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Fierce Nerds (paulgraham.com)
441 points by prtkgpt on May 18, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 452 comments

I worked with a number of brilliant people at Bell Labs through the 1980s/1990s. The most comfortably competent among them, the most productive among them, were also the least abrasive. They were also the most self deprecating.

Not just one or two, but the majority of them. To the point that the aggressive geniuses stood out. And I worked for/with two abrasive ones as well, so I know the difference.

The same was true for the two startups I worked at after that, and Qualcomm, and now the third startup where I work.

The really productive geniuses in each situation were easy to work with, I think largely, because of their confidence in their own grasp of the subject at hand. They had nothing to prove, they knew that, and it showed. The difficult people were never stupid, far from it, but they felt like they needed to defend everything they did, every decision they made, and that made working with them less productive.

With the gentle geniuses, if you thought you came up with something that was an improvement on what was being done, they would look at it honestly, and if it was not better, they would calmly explain why, and if it was better, they would acknowledge it right out and discuss how to merge that into the current work.

The 'less gentle' ones would take pride in pointing out the flaws in your idea if you were wrong, and if you were right, would fight you over whether it had any real value at all, then would stiff arm you as far as getting it accepted as a change.

My favourite people to work with are the gentle geniuses. I love to be wrong around them because I get to learn, and I love opportunities to present something useful I've done and know it will become a valuable contribution.

I avoid the other kind of person like a plague now. They ruin otherwise excellent teams. They might be fine to have a drink with or something, but in day to day work, they are sand paper.

Another thing I find is that the gentle variety tend to understand and appreciate realistic timelines. Highly competitive "nerds" tend to fight on timelines, or suppress others using them. Why wasn't that done sooner? Wait, all you did in 3 days was this? It's a terrible tool used to knock team mates down a peg on a routine basis.

I know, right? It is one of the greatest things in the world to be the dumbest guy in a room full of really smart, secure people. It’s like you’re getting a mini postdoc education for free, compressed into a few minutes.

It's the best thing that's happened to my career by a wide margin. I'm 15 years in and definitely not the smartest person in the room on most topics, and I'm finally moving forward and really enjoying it after quite a stagnant period.

I try to remind myself to show some gratitude, not just for my team's knowledge and insights that they share, but for having selected me as a person to join them as well. It's a real privilege to have a good team. I think they consider me more of an equal than I give myself credit for but I really do get an education pretty much every day. Life is interesting.

I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who relishes being the "least smart" in a room full of geniuses.

No ego here, I just absorb, absorb and absorb!

I have had that same experience with many people, re criticising other people’s timelines. But I don’t think that’s the kind of “fierce nerd” Paul is talking about. I rather think he’s talking about the person who is so involved in doing their own work, that they don’t spend the time to evaluate other people’s productivity.

You’re right, I guess I’m pulling other qualities in here from people I’ve known who have overlap with the type Paul is describing. It’s not exactly in line.

If I had to guess, I would guess these would often be "fierce nerds" who mellowed with age.

I think this "fierceness" is an expected sign of intellectual dominance of your peers at 15-20. At 25+, it's a sign that you've either never entered a pond with genuinely big fish, or you've never managed to recognize that big fish are swimming around you.

Of course, you could just be dominating big fish at 25+. It's logically possible. But the incident of "fierceness" is muuuuch higher than the incidence of that level of genius.

it's frustrating to me that Paul conflated fierceness with competitiveness, because I see passion & vigor & energy as very decoupled from the forces of personization & ego that this part of the thread are wrapped around, that Paul linked together.

another comment mentioned that it's a matter of tamping down the inner asshole, having self awareness. this still allows for an enormous domineering ego but supposes it can be self regulated, held back.

I feel like even that is still a radical take. fierce nerds just see opportunity in the world. they want to strike, want to seize good, promote the paths everyone else disregards as too difficult too hard top unknown, to say, let's really find out. fiercely try. try to learn if we fail & try again next time too. thw competition is not with each other, not about who; it's a competition against mediocrity & safety & fragility. a competition to collaboratively find excellence & further truths.

you should remain fierce. there are not many other real big fish on the sea. most folk have narrow windows of experience, limited views, & your nerdly bigger picture takes of the fierce are direly needed. especially when we don't attach ourselves to the try, when we are all aligned to try greatly & learn & adjust as we go, with fierceness, but without ego.

Maybe factors in someone good at something being humble about it includes:

* Confidence of not needing to prove something to themselves.

* Comfort with their situation, aka not needing to prove something to others -- for practical reasons, separate from validation of own security/insecurity. (In your Bell Labs example, having gotten into there, getting to do the kind of work they want, presumably having sufficient respect of others for a pleasant environment, not feeling like they have to fight their way to opportunity and respect.)

* Intellectual humility that comes with experience, having realized how easy and frequent it is to be mistaken.

* Maybe differences of personality wiring. (I know nothing of the psychological research, but, anecdotally, there seems to be variation among people in how problem-solving interacts with emotions, for example, and maybe how that affects their interactions in that context.)

Also, taking a step back, I don't know how good our perceptions of humility. (Of course, different people express themselves differently, which I suppose affects perceptions of those people's humility. And maybe, when we're characterizing humility of others, we're usually basing that on perceptions, rather than some more objective criteria.)

* Perhaps, humility from knowing how much you don't know. The older I get, the bigger the circle of what I don't know grows. I now know that there is no way in my lifetime I will be able to learn even a tiny percentage of all that I would like to learn. It is humbling to learn how little you really know, no matter how quickly you acquire new knowledge.

Thank you for bringing up humility. Can't believe he got through this entire post without once mentioning it. Says as much about the author as it does about the world in which fierce nerds operate.

Humility is simply not seen as a virtue in a business environment anymore.

Career coaches teach you how you can get ahead and to be confident.

But having knowledge also means you know about your limits, so your only option is to pretend to know everything.

It can be useful to convince people with low tech literacy of your solution, but I don't think confidence is a good metric. It is basically a dysfunctional form of communication.

Yeah, it's remarkable to me that this article could be written to provide advice to "fierce nerds", and not include a single sentence about not being an asshole.

I work with "fierce nerds". Some of them are self-aware, and try very very hard not to be assholes to the people around them. They do this without sacrificing their passion. And they are tolerable to work with only because they consciously push back against their inner asshole.

This is the camp I find myself in.

It takes a lot of effort in some areas to stay calm and allow the other side to play out their argument, and I recognize how critical it is in maintaining a positive attitude towards work.

I find that minimizing unnecessary conference calls was a monumental step in the right direction. When a technical conversation is serialized through a Github issue, it tends to get a lot more thought and time applied. It is also easy to walk away from a frustrating issue, go for a run, come back, and write a much more reasonable reply than you otherwise would have if compelled to do so.

Microsoft vet from 1990s-2000: same. Got to work with many of my programming heroes, and many of the same people influencing programming language design, Azure, and .NET even now. The vast majority were a pure joy to work with, just as you describe.

> were also the least abrasive

Did you know any of them via mailing lists or Usenet, just face to face?

People's abrasiveness will come out in situations in which they think there won't be any repercussions.

There is a Russian saying:

Who is a wise man?

The one that always seeks to occupy the smallest place/room.

Nota Bene: I am not a Russian, but simply encountered this formulation several times.

That saying, combined with the euphemism "smallest room in the house", paints an interesting picture.

It may be small, but it is strategic.

edit -- I have misread Your comment.

Wise and true. I totally agree with it in principle. *

* Whoever said this didn’t own a grand piano. Just saying.

What is the Russian version?

> The difficult people were never stupid, far from it, but they felt like they needed to defend everything they did, every decision they made, and that made working with them less productive.

I assume the implication here is that the productive folks didn't necessarily defend everything they did, and thus went with other people's solutions sometimes even when their own was better? Is that what you're trying to convey? or should I be reading it differently? Curious how their behavior contrasted in your experience.

I interpreted this differently. My takeaway was that the abrasive ones constantly defend everything they do, even when it’s not necessary, and the gentle genius doesn’t feel the need to be defensive at every step.

It doesn’t have to mean that the gentle genius never defends their viewpoints, but highlights the key differences in how these personality types operate on a day-to-day basis, and the resulting impact on the team around them.

This is like the cow talking about how they don't like mean other cows while Paul Graham was probably talking about the farmer.

Absolutely, the best people at Bell labs in the 80's were "like cows".

I mean they oversaw the decline of Bell labs so...

"Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?" -Jeff Bezos


"Fierce nerds" can be valuable. Sure. But the folks who truly stand out in my mind are a level higher. They're the ones at the top of their game, who know how to demand & command excellence, without being jerks about it.

I'm reminded of this episode of "The Chef Show" where Jon Favreau compliments Roy Choi behind his back. He tells Bill Burr that he had followed Roy around for a full day, going to all his restaurants and food trucks, and not once did Roy raise his voice to his staff. It's pretty cool to see how much admiration one artist/leader has for the other, not because of their technical skills but because they choose to be kind.

I don't think we need to settle for being "fierce nerds".

