Friday, January 30, 2015

Growing up smart

So far my blogging in 2015 has been very technical, and I say... the worst is yet to come!  To balance it out, I present some anecdotal fluffiness.

A little while ago, the internet was chattering about Scott Aaronson, EECS professor at MIT.  He had a blog comment talking about his problems growing up, and how his own feminism made him afraid of approaching women.  This was picked up by several mainstream news sources--here's one example.

When I saw Scott Aaronson's comment, my main reaction was, I don't relate to that at all.  Perhaps this is only natural, since I'm not attracted to women.  On the other hand, I am skeptical that the typical heterosexual male nerd is so afraid of accidentally harassing women, that they have constant suicidal thoughts.  I mean... really?  I can believe it for Scott Aaronson, especially after I learned that he began college at age 15 or so, but the idea that most nerds have the same problems beggars belief.

Nonetheless, the story went viral under the pretense that it represents the nerd narrative.  You know what, maybe the problem is we need more nerd narratives.  Here's one.


Modesty forbids me from saying that I am smart.  But I know I am smart, and have known since elementary school.  No one would ever let me forget it.

Let me tell you about the smart kid.  In children's cartoon shows, you'd often have a bunch of characters, one of whom is the smart kid.  But fictional characters cannot be perfect, so they have to have some flaws, such as anxiety or social awkwardness.  And frequently the characters are flanderized so that they're really smart and really awkward.

Recess was a show that was on when I was a kid.  The smart one is Gretchen, the girl on the right. Actually I'm not sure whether she was socially awkward; mostly she was just a minor character. (source)

So that's who you're supposed to be.  That's what you try to be, and what everyone else makes you out to be.  And for what it's worth, it was true.

It was also self-fulfilling, in part.  Social skills are, to some extent, skills that you develop.  Smart kids are not encouraged to develop it.  From the nerd's point of view, intelligence is simply an innate part of who you are, and it seems only natural that being good at socializing is another innate part of who you are.  Nerds curse their own awkwardness, but they are not encouraged to do much about it.  Though to be fair, nobody is really clear on how to develop social skills, and kids and teens are some of the absolute hardest people to socialize with.


Yeah, okay, but things changed when I got older.  I entered increasingly selective spaces.  My middle school had a magnet program.  My high school was one of the top private schools in Los Angeles.  And then I went to UCLA.

It was a gradual process, but by the time I got to UCLA, I realized I am absolutely surrounded by nerds.  The chipper RA who made the arty displays in the dorm hallways, she was a total nerd.  The souzaphone player who had loud sex next door, total nerd.  The roommate who spent all his time making YouTube videos about hockey, what an utter nerd.  Seriously, most of these people were among the very few selected from their high schools, and most had, at some point in their lives, a reputation for being smart.

Intelligence is sort of like social class.  The wealthiest people tend not to realize how far above the median they are, because they surround themselves with similarly wealthy people.  The most educated and intelligent people also surround themselves with educated and intelligent people, and tend to forget just how nerdy all their friends are.

Once I saw it, I realized, nerdiness is meaningless.  Nerds have hardly anything in common.

If you are young and think of yourself as a nerd, here's what I have to say:  You can still be whoever you damn please.