The Nerd Handbook
A nerd needs a project because a nerd builds stuff. All the time.
Those lulls in the conversation over dinner? That’s the nerd working on
his project in his head.
It’s unlikely that this project is a nerd’s day job because his
opinion regarding his job is, “Been there, done that”. We’ll explore
the consequences of this seemingly short attention span in a bit, but
for now this project is the other big thing your nerd is building and
I’ve no idea what is, but you should.
At some point, you, the nerd’s companion, were the project. You were
showered with the fire hose of attention because you were the bright
and shiny new development in your nerd’s life. There is also a chance
that you’re lucky and you are currently your nerd’s project. Congrats.
Don’t get too comfortable because he’ll move on, and, when that
happens, you’ll be wondering what happened to all the attention. This
handbook might help.
Regarding gender: for this piece, my prototypical nerd is a he as a
convenience. There are plenty of she nerds out there for which these
observations equally apply.
Understand your nerd’s relation to the computer. It’s clichéd, but a nerd is defined by his computer, and you need to understand why.
First, a majority of the folks on the planet either have no idea how
a computer works or they look at it and think “it’s magic”. Nerds know
how a computer works. They intimately know how a computer works. When
you ask a nerd, “When I click this, it takes awhile for the thing to
show up. Do you know what’s wrong?” they know what’s wrong. A nerd has
a mental model of the hardware and the software in his head. While the
rest of the world sees magic, your nerd knows how the magic works, he
knows the magic is a long series of ones and zeros moving across your
screen with impressive speed, and he knows how to make those bits move
The nerd has based his career, maybe his life, on the computer, and as
we’ll see, this intimate relationship has altered his view of the
world. He sees the world as a system which, given enough time and
effort, is completely knowable. This is a fragile illusion that your
nerd has adopted, but it’s a pleasant one that gets your nerd through
the day. When the illusion is broken, you are going to discover that…
Your nerd has control issues. Your nerd lives in a
monospaced typeface world. Whereas everyone else is traipsing around
picking dazzling fonts to describe their world, your nerd has carefully
selected a monospace typeface, which he avidly uses to manipulate the
world deftly via a command line interface while the rest fumble around
with a mouse.
The reason for this typeface selection is, of course, practicality.
Monospace typefaces have a knowable width. Ten letters on one line are
same width as ten other letters, which puts the world into a pleasant
grid construction where X and Y mean something.
These control issues mean your nerd is sensitive to drastic changes
in his environment. Think travel. Think job changes. These types of
system-redefining events force your nerd to recognize that the world is
not always or entirely a knowable place, and until he reconstructs this
illusion, he’s going to be frustrated and he’s going to act
erratically. I develop an incredibly short fuse during
system-redefining events and I’m much more likely to lose it over
something trivial and stupid. This is one of the reasons that…
Your nerd has built himself a cave. I’ve written about The Cave
elsewhere, but here are the basics. The Cave is designed to allow your
nerd to do his favorite thing, which is working on the project. If you
want to understand your nerd, stare long and hard at his Cave. How does
he have it arranged? When does he tend to go there? How long does he
Each object in the Cave has a particular place and purpose. Even the
clutter is well designed. Don’t believe me? Grab that seemingly
discarded Mac Mini which has been sitting on the floor for two months
and hide it. You’ll have 10 minutes before he’ll come stomping out of
the Cave — “Where’s the Mac?”
The Cave is also frustrating you because your impression is that
it’s your nerd’s way of checking out, and you are, unfortunately,
completely correct. A correctly designed Cave removes your nerd from
the physical world and plants him firmly in a virtual one complete with
all the toys he needs. Because…
Your nerd loves toys and puzzles. The joy your nerd
finds in his project is one of problem solving and discovery. As each
part of the project is completed, your nerd receives an adrenaline rush
that we’re going to call The High. Every profession has this — the
moment when you’ve moved significantly closer to done. In many jobs,
it’s easy to discern when progress is being made: “Look, now we have a
door”. But in nerds’ bit-based work, progress is measured mentally and
invisibly in code, algorithms, efficiency, and small mental victories
that don’t exist in a world of atoms.