> "Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?" -Jeff Bezos

That an interesting read, thanks. I struggle to square what Bezos is saying with what Amazon has become. He is clearly incredibly clever but appears devoid of any kindness toward his low level employees. Am I missing something?

That's the feel I get from reading Brad Stone's "Amazon Unbound" .There were multiple instances where Bezos appear devoid of kindness towards employees.

E.g '...In 2009, Onetto’s human resources deputy, David Niekerk, wrote a paper titled “Respect for People,” and presented it at an S-team meeting. The paper drew from Toyota’s proven Lean ideology and argued for “treating people fairly,” building “mutual trust between managers and associates,” and empowering leaders to inspire employees rather than act as disciplinarians. Bezos hated it. He not only railed against it in the meeting but called Niekerk the following morning to continue the browbeating. Amazon should never imply that it didn’t have respect for people embedded in the very fabric of how it operated, he said...'

"...Among the final straws for Onetto was a September 2011 story in the Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The paper reported that the company’s warehouse in the Lehigh Valley had gotten so swelteringly hot that summer that workers were passing out and being transported to nearby hospitals by ambulances that Amazon had waiting outside. An ER doctor even called federal regulators to report an unsafe work environment..."

"...Before the incident, Onetto had presented a white paper to the S-team that included a few paragraphs proposing to install rooftop air-conditioning units in Amazon’s facilities. But according to Niekerk, Bezos bluntly dismissed the request, citing the cost. After the Morning Call article drew widespread condemnation, Bezos approved the $52 million expense, establishing a pattern of making changes only after he read criticism in the media. But he also criticized Onetto for not anticipating the crisis. Fuming, Onetto prepared to remind Bezos of his original proposal. Colleagues begged him to let it go, but he couldn’t. As they anticipated, the meeting did not go well. Bezos said that as a matter of fact, he did remember the paper and that it was so poorly written and ambiguous that no one had understood what course of action Onetto was recommending. As other S-team members cringed, Bezos declared that the entire incident was evidence of what happens when Amazon puts people in top jobs who can’t articulate their ideas clearly and support them with data..."

"...Bezos didn’t want another empathetic business philosopher to replace Onetto as the head of Amazon’s operations; he sought an uncompromising operator..."

Sounds like a very one-sided story based on an interview with Onetto and nobody else...[1]

> people in top jobs who can’t articulate their ideas clearly and support them with data..."

That IS a legitimate problem. Through the lens of Hindsight, and based on an interview with Onetto it's easy to retell this story as "Bezos was told upfront, had all the available information upfront, and chose to do nothing until it was too late."

But another way to present the same story is "Onetto didn't articulate the importance of his ideas. Did not present data to support it. And it led to a catastrophic outcome."

I'm not saying the latter interpretation is correct. The truth is somewhere in the middle - probably closer to the original telling of the story. But the key is that good ideas are useless unless you can convince the right people of them. Ultimately, Onetto did not convince Bezos of his ideas. The blame for that can't rest solely with Bezos, because clearly there is ample evidence throughout Amazon's history that people can convince him, and situations like this are an outlier.

[1] If his strategy for this book is anything like for his first: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1Q4CQQV1ALSN0/re...

> Ultimately, Onetto did not convince Bezos of his ideas. The blame for that can't rest solely with Bezos

I don’t think you need much information to understand that an un-airconditioned warehouse in a hot location is a disaster waiting to happen.

If someone is proposing a 52M dollar expense to install those, maybe it’s a good idea to ask more until you know why?

I actually think this is worse for Onetto because the "one-sided story based on...Onetto..." has Onetto extolling high abstract ideas for the ostensible wellbeing of employees when he obviously needed to be presenting hard cause and effect realities to his boss and caring for employee welfare directly on the ground. If you are discussing the lives of warehouse workers I just don't see how it's being responsible to spend your time writing academic papers only possibly able to affect very much more privileged employees if at all.

> > "Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?" -Jeff Bezos

> I struggle to square what Bezos is saying with what Amazon has become. He is clearly incredibly clever but appears devoid of any kindness toward his low level employees.

That seems perfectly consistent - he chose option A.

Am I missing something?

Probably how good his publicist is.

If I'm being really cynical, Jeff is suggesting these Princeton grads be kind so that he may become clever at their expense.

Are you only believing what you read in the media or do you know people that actually work at Amazon? The fact that Amazon employees in a warehouse rejected unionization speaks volumes. And I know plenty of Amazon engineers that love working there.

To put it in perspective, there may be employees that hate working at Amazon, but there are also 100,000 employees. If only 10% of the employees hated working there, that's still 10,000 employees. But a 90% satisfaction rate for any company is amazingly high.

I know people who work at Amazon. Not even the people who like it say it's kind.

I've only once had an employer I would describe as kind. Even then, it was but for the generosity of an aberrant manager, and not a commercial institution.

In most low-skill positions (especially the ones which favor physical labor over soft-skills), you are a body to be instrumentalized until you either leave leave or are disposed of. That's the reality of most work. Retention is as high as it needs to be to ensure continuous operations, and employee happiness is either incidental or primarily a slogan. The human element is made to be as irrelevant as the market will allow.

The Amazon Warehouse workers I've known have described it as warehouse work. Little better or worse in their experience than working at any other distribution center, though some centers are naturally likely to be ran more poorly than others.

I've heard "cut-throat", but not kind.

> Are you only believing what you read in the media or do you know people that actually work at Amazon?

I’ve talked with people who work there as engineers. I haven’t any friends there.

The engineers seem well looked after, but engineers are not what I’d describe as ‘low level employees’.

I’m not sure that rejection of unionisation says as much as you are attributing to it and if reports are to believe, Amazon used a few dirty tricks.

Likely both sides did, but there is plenty to suggest that Amazon isn’t a kind or benevolent employer.

1.3 million employees a recent news article said. wow.

"Do as I say, not as I do"

Once you have achieved significant status and money you no longer need to be fierce since people listen anyway. But most people worth listening to doesn't have significant status and money, instead we wait until they found their own companies and become rich before we listen to them.

This may be true for you, but not for me. I listen to many people who are not well known, and who are not rich, and who arae not startup founders. For instance, none of my friends are rich startup founders, neither is my partner, nor my therapist, nor my coworkers, yet I consider all their opinions valuable (more so than the rich "fierce nerds"). Most of the podcasts I listen to are not run by the rich and powerful, either.

It is true for society in aggregate, which is why big companies often loses to small startups on their own strong points. That should be basically impossible if the big companies were anywhere close to rational, but as we know such things happens all the time.

When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.

-- Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

I find this ironic coming out of Jeff Bezos. There are plenty of examples of people that are exactly opposite of what you describe as. Steve Jobs - massive jerk, but demanded and commanded excellence. I don't personally condone this type of personalities but they exist. Linus Torvalds is another example. There is much more to it.

> He tells Bill Burr that he had followed Roy around for a full day, going to all his restaurants and food trucks, and not once did Roy raise his voice to his staff.

Sorry what are you trying to say here? It's admirable or difficult not to yell at your employees?

Chefs/Kitchens are stereotypically full of yelling, and (otherwise) well-regarded chefs definitely live up to that - https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/05/dining/restaurant-workers...

That still doesn't mean that not yelling should receive any sort of admiration. You don't get bonus points for doing what should be the bare minimum, regardless of what the current norms are.

I don't see why not. Should the anti-slavery campaigners of the 1800s receive no admiration, despite social norms at the time, because vocal opposition to slavery "should be the bare minimum"?

What about companies now that go out of their way to make sure none of the workers in their supply chain are exploited? That should be the bare minimum - should we ignore the effort that they've gone to?

What about a family member who's been clean from drugs for 10 years? Should we celebrate with them, or just ignore their achievement because not being addicted to drugs is pretty much considered the bare minimum by broader society?

Are you for real?

Man, who would have thought "not yelling at your employees isn't an accomplishment" would be controversial...

> Should the anti-slavery campaigners of the 1800s receive no admiration, despite social norms at the time, because vocal opposition to slavery "should be the bare minimum"?

Not even close to the same. This case would be like admiring all the people that happened to not own slaves. Congrats?

Anti-slavery campaigners were doing way more than the bare minimum. No one lost their lives over just not having slaves.

> What about companies now that go out of their way to make sure none of the workers in their supply chain are exploited? That should be the bare minimum - should we ignore the effort that they've gone to?

Not even close to the same. This case would be like admiring the factory manager for not exploiting their employees. Congrats?

> What about a family member who's been clean from drugs for 10 years? Should we celebrate with them, or just ignore their achievement because not being addicted to drugs is pretty much considered the bare minimum by broader society?

Maybe if yelling at employees was incredibly physically addictive.

Literally my whole point is that you all are saying, "Wow, it's so admirable that you're not a piece of shit!".

I am 100% for real. Everyone is a piece of shit in one way or another - and rarely do people stop being a piece of shit until some sort of external judgement/pressure is applied.

The fact that this guy refused to shout at his staff, even though he was in an environment where shouting at staff is completely tolerated, is an admirable and frankly rare trait.

