Paul Graham: Ferocious nerds


Most people think of nerds (nerds) as quiet and shy people. In ordinary social situations, they are as quiet and shy as a stellar quarterback would be in the center of a physics symposium. And for the same reason: it's like a fish that has been pulled out of water. But the apparent insecurity of nerds is an illusion, so when non-nerds see nerds it is in normal social situations. In fact, some nerds are quite ferocious.

Ferocious nerds are a small but interesting group. They tend to be extremely competitive - I would even say more competitive than some of the strongest non-nerds. For them, competition is more about personal. Perhaps because they are not emotionally mature enough to try to distance themselves from this, but also because they compete where luck is less important and therefore the results obtained can be completely taken on their own account.

Ferocious nerds are also prone to some overconfidence, especially when young. It may seem that being wrong about your abilities is a disadvantage, but empirically it is not. In a way, certainty is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Another quality found in most ferocious nerds is intelligence. Not all nerds are smart, but ferocious nerds are always at least moderately smart. If this were not the case, they would not have the self-confidence to be ferocious. [one]

There is also a natural connection between nerdy and independent thinking . It's hard to have independent thinking without being socially awkward in some way, as conventional wisdom is often wrong, or at least arbitrary. No one, simultaneously having independent thinking and being ambitious, would not want to spend efforts to comply with generally accepted norms. And the independent thinking of the ferocious nerds will be obviously aggressive rather than passive.

I don't know why, but most ferocious nerds are often very impatient. You first notice this in conversation when you are often interrupted. It's just annoying, but in the more promising and violent nerds, it has to do with a deeper impatience with problem solving. Perhaps the rivalry and impatience of ferocious nerds are not separate qualities, but two manifestations of the same underlying motivation / drive.

If you combine all these qualities in sufficient quantity, the result is very impressive. The most striking example of ferocious nerds in action is James Watson's book The Double Helix. The first sentence of the book reads: β€œI've never seen Francis Crick in a humble mood,” and the portrait of Crick that he paints next is the quintessence of a ferocious nerd: ingenious, socially awkward, competitive, independent-minded, overconfident. But he got the same implied portrait of himself. In fact, his lack of social awareness makes both portraits more realistic because he openly expresses all kinds of opinions and motives that a softer person would hide. And besides, it's clear from history that Crick and Watson's ferocious ferocity was part of their success.Their independent thinking forced them to consider approaches that most others ignored, their overconfidence allowed them to work on problems they only half understood (one prominent insider literally called them "clowns"), and their impatience and competitiveness led them to answer before the other two. groups that would otherwise have found him within the next year, or even several months. [2]or even several months. [2]or even several months. [2]

The idea that ferocious nerds can exist is unusual not only for many ordinary people, but even for some young nerds. Especially at an early age, nerds spend so much time in ordinary social situations and do so little real work that they get far more proof of their awkwardness than of their strength. There will be those who read this description of the fierce nerd and understand: "Hmm, it's me." And it is to you, young ferocious nerd, that I am now addressing.

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that your ferocity will be a good helper in solving difficult problems. And not only in solving scientific and technical problems that are traditionally solved by nerds, as the world develops, the number of victories that can be achieved by finding the right answers increases. Now the task of β€œgetting rich” has become one of them: 7 of the 8 richest people in America are ferocious nerds.

Moreover, being a ferocious nerd is probably even more rewarding in business than in the original nerd territory. Ferocity seems unnecessary there. Darwin, for example, doesn't seem particularly ferocious. Whereas it is impossible to be the CEO of a company of a certain size without being aggressive. So now that nerds can win in business, ferocious nerds will increasingly monopolize the really big successes.

The bad news is that if you don't exercise, your ferocity will turn to bitterness and you will become an intellectual bully: grumpy sysadmin, forum troll, hater , opponent of new ideas .

How can I avoid this? Work on ambitious projects. If you succeed in them, it will bring you satisfaction that neutralizes bitterness. But you don't have to be successful to even feel it: simply working on tough projects gives even the most ardent nerds a sense of satisfaction. And if not, then at least it takes your time. [3]

Another solution might be to somehow turn off the ferocity, by dedicating yourself to meditation, psychotherapy, or something similar. Perhaps this is the correct answer for some people. I do not know. But it doesn't look like the optimal solution to me. If you have been given a sharp knife, it seems to me that it is better to use it than to blunt it so as not to cut yourself.

If you choose an ambitious path, then a tailwind will accompany you. There was no better time to be nerd. Over the past century, we have seen a continuous transfer of power from business to specialist - from charismatic to competent - and I see nothing on the horizon that could put an end to this. At least until the nerds themselves put an end to it by causing a singularity.

Notes (edit)

[1] Being a nerd means being socially unadapted, and this can be done in two very different ways: playing the same game as everyone else, but badly, and playing a different game. Smart nerds are the latter.

[2] The very qualities that make furious nerds so effective can also make them very annoying. Ferocious nerds will remember this well, and (a) they will try to keep it secret, (b) they will look for such companies and types of work, where finding the right answer will be more important than maintaining social harmony. In practice, it looks like small teams working on complex tasks. Which, fortunately, is the coolest environment anyway.

[3] If success neutralizes anger, then why are there people who, having achieved even a little success, still remain bitter? Because the potential anger of people varies depending on how naturally evil their personality is, and how ambitious they are: someone who is naturally very angry will have a lot of anger after success, and someone who is very ambitious will need proportionally more. success to satisfy this ambition.

Thus, the worst-case scenario is a person who is both naturally bitter and extremely ambitious, but only moderately successful.

Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Steve Blank, Patrick Collison, Jessica Livingston, Amjad Masad, and Robert Morris for proofreading the draft.

Thanks to everyone who took part in the collective translation.

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