school, 15 or so years ago.

Yes, it has been discussed before. Thread from 2003

Exactly. Although I’d say more than just excuses; I’d go with “poorly-hidden resentment.”

Most nerds stop being nerdy after high school because they eventually do develop some social skills. Others keep on being nerds for life.

I think it’s complete bullshit.

Of course - predictably, in fact - the essay’s argument hinges on a No True Scotsan assumption that nerds are smart by definition, and therefore, people who are neither popular nor smart aren’t addressed in Graham’s universe. His guiding fact is:

Well, they would, wouldn’t they? Everyone thinks they’re smarter than they are, but being bad at sports and liking RPGs doesn’t prove you’re smart. Graham then goes on to say being smart makes you unpopular in high school.

His evidence for this is… um, that he was unpopular, and he thinks he’s smart.

Looking honestly at the issue, I suspect you would find there is a positive correlation between intelligence and popularity in high school - not a really strong one, but I bet it’d be there all the same if you cared to scientifically study the issue. Certainly, looking at an old high school yearbook, I can’t see how the smart kids were especially likely to be unpopular. In fact, in just now picking out some of the most popular kids at random, the majority were A students. The Head Girl, elected solely for her popularity, was a straight A student who won severla scholarships. Head Boy, elected solely for HIS popularity, was an A student. The girl elected Treasurer was a fricking genius. The prettiest girl in school, worshipped by every male who laid eyes on her, went to one of the best universities in Canada. Ah, here’s a gorgeous blonde who dated only top athletes… straight A student, master’s degree, published author. It’s not perfect; the school’s #2 student wasn’t very popular, though he wasn’t really picked on, either. But the least popular guy in my class was dumb, too, so to Graham, he’s not even counted as existing.

My thumbing through my high school yearbook is purely anecdotal, of course, so take it with a pound of salt. But Graham just sounds bitter, and he offers no evidence to support his claims.

I do not think the “nerd” and “jock” thing applies anymore. I think it is an outdated concept. Today’s high schools are filled with “cool” nerds because nowadays pop culture has made it “cool” to be a nerd. Wes Anderson, Napoleon Dynamite, indie rock, and the massive rise of technology are some of the pop culture elements which have evolved to give hipsters and hipsters-in-training social clout. You can be cool and be a nerd nowadays but you also have to be witty and well-dressed to pull it off.

Also, playing sports doesn’t automatically make someone cool. I knew guys in high school who played sports, even the most manly sports like football and hockey, who were really not cool at all and did not have high social status. Mostly because they were introverts who were good at sports but very bad at interacting with other people.

Being “cool” ultimately is something that transcends cliques in high school.

Is being cool the same as being popular, do you figure?

Yeah, I think so, at least the way I’m using the term here.

I disagree. It DOES take effort to be friendly and nice, especially if one is not inclined to be so naturally. I have to watch myself every minute when I’m out in public, as my usual tendency is to ignore other people unless I want something, and even then I tend to want to conduct my business in the quickest manner possible.

Yes, I was even worse in school. I HAVE learned some social skills, but I need to be aware of myself at all times. I make the effort because very few people deserve to be subjected to Lynn At Her Grumpiest. For those who do deserve it, though, I try to make sure that they learn their lesson.

Nearly all of the popular kids at my school were also top of the class with lots of A-levels. There were a few idiots who made it into the “inner circle” based on sports skill, but most of them were extremely clever. The way I see it, there are a few tiers:

[Smart] + [socially skilled] = extremely popular
[Not smart] + [socially skilled] = fairly popular
[Smart] + [not socially skilled] = “nerds”
[Not smart] + [not socially skilled] = “losers”/“weirdos”

I agree with Lynn that most social skills have to be learned, and I think those who pick them up most quickly and deftly end up winning the “popularity game”.

Not only do I agree, back in the day I translated the entire essay into French for my blog (with the author’s permission, of course), because I reckon its essential truths are universal and don’t just apply to the US school system.

And I also agree with Lynn : being sociable is hard work if you’re not wired to be. To this day, I still can’t do small talk. I can do *real *talk and chat just fine, at least when I’m inclined to - but speaking for the purpose of speaking, without meaning or message ? That’s just…wuh ?