It shows he actually cares about other people, rather than doing what is socially acceptable/beneficial to himself.

Bill Burr is a badass. Ruthless savage killer with words. But he’s a comic.

it's definitely admirable, and given the number of people who yell i would say it's pretty difficult for a lot of people too

Interesting! I think compliments given in general to fierce nerds is a valid idea. General rule of not to be pissing off people in life.

Will you be kind to your wife of 30 years or will you try to chase some journalist.

Since pg's essay is of a psychoanalytic nature, I'll reply in a psychoanalytic frame, for the sake of conversation, not criticism. [Protip: never psychoanalyze anyone! This likely applies even to psychoanalysts.]

During the last year or two pg has written more than a few essays and tweets which appear to be of a defensive nature. People like him contribute more than other people, it's alright to to be fierce, can't speak the "truth," etc.

Whenever there is dichotomous thinking, cognition has moved away from clarity. If it were me, I'd be asking myself, What is being defended? (This kind of question can be a multi-decade inquiry.)

Although most of us are easily baited into self-justification or self-promotion, I think going down that path it is ultimately a distraction from doing real work and knowing who you are.

PG, if you asked him, might describe himself as defending people who do real work from a larger culture that all too often prioritizes serving the status quo over accomplishing the goals that the status quo was established to accomplish. One example of that would be SpaceX doing the launch vehicle design work that the NASA/Boeing/Big Government Contractor complex was established to do. At the same time, SpaceX works its people extremely hard and is lead by a billionaire with abnormally unsophisticated PR. So there you have cultural and business forces set against a new company that has nothing going for it except the fact that it actually does stuff. Actually doing stuff is a surprisingly small advantage in a world that is interested in so many other qualities.

I would like people to stop believing that this is a real example, at least around here (I'm close to a few NASA missions). SpaceX was selected by NASA for some lunar lift services, and everyone I know is quite excited by US's expanding lift / launch capabilities. I think that I and those around me exist in these roles to serve the needs of the nation and priorities of congress and the scientific community, and will use any tools at our disposal to do so.

Other companies may fight this, sure, but stop throwing NASA (an exploration agency) in with those who would benefit from suppressing SpaceX.

Personal opinion.

SpaceX + vendor-agnostic NASA contracts are a world away from the cost-plus launch vehicle design projects with heavy involvement from NASA engineers that got us to the moon, built the ISS, and also spent a long time going nowhere once the corruption caught up with the system.

I'm not close to any NASA missions at all, so this is just my take.

It seems clear that NASA is more happy than not about what SpaceX is bringing to the table. Any model that spins a NASA-vs-SpaceX narrative is confused and wrong. I think that's an agreement with your point.

But when you look at what SpaceX is operating in opposition to, whether it's cost-plus bids, or closed contracts for various launch services, etc etc, NASA has been very much a part of that whole system.

So, my point is, it makes sense to talk about SpaceX's model vs the model of "the NASA/Boeing/Big Government Contractor complex".

Why can’t we have both? A job where we can “actually do stuff” without getting mistreated by psychotic billionaires. There’s a lack of compassion in tech.

Assuming you are in the US: I’d say that, if anything, tech is a fantastic little bubble when compared to the rest of corporate America. We, the “nerds”, exert a level of control over our work/careers that is unparalleled in other industries. We have plenty of opportunities available if we dislike our current situation. Tech companies provide excellent benefits and compensation. Maybe only doctors have the same level of mobility/compensation.

You will always be mistreated by someone if you work for a corporation. We have it easier than almost everybody else, really.

Speaking as someone who has come to my tech career later in life (and after another career), this is absolutely correct. All industries have their problems: software is no exception, there are things that could be better. There are bad days, even bad months.

But at nearly 6 years in I still wake up every day amazed that I get paid as much as I do to do this thing that I really enjoy. With overall reasonable hours. Without having to deal with the general public. Considered an asset despite the fact that I cost so much and write bugs. And with people banging on my door constantly to get me to work for them. I feel extremely fortunate.

Maybe there is something wrong with our society that tends to cause organizational dysfunction and make it hard to do stuff. Perhaps it takes someone seriously atypical (maybe a little psychotic) to manage to build an institution that can actually accomplish things at scale in this environment. If there are 10000 well-adjusted bureaucrats standing between you and your aspiration to build electric cars and rockets, it will take some serious force of personality (a personality disorder?) to defy all of them.

Because big companies would never let a person like Elon Musk create something like Space X internally.

I'm speculating, but perhaps with all the YC IPOs in the past year they are now liquid billionaires, and he is thinking it through, out loud, via essays, which is how he figured out things from Lisp to startups to investing?

> Protip: never psychoanalyze anyone! This likely applies even to psychoanalysts.

Underrated advice. Psychoanalytics helps with self reflection, not with reading minds.

I can recommend Erich Fromm "Fear of Liberty" these days, because it describes many dilemma we face today. Might be interesting if you can see some effects he describes in yourself or others.

Psychoanalysis should be eaten with a pack of salt though. I think it vastly more fitting to model behavior than what writers from the field of psychology produce these days, apart perhaps from advertisers.

>Whenever there is dichotomous thinking, cognition has moved away from clarity.

Can you expand on this?

This is a deep topic worthy of an essay, the kind of essay pg might write! The concise reply is, when you catch yourself in dichotomous thinking, you should assume you have misunderstood or oversimplified.

Sometimes you have to go with your misunderstanding or oversimplification to make a decision or to make progress, but keep in mind you are doing so based on beliefs which are unlikely to correspond to reality.

It's striking that so many mental health difficulties are characterized by dichotomous thinking. [1]

Rationality itself can be profitably critiqued at the meta-level.[2] So, don't be an asshole, unless you need to be. Do you see the world as consisting of assholes and non-assholes? How does that feel? What are the advantages of that view? What are the disadvantages? Is considering that question worth your time?

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/she-comes-long-way-b...

[2] https://metarationality.com/introduction

EDIT: Fixed link, spacing

Clarity is about seeing how things are, not how you've chosen to divide things up.

(I added this as an edit to my other reply, but it seems the edit is lost.)

You can't see anything in this world without dividing things up. That's how your senses (sensory inputs plus processing plus cognition) work. So this version of "clarity" seems hard to achieve.

Maybe just settle for "try to limit the extent to which your cognitive biases and priors shape how you think the world is". You can't reduce them to zero, but you can reduce them a bit.

I agree on the practical level, which is pertinent here.

It is possible to experience non-dual consciousness in high concentration states. [EDIT: For many, this experience is a milestone in psychospiritual development, which undermines the habit of dichotomous thinking.] Awareness and perception aren’t the same thing. Way, way off the subject, but your main point stands, be mindful of priors.

> Protip: never psychoanalyze anyone! This likely applies even to psychoanalysts.

Beside your point, but wondering if you could expand on this. I have a tendency to do this, and while it's fun, I'm starting to get the sense that it's a bad habit, possibly because I sense I'm overly confident on something that might be 100% wrong and it feels... invasive?

I've asked myself the same question. While I don't go as far as "never", I do it much less than I used to.

Thinking this way can certainly lead to worthwhile and actionable insights. But I think any skilled amateur will overestimate their abilities. Therapists build their insights on top of huge amounts of biographical information that they gather in intense, concentrated sessions. Their observational skills are trained, and they use them to gather as much information from posture, tone, and expression as they do from narrative. Even if an amateur's observational skills are good, they won't have the right context (the session) to gather that kind of information. So the amateur will be lacking in both theory, and information - compared to the pros. And yet the amateur often has more confidence than the pro - leaping at the first theory that "clicks", not considering alternatives, and with an unwillingness to revise.

The next pitfall comes if/when you decide to act on your insights. And once you have those insights, it becomes tempting to act on them. Then, when you do act, you're almost by definition being manipulative. Your behavior towards the other person is no longer a straightforward reaction to what they're sending your way, but is instead following an agenda constructed to fit a diagnosis that is unknown to them. If they knew what you were up to, they would most likely object, even if your agenda was "for their own good." At best it's paternalistic. Therapists do act on their insights in opaque ways (and often screw up despite all their training) but the particulars of the patient-therapist relationship resolve the ethical violations that us civilians are likely to stumble into.

So, I would say that the tendency to psychoanalyze needs to come with heaps of humility, openness to revision, and a reluctance to act on the resulting insights in 9 out of 10 cases.

"Therapists build their insights on top of huge amounts of biographical information that they gather in intense, concentrated sessions."

Agreed with all of your post, I think this is the most crucial point here. Genuine, skilled psychoanalysis is less about being some master discerner of psychological motives, and instead being very good at giving the subject of analysis a lot of psychological safety to express their innermost thoughts and most personal life experiences. Unless you build that kind of (responsible and professional) intimacy for lack of a better term, you're largely just projecting imo.

Not OP, but as someone who holds this view (who also used to engage in the practice): a lot of armchair psychoanalysis is based less on a genuine understanding of the other person's life and circumstances, and more on the assumption of what their life and circumstances must be combined with a surface-level knowledge of psychoanalytic practice.

