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.
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-fullfilling 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
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'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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
To be a nerd is to be socially awkward, and there are two
distinct ways to do that: to be playing the same game as everyone
else, but badly, and to be playing a different game. The smart nerds
are the latter type.
The same qualities that make fierce nerds so effective can
also make them very annoying. Fierce nerds would do well to remember
this, and (a) try to keep a lid on it, and (b) seek out organizations
and types of work where getting the right answer matters more than
preserving social harmony. In practice that means small groups
working on hard problems. Which fortunately is the most fun kind
of environment anyway.
If success neutralizes bitterness, why are there some people
who are at least moderately successful and yet still quite bitter?
Because people's potential bitterness varies depending on how
naturally bitter their personality is, and how ambitious they are:
someone who's naturally very bitter will still have a lot left after
success neutralizes some of it, and someone who's very ambitious
will need proportionally more success to satisfy that ambition.
So the worst-case scenario is someone who's both naturally bitter
and extremely ambitious, and yet only moderately successful.
Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Steve Blank, Patrick Collison, Jessica
Livingston, Amjad Masad, and Robert Morris for reading drafts of this.