Paul Graham just published an article titled Fierce Nerds. It’s the most precise description of me I’ve ever read.
Most people think of nerds as quiet, diffident people. In ordinary social situations they are — as quiet and diffident as the star quarterback would be if he found himself in the middle of a physics symposium. And for the same reason: they are fish out of water. But the apparent diffidence of nerds is an illusion due to the fact that when non-nerds observe them, it’s usually in ordinary social situations. In fact some nerds are quite fierce.
This is absolutely true. When I’m in my element I own the room. I am so bored in ordinary social situations I used them to drill my Chinese handwriting for three years.
The fierce nerds are a small but interesting group. They are as a rule extremely competitive — more competitive, I’d say, than highly competitive non-nerds. Competition is more personal for them. Partly perhaps because they’re not emotionally mature enough to distance themselves from it, but also because there’s less randomness in the kinds of competition they engage in, and they are thus more justified in taking the results personally.
Fierce nerds also tend to be somewhat overconfident, especially when young. It might seem like it would be a disadvantage to be mistaken about one’s abilities, but empirically it isn’t. Up to a point, confidence is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Another quality you find in most fierce nerds is intelligence. Not all nerds are smart, but the fierce ones are always at least moderately so. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have the confidence to be fierce.
There’s also a natural connection between nerdiness and independent-mindedness. It’s hard to be independent-minded without being somewhat socially awkward, because conventional beliefs are so often mistaken, or at least arbitrary. No one who was both independent-minded and ambitious would want to waste the effort it takes to fit in. And the independent-mindedness of the fierce nerds will obviously be of the aggressive rather than the passive type: they’ll be annoyed by rules, rather than dreamily unaware of them.
I have an unusually low tolerance for rules. The first time I hired people I was disconcerted by how much they desired for someone to tell them what to do.
I used to be very aggressive when I was a teenager. I am less aggressive now that I am an adult and I have to follow fewer rules.
I’m less sure why fierce nerds are impatient, but most seem to be. You notice it first in conversation, where they tend to interrupt you. This is merely annoying, but in the more promising fierce nerds it’s connected to a deeper impatience about solving problems. Perhaps the competitiveness and impatience of fierce nerds are not separate qualities, but two manifestations of a single underlying drivenness.
This is painfully true. I interrupt people…a lot. I am an exceptionally direct person. One of my early business partners was surprised that when we got together to discuss business we got straight into discussing business.
My direct communication style reflects my direct personality; I am a goal-seeking agent. Most people don’t have clear stable objectives. They go with the flow. They want others to tell them what to do. I am impatient because I have clear objectives I am trying to accomplish and anything which slows me down is an obstacle to achieving those objectives.
When you combine all these qualities in sufficient quantities, the result is quite formidable. The most vivid example of fierce nerds in action may be James Watson’s The Double Helix. The first sentence of the book is “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood,” and the portrait he goes on to paint of Crick is the quintessential fierce nerd: brilliant, socially awkward, competitive, independent-minded, overconfident. But so is the implicit portrait he paints of himself….
I have never observed myself in a modest mood. I pretend sometimes, but it’s just a show of courtesy.
…Indeed, his lack of social awareness makes both portraits that much more realistic, because he baldly states all sorts of opinions and motivations that a smoother person would conceal….
…And moreover it’s clear from the story that Crick and Watson’s fierce nerdiness was integral to their success. Their independent-mindedness caused them to consider approaches that most others ignored, their overconfidence allowed them to work on problems they only half understood (they were literally described as “clowns” by one eminent insider), and their impatience and competitiveness got them to the answer ahead of two other groups that would otherwise have found it within the next year, if not the next several months.
What sticks out to me here is the word “clowns”. I laugh a lot compared to other people my age, especially men.
The idea that there could be fierce nerds is an unfamiliar one not just to many normal people but even to some young nerds. Especially early on, nerds spend so much of their time in ordinary social situations and so little doing real work that they get a lot more evidence of their awkwardness than their power. So there will be some who read this description of the fierce nerd and realize “Hmm, that’s me.” And it is to you, young fierce nerd, that I now turn.
I have some good news, and some bad news. The good news is that your fierceness will be a great help in solving difficult problems. And not just the kind of scientific and technical problems that nerds have traditionally solved. As the world progresses, the number of things you can win at by getting the right answer increases. Recently getting rich became one of them: 7 of the 8 richest people in America are now fierce nerds.
Indeed, being a fierce nerd is probably even more helpful in business than in nerds’ original territory of scholarship. Fierceness seems optional there. Darwin for example doesn’t seem to have been especially fierce. Whereas it’s impossible to be the CEO of a company over a certain size without being fierce, so now that nerds can win at business, fierce nerds will increasingly monopolize the really big successes.
When I was young my parents and I thought I was destined to become an academic. Entrepreneurship is a way better fit. In academia you have to follow rules and conform to social expectations. In entrepreneurship you are rewarded for breaking obsolete rules and if you conform to expectations you lose.
The bad news is that if it’s not exercised, your fierceness will turn to bitterness, and you will become an intellectual playground bully: the grumpy sysadmin, the forum troll, the hater, the shooter down of new ideas.
Normal people can life normal lives. A fierce nerd following the rules is like a wild animal in a zoo. If you don’t do daring things you’ll go nuts.
How do you avoid this fate? Work on ambitious projects. If you succeed, it will bring you a kind of satisfaction that neutralizes bitterness. But you don’t need to have succeeded to feel this; merely working on hard projects gives most fierce nerds some feeling of satisfaction. And those it doesn’t, it at least keeps busy.
My entire life has been a long series of trying to do something I think is ambitious followed by realizing it wasn’t ambitious enough.
Another solution may be to somehow turn off your fierceness, by devoting yourself to meditation or psychotherapy or something like that. Maybe that’s the right answer for some people. I have no idea. But it doesn’t seem the optimal solution to me. If you’re given a sharp knife, it seems to me better to use it than to blunt its edge to avoid cutting yourself.
I do Zen meditation. It makes me weirder. It makes me care less about social expectations. It is the opposite of dulling a knife.
Alternative forms of meditation might reduce your fierceness. I tried them out. They weren’t for me.
If you do choose the ambitious route, you’ll have a tailwind behind you. There has never been a better time to be a nerd. In the past century we’ve seen a continuous transfer of power from dealmakers to technicians — from the charismatic to the competent — and I don’t see anything on the horizon that will end it.…
…At least not till the nerds end it themselves by bringing about the singularity.