Armchair psychoanalysis ostensibly seeks to understand the subject of analysis, but rarely makes the effort to first understand the subject on their terms or in a way where they can articulate their own experience; instead, someone usually has their presumptive conclusion about the subject in mind ("they're just doing this because they haven't gotten over being bullied as a kid" or whatever), and tries to wrangle the limited information they have about that person into their conclusion.

I think you have to detach to get value out of it -- not "what's the reason this person is like this" but "what are three different mechanisms by which a person might become like this". A bit like how a history student of a certain level isn't asked "why did WWI happen" but "contrast the materialist and post-revisionist explanations for the origins of WWI".

I agree on not calling out anything psycho. Not sure about invasive though.

I see what you are saying. I mean the topics do have something of a defensive nature. Though arguably PG could just be making a valid point on topics that are contentious and widely misunderstood

Do you think he's defending himself, or the entrepreneurs he funds, befriends and admires?

I think he perceives criticism of them as criticism of him.

I see the description he puts forward as essentially fitting contrarian types.

Speaking as a contrarian myself, I think the biggest challenge / trap is it's easy to point out things that are wrong or stupid, but tougher to do anything positive about it. I think this equates to the idea about avoiding becoming bitter.

Also, something he missed, and the curse of the contrarian, is "the market can stay irrational long enough for you to lose all your money". This happens all the time with unorthodox ideas, you can be right but if the mainstream doesn't shift in your favor before too long, you get ignored, discredited, or worse. I'd argue this is a bigger problem now, there is more polarization and a shorter feedback cycle so ideas get shot down and people fall out of favor much more quickly. Popular but wrong ideas, once they have "network effects" are much stickier than they once were. All this is tougher on the contrarian, or "fierce nerd".

The biggest problem facing contrarians is how more people are people stake out contrarian positions for the express purpose of building personal brands, despite any genuine conviction. A contrarian used to be dependably passionate. Now it's just another tool for audience building. As such, all contrarians now have an uphill battle of gaining trust because not only do you have to convince people of your views but you also have to convince them you're not just some charlatan on their latest grift.

In the tech world, it also seems to stem from insecurity (I'm sure many here have held their tongue in meetings when someone with little experience talks well above their level of competence in the subject).

Fwiw, I have the opposite perspective (maybe because I used to be one of these people!). All of the people I've worked with who go out on a limb in technical discussions and engage with their technical seniors are independent-minded and intellectually curious. Anybody can reason (albeit not as well) about a system they're working on, and a good team is able to foster this type of growth in their more junior engineers. This includes knowing ones limits, but does not include being perfect at knowing ones limits from day one.

I'm not convinced that it's a bigger problem now. In many ways, the ancient world was much stickier. A king could have a bad idea, and it could persist through generations before it falls to better ideas.

Are we talking about the Bronze Age, or about the early '00s?

In the '00s, before the FAANG giants had arisen, I would say things were more dynamic than they are now, and there was more room for smaller players.

If we're talking about the Bronze Age then this is a different conversation entirely. Then there was more continuity in each place with the past, but more difference between different places.

I’m not convinced that there was “more room for smaller players” in the ‘00s, the mobile switch created a lot of work for small players. The desktop-web atrophied a bit, particularly in areas where FAANG expanded, but the web and IT as a whole continues to grow and create opportunities for small players to emerge.

Regardless of the ancient world, a lot of people today would say that there’s more polarization with the advent of social media.

>This happens all the time with unorthodox ideas, you can be right but if the mainstream doesn't shift in your favor before too long, you get ignored, discredited, or worse. I'd argue this is a bigger problem now,

If I'm understanding you correctly, he doesn't miss this. He addresses it directly and comes to the opposite conclusion.

> 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....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.

Im sure all of us see ourselves in this essay, in part because it's ego catnip. But this part resonated very strongly with me. I was in my early 20s when I realized how crucial it was for me to work somewhere where my work was measured as objectively as possible, which has finally led me to hone in on small/mid-sized co applied research[1] as the path that fits me.

It's definitely my perception that the world supports this more now than it ever used to. You can't ignore people skills entirely, but the path to success through technical work instead of management has never been better (eg the IC ladder at my co easily goes up to $1M/yr).

> Popular but wrong ideas, once they have "network effects" are much stickier than they once were. All this is tougher on the contrarian, or "fierce nerd".

I'm not convinced that this is __worse_ than it once was. There's too much heterodoxy, too much pluralism, too low barriers to entry, and too much opportunity for the quiet dissenter to build their niche and wait out the irrationality longer than they could ever have dreamed in the world of 50 or even 20 years ago.

[1] driven by well-defined problems instead of product people's beliefs about the market, or the politics and bureaucracy of academia. It's actually been very useful ground for me to practice my political skills, since the impact of rubbing people the wrong way while figuring it out is heavily mitigated by the clear and measurable impact of my work.

The first rush of comments are all negative, mostly of the ad hominem sort, accusing PG of publicly psychoanalyzing himself. And yet, I really liked the essay because it reads like a lifeline to those who doubt themselves, perhaps profoundly. To PG the same qualities that alienate a "fierce nerd" in so many contexts are precisely the same qualities that could lead to success (even dominance) in other contexts.

The useful follow on to this essay, I would think, is to give a list, as long as possible, of places where "fierce nerds" are wanted, demanded, needed - both well-known institutions and startups.

Another useful follow up would be to give better advice about achieving harmony. Everyone deserves peace; to put it another way, progress that requires a human to sacrifice love isn't worth making.

>The useful follow on to this essay, I would think, is to give a list, as long as possible, of places where "fierce nerds" are wanted, demanded, needed - both well-known institutions and startups.

"How to Deal with Difficult People on Software Projects" is a pretty good read in this vain https://neilonsoftware.com/difficult-people-on-software-proj...

This article promises "how to deal", but all it delivers is a list of difficult stereotypes, prefaced by reasons you are not allowed to disagree with the stereotypes, and never discusses how to deal with them.

> And yet, I really liked the essay because it reads like a lifeline to those who doubt themselves, perhaps profoundly

Do they? I mean one of the define characteristics is an overconfidence in themselves.

I think PG is trying to justify some kind of assholish behaviour in his past by reframing it as a virtue.

Really, I think the “fierceness” is incidental. Do immensely successful people need to be somewhat competitive? Sure. Do they have to interrupt everyone, lack social awareness, etc? Probably not.

I went to school at MIT with tons of people who had world-class intelligence, productivity and even accomplishments, but imposter syndrome was still rampant.

Even if someone happens to be exceptional at everything you choose to do and thus have confidence, they can only do so many things. And that means that for every thing they are exceptional at, there are a thousand things where they are unimaginably outclassed by others. MIT was awful for that.

For me personally, the more I learn about my areas of expertise, the more I realize how clueless I am about so many other areas. But if the knowledge of your general cluelessness makes you timid outside of your domain of expertise, it limits how much you can accomplish.

Also, I didn’t really read ‘fierceness’ to mean ‘assholeness’. I’ve been around some people who had ideas that they desperately wanted to see out into the world. They were fiercely passionate and they did have a tendency to interrupt, but they definitely weren’t assholes.

> I think PG is trying to justify some kind of assholish behaviour in his past by reframing it as a virtue.

I couldn't help but read part of it as a response to/rationalization of the recent pushback he (and other "fierce nerds") have been receiving lately...the former underdogs are now the establishment.

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.

I think "shooter down of new ideas" is getting unfairly lumped in with those other actually-bad traits. If there's one thing a lot of "idea guys" and optimistic entrepreneurs tend to lack and need, it's a skeptical partner who keeps them grounded in reality. Someone who is experienced, seen it all, constructively critical. Someone who will say "Wait a minute, this was tried in the '80s, and it won't work. Maybe try this instead." If you lump "people who push-back" in with haters and trolls, you're going to end up surrounded by yes-men.

The tech landscape is littered with failed projects that could have been stopped early if the idea person had a sounding board that keep him/her realistic.

Absolutely agree. The best and most creative environments I have worked in have been full of people who you could turn to and say "What if we did X?", and they would immediately come up with reasons that X would fail or be impossible. If your idea hadn't been absolutely annihilated after 5 or 10 minutes of this, it was probably pretty decent.

Yes, it is true that new ideas need criticism. However, if one is almost always critical of new ideas, especially ones that push beyond your wheelhouse, then that is a problem because you'll never innovate. PG lumps it with haters and trolls because that's what being a negative person entails. The point is the extremity. There is nothing wrong with being a hater, proportionately, as you can only love something if you hate its opposite.

Sounds like the VC business model!

Overconfidence and self-doubt can go hand-in-hand: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulnerable_narcissism

Wow this describes me to a T. My parents were constantly praising me and making me feel like a genius. Yet in the real world I'd estimate I'm around 120 IQ. So definitely not genius level.

It's almost like a positive form of gaslighting which unfortunately still has negative consequences like you've pointed out.