There are other ways your nerd can create The High and he does it
all the time. It’s another juicy cliché to say that nerds love video
games, but that’s not what they love. A video game is just one more
system where your nerd’s job is to figure out the rules that define it,
which will enable him to beat it. Yeah, we love to stare at games with
a bazillion polygons, but we get the same high out of playing
Bejeweled, getting our Night Elf to Level 70, or endlessly tinkering
with a Rubik’s Cube. This fits nicely with the fact that…
Nerds are fucking funny. Your nerd spent a lot of
his younger life being an outcast because of his strange affinity with
the computer. This created a basic bitterness in his psyche that is the
foundation for his humor. Now, combine this basic distrust of
everything with your nerd’s other natural talents and you’ll realize
that he sees humor is another game.
Humor is an intellectual puzzle, “How can this particular set of
esoteric trivia be constructed to maximize hilarity as quickly as
possible?” Your nerd listens hard to recognize humor potential and when
he hears it, he furiously scours his mind to find relevant content from
his experience so he can get the funny out as quickly as possible.
This quick wit is only augmented by the fact that…
Your nerd has an amazing appetite for information. Many years ago, I dubbed this behavior NADD, and you should read the article to learn more and to understand what mental muscles your nerd has developed.
How does a nerd watch TV? Probably one of two ways. First, there’s
watching TV with you where the two of you sit and watch one show. Then
there’s how he watches by himself when he watches three shows at once.
It looks insane. You walk into the room and you’re watching your nerd
jump between channels every five minutes.
“How can you keep track of anything?”
He keeps track of everything. See, he’s already seen all three of
these movies… multiple times. He knows the compelling parts of the arcs
and is mentally editing his own versions while watching all three. The
basic mental move here is the context switch, and your nerd is the king
of the context switch.
The ability to instantly context switch also comes from a life on
the computer. Your nerd’s mental information model for the world is one
contained within well-bounded tidy windows where the most important
tool is one that allows your nerd to move swiftly from one window to
the next. It’s irrelevant that there may be no relationship between
these windows. Your nerd is used to making huge contextual leaps where
he’s talking to a friend in one window, worrying about his 401k in
another, and reading about World War II in yet another.
You might suspect that given a world where context is constantly
shifting, your nerd can’t focus, and you’d be partially correct. All
that multi-tasking isn’t efficient. Your nerd knows very little about a
lot. For many topics, his knowledge is an inch deep and four miles
wide. He’s comfortable with this fact because he knows that deep
knowledge about any topic is a clever keystroke away. See…
Your nerd has built an annoyingly efficient relevancy engine in his head.
It’s the end of the day and you and your nerd are hanging out on the
couch. The TV is off. There isn’t a computer anywhere nearby and you’re
giving your nerd the daily debrief. “Spent an hour at the post office
trying to ship that package to your mom, and then I went down to that
bistro — you know — the one next the flower shop, and it’s closed. Can
you believe that?”
And your nerd says, “Cool”.
Cool? What’s cool? The business closing? The package? How is any of
it cool? None of it’s cool. Actually, all of it might be cool, but your
nerd doesn’t believe any of what you’re saying is relevant. This is
what he heard, “Spent an hour at the post office blah blah blah…”
You can be rightfully pissed off by this behavior — it’s simply rude
— but seriously, I’m trying to help here. Your nerd’s insatiable quest
for information and The High has tweaked his brain in an interesting
way. For any given piece of incoming information, your nerd is making a
lightning fast assessment: relevant or not relevant? Relevance means
that the incoming information fits into the system of things your nerd
currently cares about. Expect active involvement from your nerd when
you trip the relevance flag. If you trip the irrelevance flag, look for
verbal punctuation announcing his judgment of irrelevance. It’s the
word your nerd says when he’s not listening and it’s always the same.
My word is “Cool”, and when you hear “Cool”, I’m not listening.
