Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Don´t underestimate the nerds

I’m a little nerdy. According to my wife, I even look like a nerd. I am not very big. I have a long resume posted online, and I’ll proudly post my follower count, but if you meet me in person, I am unlikely to come across as “impressive”. I don’t talk using “big words”. I have been told that I lack “vision”. Given a choice between spending time with powerful people getting their attention, and reading a science article… I will always go for the latter.

I’m not at all modest, but I am humble. I get most things wrong, and I will gladly advertise my failures.

I’m lucky in that I have a few like-minded colleagues. I have a colleague, let us call her “Hass”. She gave us a talk about power laws. (The mathematical kind.) Who spends their lunchtime talking about power laws and probabilistic distributions?

We do.

However, if you have been deep down in the bowels of academia… You will find another animal. You have “political professors” whose main game is to achieve a high status in the most visible manner. Academia rewards this kind of behavior. If you can convince others that you are important, well regarded and that you do great work for humanity, you will receive lavish support. It makes sense given the business schools are into: delivering prestige.

If you visit a campus, you might be surprised at how often computing labs are empty, no professor to be found. Because of who I am, I would never ask for space unless I really needed it. But, see, that’s not how political animals think… to them, having space is a matter of status.

Nerds are, at best, part-time political animals. It would seem that nerds are weak. Are they?

My view is that nerds are almost a different species. Or, at least, a subspecies. They do signal strength, but not by having a luxurious car, a big house, a big office, a big title.

I remember meeting with the CEO of a company that was doing well. The CEO kept signaling to me. He talked endlessly about his prestigious new car. He was sharply dressed in what was obviously a very expensive suit. He kept telling me about how many millions they were making. Yet we were in my small office, in a state university. He kept on signaling… and you know how I felt in the end? Maybe he expected me to feel inferior to him. Yet I lost interest in anything he had to tell me. He wanted me to review some technology for them, but I discouraged him.

Big titles, displays of money… those do not impress me. If you signal strength through money alone, I’m more likely to pity you.

If Linus Torvalds were to meet Bill Gates, you think that Linus would be under Bill in the nerdom hierarchy? I doubt it. I have no idea how much money Linus has, and the fact that nobody cares should be a clue.

What did my colleague Hass do? She came and presented a kick-ass nerdy presentation. The kind of stuff you cannot make up if you don’t know what you are talking about. She displayed strength, strength that I recognize. I think everyone in the room saw it. Yet she did not wear expensive clothes and she did not advertise big titles.

My wife recently taught me how to recognize signaling between cats. You could live all your life with cats and never realize how they broadcast signals and strength.

It is a mistake to think that the introverted nerds are weak. This is a very common mistake. I once bought a well-rated book on introverts, written by an extrovert. The whole book was about how introverts should face their fears. The author clearly thought that we were weak, in need of help somehow.

You are making a mistake if you think that my colleague Hass is weak. She could kick your nerd ass anytime.