Is there a clear definition of self-doubt that doesn’t overlap with underconfidence? Because if the terms we’re using are so broad that a person can both be described as overconfident and underconfident, then as I say elsewhere this just looks like cold reading.

People are really complex systems, they don’t just have one emotion, even at one time. I know several people who seem to swing between overconfidence and self doubt, sometimes very suddenly. Maybe some will eventually settle in the middle. But if someone has something in their psyche that just keeps pushing them back into an overconfident mindset, then it’s hard to see how they wouldn’t also experience regular injections of humiliation leading to growing self doubts over time.

It's the difference between feeling and acting. A person can feel a lack of confidence and feel doubt and still act confident or overconfident.

Lots of people, like artists, visionaries, and weirdos who make strides to live a unique life have to act confidently to get to that life yet many also have a lot of self doubt. They just do the brave thing to move ahead with their vision even though it could likely end in failure. For many it does, whether they are remembered posthumously or not.

> A person can feel a lack of confidence and feel doubt and still act confident or overconfident.

This is essentially the pathology of a narcissist.

Everyone who says they suffer from impostor syndrome are both overconfident and underconfident, unless they are lying.

I’m not saying you can’t be both under- and overconfident. I’m saying that if you’re using terms so broad and vague, you could probably describe anyone that way.

> I think PG is trying to justify some kind of assholish behaviour in his past by reframing it as a virtue.

I wonder how much Bill Gates triggered this write up.

If we really want to go in this direction and criticize other people calling famous tech businessmen assholes, at least give credit where it's due - Jobs deserves this much more than Gates. Gates documented unethical behavior was mostly against other companies, not so much individuals, with a few notable exceptions.

I doubt Jobs--who died nearly ten years ago--was as likely a trigger for this essay as Gates, who is currently in the daily news due to his alleged bad behavior.

On the other hand, Gates' recently reported "bad behavior" seems to be largely stuff like infidelity and inappropriate sexual relationships which is not what the essay touches on at all. Jobs' assholery is exactly business & engineering related in the way that PG is talking about.

Wozniak was the nerd. Jobs was just a manipulator. As a nerd he never progressed beyond assembling circuit boards.

PG also recently came to the defense of Antonio García Martínez:


It appears he sees himself as the shop steward for the Silicon Valley Asshole Union.

Maybe their fierceness has turned into bitterness and they've turned into an intellectual playground bully.

Or perhaps they're too independently minded, but not in the right way.

> The first rush of comments are all negative, mostly of the ad hominem sort

Happens on every PG post.

That's a pretty good description, and many of the posts here are about fierce nerds with petty issues which I think the essay is not about.

I've grown into that fierce nerd. Being in forced conscription in my 20s has made me wary of the 'wait to rush for nothing meaningful' culture. Then I joined companies and it feels like a ton of my time is wasted by processes, norms and ideologies. I did break out once to try and make a business but that hasn't worked out. So now I'm in employment just to earn/invest to have enough for a certain level of financial independence and I'm feeling that bitterness rise up again.

I'm very likely destined to burn out of industries/companies that aren't my own quickly, and this could cascade into bad looking resumes. It feels like a do or die situation sometimes.

Being an ordinary success is fine too. Been there, done that, more than once. Being fierce worked sometime and not others. Found the sweet spot in some companies, fired in others. Moderate success as a consultant (made a living for 7 years), failed at other business(lost a years salary). Learned how to write resumes out of that pastiche so I am still working on nerd stuff 3/4 time, enough to save money, leaving me time to play with other fun nerd stuff.

Heard a "rockstar" lamenting he would never win Grammy because of his niche but was not unsatisfied with the 60 year arc of his career.

Retrospectively, I see I could have been a contender several time but me then (brash) nor me now (wiser, possibly) could have been capable of elevating myself from a working nerd to a famous rich nerd.

>Then I joined companies and it feels like a ton of my time is wasted by processes, norms and ideologies.

I work in biotech and I smiled when I read this. The entirety of our business relies on people following processes, norms and ideologies. Once the "thinking" stage is done - the rules and framework are now in-place. You need to trust them and follow through to produce results for the company.

In tech so many nerds are constantly sharpening their tools or creating new ones and chasing some mythical 'perfection' that they lose sight of the results - the thing that matters the most to the company. Being entirely result oriented has changed my outlook completely, and made me a happier person. I am much more respectful towards people who produce actual results using any tools rather than judging someone who uses Java or Perl or whatever other language/tool that is not the flavor of the month. And working in biotech has made me value long term reliability over everything else. The single most thing that is important to me is that the tool be reliable and ready for me to use to produce results.

"...a ton of my time is wasted by processes, norms and ideologies."

So, all the stuff that helps society function?

"Please respond to the strongest plausible interpretation of what someone says, not a weaker one that's easier to criticize. Assume good faith."


There are plenty of people in the tech industry who abhor any process, norm, or ideology (most often, especially if it’s not one they created). I don’t think it’s uncharitable to simply take the comment at its word, and adding an implied “excess,” “unnecessary,” or whatever constructs a different—and more ambiguous—argument to comment on.

I'm not sure I follow you but the GP comment was plainly a straw man, and also flamebait.

Have you done mine prodding drills over 50 square meter fields? Sure it'll fulfill some superior's KPI but it's not very useful nowadays with all that modern military equipment. A good majority of these prescribed processes, norms and ideologies just aren't useful in the individual's growth.

Sounds like an excellent analogy: "We've been doing all these mine-detecting drills, but nobody ever gets blown up. We should stop doing mine-detecting drills." It's wise to take advantage of changes, but it's also wise to ensure that you're not taking down Chesterton's Fence[1] without knowing why the fence was put up.

Some processes, norms, and ideologies exist for reasons that aren't obvious. It's often not difficult to find somebody to explain them to you, but you have to be prepared to genuinely listen to the answer. It's easy to be impatient when you see them as getting in your way, and the first explanation you get may not actually be a very good one. (If you don't know why the fence was put up there's a good chance others won't either -- but that doesn't mean that an unsatisfactory explanation implies that there isn't a satisfactory one.)

That does slow you down, and that's hard when you're not the one who gets harmed by violating those norms, processes, and ideologies. But that doesn't mean nobody gets hurt, and such harms have a way of making society around you worse though mechanisms you don't see -- even though they do end up affecting you, too, eventually.

[1] https://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Chesterton%27s_Fence

Joel Spolsky used the dilemma of being ambushed on a minefield (to make a different and almost orthogonal point) in a way that illustrates how norms that are not individually useful -- or even rational -- can be essential for group survival. [1](https://www.joelonsoftware.com/2006/08/08/the-command-and-co...)

A ton of his time his wasted by other people trying not to waste their time. If we all just agreed to do everything his way, it would be a huge time saver... for him.

He who pays the piper calls the tune - if he's not doing what he's paid for, he'll soon find himself not being paid for.

> And moreover it's clear from the story that Crick and Watson's fierce nerdiness was integral to their success.

I dare say PG's analysis of the psychology of Crick & Watson is correct, but one should not take only Watson's word for it about the source of their success. Rosalind Franklin was the first to observe the double-helix structure, a fact omitted from Watson's book.


Very much agree on not taking Watson's word for it. As for Franklin, it would be nice to think the Nobol committee would have agonised long and hard had she lived long enough to make it an issue for them (given at most 3 people can share a nobel, her early death ruled her out - a fact often ignored).

> Fierce nerds also tend to be somewhat overconfident, especially when young.

I wonder if that statement is overly specific. AFAIK, young people in general, or at least young men in general, have a reputation for being overconfident.

Maybe it's because I'm living in a latino country, but it certainly seems like men start with too much confidence since teenage years, and slowly brings it down so everyone stop calling them arrogant, then there is their appropriate level. While for females (again, at least here in this latino country) it's the opposite, they start off being super humble and careful, and while growing up gaining more and more confidence until finding the right level.

Of course, this is a broad generalization, but seems to fit where I'm living right now, but it's all anecdotal as it's based on my own perceived view of things of course.

Sounds right in line with my experiences and exposure to the "Machismo" portions of many Latino cultures. I always brought this up to my far leftist friends who tried to pretend that the cuban revolution was somehow good for the LGBT minority of Cuba. LOL you think that they abandoned machismo just because they got a hammer and sickle? They call queerness "capitalist decadence" there...

Makes sense. In the US, being queer was associated with communism by their persecutors.

I think the "fierce need" / INTJ archetype the author is describing takes it a step above that of young men in general when it comes to overconfident / arrogance. And I agree with the author in that it's related to independent-mindedness. I can reflect on memories growing up where other young men were much more "in tune" to the group. They more intuitively understood the social cost of adopting an unpopular position. Or they just had the sensitivity to know that a position or statement wouldn't be well-received within the group. Or they just valued social harmony in general more than accurately representing what they believed to be true.

That's a bit different than when I think of young men in general being more confident than they ought to be. It has more to do with the goal: status within a group vs putting effort into finding what you believe is true and accurately representing that truth potentially at a social cost.

