Paul Graham says that nerds are people who prefer to spend time doing things rather than marketing themselves. Graham's essays "Why Nerds Are Unpopular" and "What You'll Wish You'd Known" may be found in his wonderful book Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age and are required reading for anyone who's ever a) felt like a nerd or b) wondered why nerds are so different.
It's been my experience that nerds come in three flavors. (No, not the Nerds from the Willie Wonka candy factory; they come in many teeth-breaking shapes, sizes, and colors, but only one flavor: sour.) In addition to being of above average intelligence and earning potential, most pass through three stages of life before blossoming into fully functional nerds. Turning the adversary's vocabulary against him, I will label these stages Geek, Dork, and Spazz.
If nerds were insects (pause to allow the derisive hooting to die down) these stages would roughly correspond to the egg, larva, and pupal developmental stages. Like all of the made-up archetypes and stages of human development, it's possible to get stuck in any of these, or regress in times of stress.
The competitive imperative in the nerd is rooted firmly in the Spazz developmental stage. A Spazz is that one kid in every third-grade classroom who lacks the simple motor control needed to walk and chew gum at the same time. I can't think of a single nerd who didn't begin life as a Spazz, forever doomed to trip over a nickel, throw like a girl, dance like a zombie, and be chosen last for every team sport they have a name for.
Survival traits: early kickball- and dodgeball-related trauma often manifest in overcompensation. Many adult nerds are adept musicians, magicians, jugglers, and endurance athletes. (Hint: these are all activities that can be learned on one's own.)
Warning to non-nerds: a small but significant percentage of the Spazz population cures itself through the obsessive practice of martial arts, and boy oh boy are they ever ready, willing, and able to turn it loose in case of emergency. It's impossible to tell who these people are by looking, so never attempt to muscle up on a nerd, no matter how easy the pickings might look.
Famous Spazzes: Jackie Chan, Harry Houdini, Fred Astaire, and Napoleon Dynamite.
Adolescent geeks usually hit the Dork phase sometime around middle school and exit sometime in their early 30s, if at all. Dorks can be extremely unpleasant people to be around; their level of denial about the true nature and extent of their social deficiencies may render them incapable of understanding how loud they're talking, how painfully embarrassing their wardrobe is, or how bad they smell. Nerds in general receive a very bad rap because of the high incidence and visibility of Dorks within their ranks. This is a shame, because the second-best therapy for Dorks involves straight talk from their fellow nerds, who are uniquely suited to deliver it, assuming of course they can maintain eye contact and not start blabbering about the superiority of vi over emacs.
The most effective anti-Dork therapy involves behavioral modification through the patient efforts of a committed sexual partner. Nerds, especially nerds stuck in the Dork phase, will do anything for sex. If you find this too grisly a notion to entertain, remember this: nerds really do make the best lovers, once they can get past the Dork stage. We're damn good at our obsessions, and we've been sex-obsessed since middle school … you do the math.
Survival traits: often possessed of acerbic wit and sublime comic timing, Dorks can be keen observers of human foibles even while they remain blissfully unaware of their own. Most therapists start life as Dorks. And if you drill into the class clown, you'll strike Dork every time.
Famous Dorks: Steve Martin, Sigmund Freud, David Letterman, Dave Barry, and the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.
By the time they reach adulthood, almost all nerds show some Geek characteristics. When under stress or unwilling/unable to function in "normal" social situations, Geeks draw boundaries around the groups of people they are willing to associate with, by becoming expert in one or more arcane topics. The theory seems to go like this: 1) not very many people are interested in the details of wet-plate photography, the Bernouilli effect, or hymenopterous insects of the Amazon basin, so 2) if I become a leading expert, the odds are better that those who are will also be interested in me.
Although some nerds begin to Geek Out as early as kindergarten, it's generally because of a strong genetic predisposition and heavy exposure to an adult Geek in the home and not something more serious, such as Asperger's syndrome, which has been diagnosed in a wildly disproportionate percentage of the kids in places like Silicon Valley.
Survival traits: within their narrow fields of interest, Geeks are insanely competitive. If they choose the right obsession (or create one out of venture capital and hot air) they can make huge contributions to science, ease the suffering of millions, and become very, very rich.
Famous Geeks: Bill Gates. Enough said.
So. Just what kind of a nerd am I?
I like to think I'm comfortably post-Spazz, although having to learn to play foosball at the age of 43 has given me some food for thought.
I Geek Out constantly, but obsessing over the exact right way to semantically mark up a Web page, separate information from presentation, and come up with cool new onscreen interactions turned out to be a pretty good way to make a living.
That doesn't leave much wiggle room. So let's run down the checklist, shall we?
Mm-hmm. Yep. That's me, Dork to the bone. (Hell, I wrote this thing, and am now posting it in public.) Of course I'm a Dork! How about you?