Information that your nerd is exposed to when the irrelevance flag
is waving is forgotten almost immediately. I mean it. Next time you
hear “Cool”, I want you to ask, “What’d I just say?” That awkward grin
on your nerd’s face is the first step in getting him to acknowledge
that he’s the problem in this particular conversation. This behavior is
one of the reasons that…
Your nerd might come off as not liking people.
Small talk. Those first awkward five minutes when two people are forced
to interact. Small talk is the bane of the nerd’s existence because
small talk is a combination of aspects of the world that your nerd
hates. When your nerd is staring at a stranger, all he’s thinking is,
“I have no system for understanding this messy person in front of me”.
This is where the shy comes from. This is why nerds hate presenting to
The skills to interact with other people are there. They just lack a well-defined system.
Advanced Nerd Tweakage
If you’re still reading, then I’m thinking that your nerd is worth
keeping. Even though he’s apt to vanish for hours, has a strange sense
of humor, doesn’t like you touching his stuff, and often doesn’t listen
when you’re talking directly at him, he’s a keeper. Go figure.
Map the things he’s bad at to the things he loves.
You love to travel, but your nerd would prefer to hide in his cave for
hours on end chasing The High. You need to convince him of two things.
First, you need to convince him that you’re going to do your best to
recreate his cave in his new surrounding. You’re going to create a
quiet, dark place here he can orient himself and figure out which way
the water flushes down the toilet. Traveling internationally? Carve out
three days somewhere quiet at the beginning of the trip. Traveling
across the US? How about letting him chill on the bed for a half-day
before you drag him out to see the Golden Gate Bridge?
Second, and more importantly, you need to remind him about his
insatiable appetite for information. You need to appeal to his deep
love of discovering new content and help him understand that there may
be no greater content fire hose than waking up in a hotel overlooking
the Grand Canal in Venice where you don’t speak a word of Italian.
Make it a project. You might’ve noticed your nerd’s
strange relation to food. Does he eat fast? Like really fast? You
should know what’s going on here. Food is thrown into the irrelevant
bucket because it’s getting in the way of the content. Exercise, too.
Thing is, you want your nerd to eat healthily so that he’s here in
another thirty years, so how do you change this behavior? You make diet
and exercise the project.
For me, exercise became the project ten years ago after a horrible
break-up. When the project was no longer the Ex, I dove into exercise
every single day of the week. There were charts tracking my workouts,
there were graphs tracking my weight, and there was the exercise. Every
single day for two years until the day I passed out in a McDonald’s
post-workout after not eating for a day. Ok, so time for a new project.
Yeah, nerds also have moderation issues. That’s another essay.
Significant nerd behavioral change is only going to happen if your
nerd engages in the project heart and soul, otherwise it’s just another
thought for the irrelevant bucket.
People are the most interesting content out there.
If you’ve got a seriously shy nerd on your hands, try this: ask him how
many folks are in his buddy list? How many friends does he have in
Facebook? How many folks are following him on Twitter? LiveJournal? My
guess is that, collectively, your nerd interacts with ten times more
people than you think he does. He can do this because the interaction
is via a system he understands — the computer.
Your nerd knows that people are interesting. Just because he can’t
look your best friend straight in the eye doesn’t mean he doesn’t want
to know what makes her tick, but you need to be the social buffer — the
translation layer. You need to find one common thread of interest
between your nerd and your friend and then he’ll engage because he will
have found relevance.
The Next High
As you discovered when you were the project, your nerd’s focus can
be deliciously overwhelming, but it will stop. Once a nerd believe he
fully knows how a system works, the challenge to understand ceases to
exist and he moves on in search of The Next High.
While I don’t know who you are or why in the world you chose a nerd
for your companion, I do know that you are not a knowable system. I
know that you are messy, just like your nerd. Being your own quirky
self will be more than enough to present new and interesting challenges
to your nerd.
Besides, it’s just as much a nerd’s job to figure you out and maybe
someone somewhere is writing an article about your particular quirks.
Good news, he’s probably reading it right now.
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