It's a fact that all humans are overconfident. That's why we have biases that make us confident in what we "know", and make us reject information to the contrary even if the information is factually accurate.

The overconfidence is not a trait endemic only to male "nerds".

Of course, it's still helpful to concede that humans should recognize and be aware of that weakness in themselves. Overconfidence is the reason so many spend the healthy end years of their lives so much less well off financially than they spent their healthy prime years. It behooves us all to be on guard against our overconfidence.

Using James Watson as an example is an interesting choice.

When I think of James Watson, I think of someone who a) stole his major work (the one thing for which he is famous) from a woman without giving credit, and b) has been almost-literally cancelled for being consistently racist, also by his colleague-science-nerds who consistently report that they don't like him.

Not someone that I want to celebrate for being a 'fierce nerd'.

Interestingly, Rosalind Franklin herself may have been something of a "fierce nerd":

> From the outset, Franklin and Wilkins simply did not get on. Wilkins was quiet and hated arguments; Franklin was forceful and thrived on intellectual debate. Her friend Norma Sutherland recalled: “Her manner was brusque and at times confrontational – she aroused quite a lot of hostility among the people she talked to, and she seemed quite insensitive to this.”


What an example to choose the same week that Paul is out defending Antonio Garcia Martinez's sexism on Twitter.

I didn't see it as defending sexism. It was more pointing out the hypocrisy of Apple for firing Martinez while selling and promoting 'Beats by Dre'. In both cases the creative works were well-known before the hire/acquisition.

Pointing out that hypocrisy is a strategy some took with criticizing Apple, but it's not the direction PG chose. [1]

He said nothing about Dre, focusing entirely on saying "He's a good guy, actually", which is the epitome of the strategy taken by men historically to defend other shitty men.

That's not "defending sexism" per se, but it is excusing sexism because of the content of someone's character. "Sure he said sexist things but he is not sexist". It does not pass even the most baseline level of scrutiny.

I think it's also worth saying here that the comparison to Dre is super irrelevant:

1) Musicians may write lyrics in the first person, but the general default for all musical content is it's "fictional", and not representive of their personal views on the matter. It's artistic license with ideas - occasionally problematic. That is not the case with "autobiographies", which is what Antonio's book was purported to be.

2) Dre has taken complete ownership of all of his past indiscretions and apologized for them [2]. Antonio double down.

[1] https://twitter.com/paulg/status/1392756490138791937

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dr._Dre#Violence_against_women

Which is a poor critique considering Martinez would be working directly with other Apple employees while Dre is barely involved with Apple as far as I know. The issue isn't the creative work alone, the issue is the impact on fellow employees and the working environment.

The idea that Watson "stole" his major work from Franklin is absurd. Franklin was on a completely different track and thought Watson & Crick's approach was a dead end.

Wikipedia quotes Watson implicating himself in his own book: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Watson#Interactions_with...

If you're going to be this sort of fierce nerd, make sure you come from money, because you're getting fired if you pursue these traits in the workplace.

FWIW, this isn't my experience at all. There's a difference between being an asshole and the contrarian bent+ relatively-minor rough edges Graham describes. The essay touches on this, by saying that it's become a lot easier to thrive as this sort of person than it used to be. In particular, you need to find your way to a field and role where results matter more than glad-handing and ego-stroking, and where the subjectivity and discretion of measuring those results is minimized. This used to be vanishingly rare, but in my perception (and experience), it no longer is.

In my case, my fatal flaw career-wise wasn't abrasiveness or asshole-ish behavior, but a strong aversion to promoting my work or any of the other non-goal tasks required to advance in an organization. I hate every minute I have to spend making it clear that I'm productive instead of just _being_ productive.

However, this is almost unavoidable in most organizations that aren't tiny. You either have to "manage your brand" and play politics, or you have to make sure that you're fitting a squishy, inherently-subjective rubric. At a bare minimum, you need to craft a presentation of your output at performance review time, and hope your interpretation of the rubric matches the decision-makers'.

My solution was to find a company with fairly objective and well-defined measures of output[1], where there's more than enough impact to go around. You can't avoid having people skills to get things done, but I don't mind using my people skills in service of getting shit done instead of internal organizational BS.

[1] This does not mean that we're tolerant of assholes. We've fired people for being pathological "brilliant jerks", though everyone I've come into close personal contact with is well above the jerk bar. What this does is separate "are you toxic in a way that hurts your coworkers or the company" from "what is your output", allowing people who are awkward and well-intentioned to thrive on one axis and grow on the other. This is in contrast to the usual case, where measuring output is polluted by interpersonal skills that are not related to output, and being awkward means your work isn't recognized either.

> measuring output is polluted by interpersonal skills

Also, many of those 'skills' are nothing more than shared cultural backgrounds and/or biases.

This is exactly what the original essay said:

> It's hard to be independent-minded without 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

Or maybe you keep quitting jobs, because you are the precocious one who can always see why things aren't working well long before anyone else. Yet nobody wants your feedback because it's too something. Too fierce, or scary because it's predictive, or they're just annoyed that you have no social skills.

And socially maybe the people at work can keep you in check without firing you, because you can't respond well in a socially-clever environment for example, no matter how amazing your insights.

Assuming those traits come alongside the ability to get shit done, that’s patently false.

This essay feels like it really panders to the reader.

It excuses poor social skills, tells you that you too can become rich by simply "getting the right answer" and that it's the best time ever to be a nerd.

I don't buy it. The only way this makes sense is in hindsight if you're massively successful. Otherwise you're just the weird person who has poor social skills and is obsessed with "solving problems".

Although questionable as a psychometric test, he is describing the Myers–Briggs INTJ [1] or INTP [2] personality type here. In terms of the Big-Five [3], I would suggest: Moderately-high Openness, High Conscientiousness, Average-to-Low Extraversion, Low Agreeableness, Average-to-low Neuroticism.

[1]: https://www.16personalities.com/intj-personality

[2]: https://www.16personalities.com/intp-personality

[3]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits

>Although questionable as a psychometric test

That's an understatement. It's meritless pseudoscience.

What makes you say so?

Probably an awareness of the history of MB and the research about its utility: https://www.vox.com/2014/7/15/5881947/myers-briggs-personali...

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

I have found the MBTI to be useful despite the empirical inaccuracy of the test itself. Even without taking the test, people can self-identify as one (or more) types. This then serves as a meaningful basis for discussion as well as raising awareness that people are deeply different in terms of their ways of thinking. It is quite an eye opener the first time you see someone self-identify as a personality type that is very different to your own.

None of the personality theories are 'proven' of course. We won't get that until we have a fuller understanding of the brain. But it is well accepted within psychology that personality is a thing. And personality types (Big 5, MBTI, etc) are useful models for now despite their shortcomings.

This is a fairly good post with some additional thoughts on the MBTI debate: https://dynomight.net/in-defense-of-myers-briggs.html

Check out “the human element” which is the basis for firo-b.

It actually has international data to support its model.

That's an interesting article but I just have a few questions about it. How would someone exactly prove that a certain theory in a field as subjective as psychology to be true? What kind of studies would prove the usefulness of something like MBTI? While I agree it does limit people to certain binaries that aren't necessarily always 100% accurate, I have found it to be fairly accurate myself and think it describes people to a decent degree of accuracy.

I think the problem with Paul Graham's writing is that it always comes down to talking about getting rich.

A lot of people - including very intelligent people - have other things they'd rather do than play such a stupid game. Unfortunately the world is pushing everyone in that direction which will create a lot of bitterness because most people necessarily lose that game.

I'm inclined to agree, but in fairness to Paul Graham I'll note that one of his essays I think relates back to your point.

His observation was that even if you aren't trying to do things for the money and just want to solve some problem, a lot of times the only practical option is to form a company. Maybe that isn't always true, but at least it seems plausible. He also notes that not chasing money can have advantages: craigslist isn't a charity, but they run it like one. That makes them pretty hard to compete against.


> Back when I was working on spam filters I thought it would be a good idea to have a web-based email service with good spam filtering. I wasn't thinking of it as a company. I just wanted to keep people from getting spammed. But as I thought more about this project, I realized it would probably have to be a company. It would cost something to run, and it would be a pain to fund with grants and donations.

> That was a surprising realization. Companies often claim to be benevolent, but it was surprising to realize there were purely benevolent projects that had to be embodied as companies to work.

> I didn't want to start another company, so I didn't do it. But if someone had, they'd probably be quite rich now. There was a window of about two years when spam was increasing rapidly but all the big email services had terrible filters. If someone had launched a new, spam-free mail service, users would have flocked to it.


I still fail to understand how we've organised society so that the losers of a particular game don't eat. It's virtually decoupled from helping other people with stuff (which is what the economy purports to represent); you have old money, and nth-generation new money, and people working two jobs to afford rent.

“Invest” in the stock market in X way, and you can stop working earlier – that is, if you had enough savings to do so.

You've presented a false dichotomy. There's a lot of room between "get rich" and "don't eat." I'd wager that most software developers fit very comfortably between the two.

