The case for nerds

0603NERDBAR5_2c_5FRII like nerds.  I must like nerds or risk self-loathing.  I’m not sure if I can claim full-nerd status, as I’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons and was more of an invisible/trouble-maker/outsider in high school (I secretly wanted to run with the nerds, only I was too insecure about my smarts to believe they’d accept me) but at this point in my life I’m at least half-nerd.

While I’m partial to nerds and non-nerds alike and strive to love the world in all its diversity, I’d like to make the case for being a nerd—not as a kid, that’s the luck of the draw—but as parents.  A good parent benefits from getting in touch with their inner nerd, so here’s a challenge to any hipsters who happen across these words on their way to lunch with the in-crowd or whatever it is that cool people do:  let the nerd out of the box—dare to be kind, and smart and interested in whatever weird little uncool things you happen to be interested in, and taste the secret power of the nerds who just are who they are.

Parent nerds are in many ways ideal for kids.  Kids want to be cool, unless they’re bonafide nerds and don’t care, in which case it’s often the parents who distress and wish their kids were cooler; it’s distressing for kids to have to compete with their parents to be cool—kids even sort of like being cooler than their parents, despite protestations of embarrassment at our geekiness.  Sometimes overly “cool” parents provoke kids to have to endorse increasingly goth, street, tough, or druggy masks and behaviors in order to differentiate from parents who are essentially mainstream trendsters.  While it’s a fine line sometimes, there is a point where kids do not want to be like us, so if we are nerds, our kids can be fairly normal and still feel like they are rebelling and individuating.

Now if we parents are far enough on the nerd spectrum to be a little Aspergers, we can use our smarts to study social relatedness and work on getting better at it, and what could be nerdier than that?  Welcome to my nerd world country!

Nerds are seen as outliers:  very thin or rather plump; typically thick glasses as signifier of bookish intelligence; not popular and either too mature (i.e. about math and science) or too immature (about fantasy games and trading cards).   But nerds hip hip along to the beat of their own drummer, and that is so uncool it verges on being cool.  I saw a lot of this in my New York in the 80’s days where the coolest “kids” seemed to be those who didn’t fit in anywhere else or where they came from and formed their own sort of punk cool along the nerve center of St. Mark’s Place.

One of the things I like best about nerds is that they are very often nice, which is one of my favorite characteristics in any creature.  Suffering, being different, not fitting in… these things build soul and are often the foundation of truly interesting people—and of compassionate and engaged parents.

When I used to work with actors I always preferred someone who could be over-the-top who I could then tame down, it was easier than trying to get a pulse out of a wooden or self-conscious uber-handsome sort.  Likewise with parenting:  we can work with the over-protective, neurotic, over-involved (and this is an important place to work), but the totally disconnected from the kids because we’re too busy being the cool person we never got to be when we were younger creates little more than an empty chair in the nerdy, Mr. Rogers, parenting corner of the psyche.

Nerds are typically interested in ideas, and I admit that I am often happier in bed reading some arcane text than at a party or a concert.  Too many hipsters in one place tends to make me anxious.  In my view, many of the coolest people I know are actually nerds who have just happened to have a certain amount of talent and the courage to let it shine through, to “fly their freak flags” and just dare to be nice and compassionate.  In fact, you’d be surprised how many prominent and successful people I’ve gotten to know who turn out to be shy, nerdy and truly kind in the privacy of their real selves.

In Hollywood, in any event, mean tends to go along with cool, while nice and nerdy never got a movie made (well, maybe sometimes… and those are some pretty great movies like Napoleon Dynamite, and Superbad).  But when it comes to happy, the nerds rule compared to the tragically hip.  I’ve worked with some very cool women (often former nerds in grade school who later bloomed, only to become denizens of Chateau Marmont and Sky Bar) who had bad luck with men until they re-considered the idea of what’s actually cool and discovered that nerds make good partners (think Hugh Grant with glasses, sans the Hugh Grant off-camera behavior); and just as nerds frequently make good friends and lovers, nerds often make good parents.

One of the cool things about nerds is that they are generally not trying so hard to be cool.  I have been surprised by the fact that virtually all human beings carry insecurity.  This is potentially liberating, except in circles ruled by coolness, where the revelation of the real self will be shunned and ridiculed.  This ought to be our clue into the fact that desperately working at being “popular” is driven by insecurity, which is always masked by pretending not to be trying.

Anthropologically speaking, Twitter (an important social indicator of the micro moment), underscores how the metrics of popularity drive social networks.  The key factoid on Twitter is the size your followers list.  Yet ironically, from Bill Gates to Biz Stone, it is always nerds who have created these technological so-called social networks.  “I’m eating sushi.”  Tweet.  “I’m going to bed now.”  Tweet.  How nerdy is that?

Maybe the zeitgeist is saying that nerds are finally coming into our own:  admitting that we do want to be liked and included makes us part of the group.  Yet finding our own ways to blog, text, facebook, and Tweet until we figure out where we all fit in with each other.  Individuation would mean everyone realizing that we’re all cool and we’re all nerds.  Now that would be really cool.  Or maybe it would even be neat.  How nerdy is that?

So, whether you are a nerd, a hipster, or undeclared let’s dedicate today to letting the kids be the cool ones (and making it so that all the kids can be the cool ones) in contrast to our earnest, nerdy and old-school selves—bringing our collective inner parenting nerds to bear in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce



10 Responses to “The case for nerds”

  1. Katrina Says:

    “Nerd World Country”: a liberating, rip-your-“mask”-off kind of place! And what a gift it is to have all that energy and clarity back that was spent on trying to be someone other than my authentic self.

  2. privilegeofparenting Says:

    Thanks for claiming citizenship—our borders are wide open!

  3. Beth K Says:

    Hooray for the nerds! Today I will embrace my awkwardness!

  4. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Nerdom should be considered high art. It is not the shunned state which it once was (a few decades back); in fact, nerds have a cool factor in certain teen crowds. Particularly the computer geeks. Let’s face it – while our teens may all be more computer-savvy than many of us, the super-techie-guru kids rule, when it comes to helping their friends in the online world.

    I’ve definitely seen some nifty geek chic come through the nerd herd heard around this household.

    And none – that I can tell – the worse for wear.

  5. SRA Says:

    Nerdiness (or coolness for that matter) is in the eye of the beholder.

  6. Deirdre Says:

    This is an awesome post, Bruce, and it’s bringing a big smile to my face.

    …and great picture, btw.

  7. privilegeofparenting Says:

    Hey Deirdre, thanks for affirming the nerd-world-view.

  8. Justine Says:

    Stumbled upon your blog today, and clearly, I’m all over the place, but staying awhile. Great post.

    Nerds rule! I’m with one, you could say I’m one (as if you couldn’t tell by the exclamation) and we have a toddler nerd-in-making. Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar, Buffy, X-Files, Cars, Computers, Gadgets, Video Games, books, blogs, etc. – you name it, we love it. And we’re proud of it.

  9. rudrip Says:

    I support Nerd nation! Nice being the single quality that comes to mind when I think of nerdom. Excellent post Bruce.

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