I agree with GP's dislike of Graham's emphasis on getting rich. There's more to life.

It's not a dichotomy; there are plenty of people who are doing okay. But there are definitely winners, and definitely losers, and it's a game for some and survival for others.

The “fierce nerd” sounds a lot like what Reed Hastings (Netflix, Founder) calls “brilliant jerks.” To quote his recent book:

> Sometimes really talented people have heard for so long how great they are, they begin to feel they really are better than everybody else. They might smirk at ideas they find unintelligent, roll their eyes when people are inarticulate, and insult those they feel are less gifted then they are.

At Netflix, they say “no brilliant jerks” because they will “rip your organization apart from the inside”.[0]

A lot of this sounds like justification for a brilliant jerk’s behavior. While it’s tempting to take the “fierce nerd” badge and wear it proudly, ferocity can turn into jerkiness pretty quickly.

[0] https://www.amazon.com/No-Rules-Netflix-Culture-Reinvention/...

We're not talking about people who disrespect waitresses.

fierce =/= jerk. There are many well intentioned nerds who try their best to be considerate and kind that can't help but be impatient in technical discussions. Some organizations don't tolerate that and some do, and those who do are at a natural advantage.

> We're not talking about people who disrespect waitresses

Right, we’re not. We’re referring to behavior in the workplace.

> There are many well intentioned nerds who try their best to be considerate and kind that can't help but be impatient in technical discussions.

This is true, but I don’t think that accurately describes pg’s definition of a “fierce nerd” in the article. Also, Netflix would probably still classify someone like this as a “brilliant jerk”. Maybe they would give this nerd a chance to change their behavior, since it’s unintentional.

> Some organizations don't tolerate that and some do, and those who do are at a natural advantage.

These days, no one could confidently make the claim that Netflix has a “natural disadvantage” in this respect. They have the strongest technology in their market and have no lack of talent in any of their technical departments.

Companies that win have top talent, but this talent needs to be able to work with the team effectively. Whether you want to use the term “jerk” or “fierce”, if a team member is being disrespectful to other team members then the team breaks down.

I completely agree with you. I just think the norms around what makes someone a jerk aren't universal.

To young "fierce nerds": The single best piece of advice I got for dealing with normals was, "Act like a dumbass and they'll treat you like an equal." (from the Book of the Subgenius.)

- - - -

There's a lot to unpack in this essay, some good some bad IMO.

One thing I feel is worth mentioning: I don't think the cure for bitterness is success, I believe it's helping others.

Also don't call them normals.

I believe the socially acceptable term these days is "normies", right?

Trying to help others just makes you more bitter.

Particularly so when placed into a position where help is expected, but then immediately rejected once delivered. It's the sort of double bind that makes for a toxic environment -- you must assist others; if you don't, you will be accused of hindering and hoarding, but if you do (no matter how generously, politely, and tactfully) you will be accused of patronizing or interfering.

It might do for you, and I'd say it does for me a little too (i.e. If I get the answer in less than one google search I need to take a breather because I'll get annoyed), but I have come across people who are just as clever/nerdy/knowledgeable (take your pick) who really derive pleasure from teaching and explaining things in the best way they can - so I wouldn't assume.


> 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.

I do, and I think you should invest in these things (not "devote your life", PG shows his deep ignorance here of these things as though they are black and white). if you are in the overwhelming vast majority of "fierce nerds" that does not become a billionaire, or even if you do, you will invariably have a lot of problems in social situations and close relationships until some investment is made in tempering this extreme sort of personality.

> 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.

PG encouraging people to be emotionally unhealthy so that they can add to his pool of talent for him to profit from. The fierce nerd, great term btw, is ambitious and brilliant. they can do all of these things at the same time. It might just cut down the full on "become a billionaire" mindset, but that's a good thing, since it's unethical to be a billionaire.

Yeah this part was especially disappointing given pg's influence, and I think this is one of his weaker essays because the advice is not well thought out. If you have a chip on your shoulder, are insufferable, can't shut off aggressiveness, etc, the best thing you can do is learn when and how to channel it. That's the missing piece.

I know a lot of people that fit this mold, and for this type of personality there's nothing that will meaningfully dull the edge [1]. But, if they learn how to control it, they can avoid cutting their friends and themselves, and live a much happier life.

The last thing this world needs is more emotionally stunted leaders alone in their suffering.

[1] This point in particular seemed like pg engaging in pure speculation, not something based on specific examples

This whole things feels autobiographical

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.

starting one of the 10 most successful businesses of the past 2-4 decades business vs solving a problem are not the same thing though. Problem solvers on average do not make that much money. Look at all the problems solved everyday on stack overflow/exchange. How many of those ppl are making lots of money. Same for freelancing sites. The rates are pretty low. making money means a lot to PG, but it's a separate type of skill than solving problems. It is something that is probably harder in many respects because it requires not only solving problems but making money from it, which means competition and other aspects of business.

I think we should confine this to the primarily US setting (and maybe parts of the English speaking world like Canada). In most of the rest of the world being top in academics is expected from everyone especially to pass standardized tests (the only way in many countries) to get into universities. The poor outnerd the rich fiercely so that they can step up. The rich try to nerd so that they can maintain their privilege.

There are no secret backdoors (like athletics) for the rich in the public schooling and university realm that exist in most of these countries. In essence everyone is a nerd or trying to be a nerd.

In the US system, one could make the argument that elite legacies and the fencing team help the manufactured diversity and lower the “nerd” (achievement oriented) “toxicity.”.

A study abroad for just a semester would be an eye-opener for many of us on the normalcy of nerdness in many societies. Most parents hope their kids become doctors, engineers etc.

I think what you're describing is undergraduates. In the US we don't typically say that undergraduates are academics. Usually, people who are academics will complete a masters and/or PhD where they do independent study and publish a thesis. Afterwards, many of them hope to stay in academia for life, or continue their work as a researcher in a private organization.

Academics have to go through undergraduate programs too, but most non-academics end their education with a bachelor's degree simply to help them get a (typically) non-nerdy job.

Other countries have students who study harder than Americans, for sure. As someone with a multi-ethnic background, I find that students in lesser developed countries have fewer options in their future so they study hard as a student for the chance to make it out of poverty. Students in highly developed nations don't worry as much because they think they have a decent standard of living waiting for them regardless.

I don't think that (for example) India has dramatically more nerds than (for example) America because being a nerd is driven by your personality. Nerds genuinely enjoy studying <x> in particular and they find ways to do just that. Nerds can end up as doctors or engineers but typically nerds aren't primarily motivated by careers. I think you notice this difference in the wide prevalence of cheating in poorer countries. Non-nerds feel the pressure to study but they're not actually interested in the work so they cheat to get by. Cheating exists in America too, but there's less risk of falling into poverty so students who aren't interested in a subject will more often accept a low passing grade.

And force them into it - even when they don't want to do it or have no aptitude.

The only time in a fairly long career I have seen some one really unsuited to working in tech was case of this.

"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."

It's good that we've gotten past the tedious "solving society's problems" blather.

"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."

Isn't Graham a dealmaker? Isn't that exactly what Y Combinator does?

And given Graham's comments about inequality, why am I ambivalent about the singularity of the fierce nerds?

PG hacked the VC system so he didn't have to be a dealmaker. YC has standard terms so there's no haggling on price, pro rata, board seats, or anything else. They've automated a lot of what they do via software and their network. And because of the content they put out and the reputation they've built, founders from all over the world come to them and accept much worse terms than any normal VC would offer.

I was peaved until I got to the last phrase. Well written.

When the deals go away because the contract is standardized and non-negotiable, it's because the dealmaker got more powerful!

The big question is whether this leads to better overall outcomes.

If the company fails, or is aquihired by the skin of its teeth, it doesn't matter which terms the various rounds offered when.

YC is perceived as offering a greater chance of success, a combination of being plugged into a large network of alumni and having the halo effect which comes from getting into a cohort.

As long as that perception is there, founders will keep taking the deal. If that perception is accurate, then they're smart to: and the terms aren't worse than any normal VC would offer, they're better.

So there's a lot riding on that being true, which I have no special insight into. Having to guess, I suspect it's less true than it used to be.

The terms are worse in the sense that they're at a much lower valuation than most VCs would offer, not that it wasn't a good deal for the startup. Almost every YC alumni I've talked to believes it was worth it.

"...a combination of being plugged into a large network of alumni and having the halo effect which comes from getting into a cohort..."

But that's exactly what a dealmaker does, right?

After reading some of his books, essays and hearing people talking about him, I think Graham is first and foremost a nerd and hacker, the other stuff is secondary. At least that's how it looked before the last couple of years, his view on things seems to have slightly changed recently, so not sure anymore actually.

He certainly started that way; his Common Lisp stuff is interesting, although I don't usually agree that it's the best approach. But as far as I know, the only technical thing he's done since selling Viaweb is ... this forum. You apply to YC for money and for contacts---exactly what dealmakers do.

He worked on this for several years after leaving YC:


Not sure how that doesn't count as technical.

I think "Hackers & Painters" was after ViaWeb as well, a book I'd consider technical. I'm sure there are more technical things he been doing since ViaWeb also.

They said as far as they know. More likely they never heard of it.

Whatever happened to Arc?

It's doing fine and is happy powering this site.


He's done internal software to manage YC.

YC itself was born out of an attempt to hack the hack the VC funding system. Shift things to be more friendly to technical types.

So it was an attempt to improve a complex system as opposed to focussing on making deals. Systems focussed instead of people focussed.

Is there really that much custom software needed to manage YC? As opposed to the Excel spreadsheets that most investment banks operate with?

There is; you'd be surprised.

I think the idea is that some people are naturally dealmakers, and the whole idea of YC was technical-minded people taking over the job that would normally be done by social-minded people and doing it better.

Same with artists; the ones who became famous or at least successful in their lifetime were good at making deals. And self-promotion. The ones who could not fit in socially, not so much.

Nerds didn't spring fully formed with the invention of the transistor - they have always existed in various forms throughout history.

But it has also been true that moving to a dealmaker provides more impact, especially once you get past a certain point.

Yeah, given that we're talking about the guy who wrote "On Lisp" I think it's fair to say he has technical credibility.

He may be a dealmaker these days, but that doesn't take away that he is a luminary in the nerd community.


”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.”

I think the continuous transfer is in nerds learning how to be dealmakers, not in some magic power shift to nerds.

George Westinghouse was an inventor. So was Thomas Edison. You can think of both as “fierce nerds” in my book.

Surprisingly, I'd argue that athletes are an example of fierce nerds. I think people vastly underestimate how nerdy top athletes are. They're people willing to devote their entire lives to obsessively analyzing a single game. Somebody like Jordan had to spend hours, days, years of their life just constantly shooting a ball at a basket. Not to mention the obsession with meta and strategy.

We like to see people like Jordan or Kobe as normal people who happen to be really good at basketball. I disagree. They're nerds who happened to do a profession that doesn't seem nerdy to the public.

Once, the YouTube "algorithm" led me to video featuring a bodybuilder that explained that being a professional bodybuilder = being a professional eater.

To bodybuilders (and I assume, also athletes), eating in a methodical and structured way is an important part of their job. The guy grew his own vegetables and spent a lot of time selecting food at markets, ate at very specific times, etc.

That, combined with supplements, experimenting with different training regimes, etc... it's a lot of experimentation and certainly there's a lot of cognitive work behind all of that.

I found this very interesting.

This is especially true in endurance sports. The level of competition is so high now that now one can succeed just based on talent and grit. In order to win you need to understand physiology, psychology, nutrition, aerodynamics, equipment maintenance, etc. Elites even run their own informal private scientific experiments with detailed data analytics to determine empirically which techniques deliver the best results.

One of the traits of top footballers in the modern game is that their teammates are pretty much - and keep in mind these are already some of the best players in the world by a long way - in disbelief of how hard and how efficiently they train. That's how Cristiano Ronaldo is as good as he is at an age when many have already retired.

Jordan is an incredible athlete and an incredible person. Not long ago a friend sent me a recording of Jordans last game against the Jazz, and man, I was seriously impressed at his tactical prowess. Two really amazing teams playing a game of human chess with some might and force of will mixed in was awe inspiring all over again. Watching Jordan rise to the occasion on top of that gave me goosebumps. I'm quite proud to have grown up watching his games.

Absolutely, why do you think the first jock called the first nerd a nerd for the first time? He was projecting!

By redefining anyone who has worked very hard and enjoyed success as a 'fierce nerd', you make the term meaningless, and the supposed payoff from being one into a tautology.

I think there’s a difference between the sort of subject-matter-preference driven obsessiveness that characterizes nerds and the one-of-the-few-visible-though-high-odds-of-failure-ways-out-of-a-miserable life that drives a lot of black kids to a focus lots of time and energy on basketball.

Very odd comment. Jordan and Kobe did not grow up miserably at all. Jordan grew up in a stable middle-class home and Kobe's dad was an NBA player-turned-coach.

I don't think they were talking about Jordan or Kobe specifically. There does seem to be a kind of seductive lie (not just in black communities) that sports or other long shots are a viable career path for the dedicated kid. Where I grew up, there were plenty of kids who believed they would be famous basketball players one day as a matter of fact, skaters who believed a fat sponsorship was in reach if they just got that kick flip down tight, even culinary artists who think they can join the ranks of the rich by catering their private dinners.

It's probably the same with startups -- most startups fail, mine included, but either we delude ourselves into thinking that it's just a matter of putting in enough effort, or we are in situations where we really can't see any other option to escape the gravity well of our situations. Not so far off from someone obsessively playing ball to try to get out, except for the broader applicability of the skills gained if the long shot doesn't pay off.

For me, as much as I am competitive, I feel like it only drives me when the odds of what I am competing for feel somewhat fair.

To give an example, a lot of my friends have been into Magic the Gathering for many years, and I recently tried to get into it myself, but the asymmetric gaps were too large for me to enjoy it -- they had way more knowledge, more cards, had spent more money, and had more time to spend playing outside of work hours, resulting in me getting crushed again and again.

There was two options I could take: 1) Try to catch up on years of accumulated knowledge, or 2) Change tactics, and see if instead I could play a game we all were more similarly matched with. I chose the latter.

In entrepreneurship, I feel like it's no different. For me, fighting a large startup on common ground is a losing game -- they have the money, the manpower, the knowledge, the social proof, and more. As competitive as I am, and as hard as I push, it's not going to be a fair fight to begin with. So instead, it's about me finding a battlefield where the odds change more in my favor -- perhaps something that doesn't scale, something I have innate knowledge in, etc.

Not sure if that lines up perfectly with what PG is saying here, but it's worked well for me.

[1] 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.

PG probably agrees with you, as that's the first footnote from his article above.

D'oh, this is what I get for not reading the footnotes closely!

"The best way to beat Tiger Woods is to play him at something other than golf."

I think I am paraphrasing Buffett here, this can apply to so many career/business decisions.

>There's also a natural connection between nerdiness and independent-mindedness.

Is it, or it's just an anecdotal projection from PGs own experience ("I'm nerdy and I consider myself independently minded, also know a few others like that").

This is just extrapolating from the diminishingly small number of nerds who are also SV entrepreneurs.

But historically nerds (e.g. 50s and 60s "propellerheads") were just working for companies and research labs as employees, and mostly on what they were told. Most still do exactly that.

Socially also many nerds otherwise follow the herd and "try to belong" with the "cool people" (often in vain).

> Most people think of nerds as quiet, diffident people. [...] In fact some nerds are quite fierce.

That someone would think nerds are not competitive is, to me, the strangest thing about this article. Perhaps because I'm one, but whether it's Magic the gathering, Demoparties, rubics cube solving, chess, Counterstrike LANs, academia, or any of my tech jobs, every "nerdy" activity I've ever engaged with has always been overly competitive.

The fact that so many open source projects have had to adopt "code of conducts" is IMO a direct reflection of the fierce competition that has always been inherent to software development. Whether it's code quality, clever hacks, optimization... everything about what we do has a competitive element.

Come to think of it, I can't actually think of any nerdy activity that isn't, in practice, extremely competitive.

It is probably because competition is so commonly attributed to physical athletics. Physical strength or stamina exhibited on the playing field is competition.

Spelling bee competitors are seen positively, but also almost as a joke compared to quarterbacks. Mathlete? A joke in popular culture.

There is some evidence that this is changing, but there is also a lot of bad art. The Social Network, and Steve Jobs the film portray fierce nerds that basically no one wants to know.

The actual people?

Zuck and Dorsey just got through extracting maximum advertising value from the heart of US democracy.

Bezos hasn't done fierce nerds any favors with his squeezing of the lowest paid people in his organization.

Bill Gates' reputation is headed downhill right now faster than ever before.

Tim Cook has real potential. But the jury is still out. We do not know the calculus involved in compromising privacy values in China.

It is going to take a lot more well-known, rich, fierce nerds that also manage to round out their personality before we see mainstream positive portrayal and following of competitiveness in intellectual exercises.

to play devils advocate How much is this Amazon or its just the way all warehouse US workers are treated?

I have heard far worse things about non amazon warehouse workers in the UK Sports Direct for example.

I think its mostly due to the diffusion of what a "nerd" is. Being a "nerd" or a "geek" used to be a insult, now its trendy for some reason, and seems to mostly be a term for modern consumerist culture (buy lots of stuff in some sort of genre and be a nerd)

> now its trendy for some reason

Culture follows power. Once a bunch of tech nerds became billionaires in the 1990s, every aspect of that subculture gained prestige.

Collecting comic books? Memorizing all the Star Wars and Star Trek quotes, and reading side fan fictions about each of the characters?

Eh, pedantry is a form of competitiveness, and all of these activities seem to foster pedantry (e.g. "that's not part of this canon!").

That way everything is competitive. Pedantry does not have to be competitive at all.

I think pedantry is often a way of asserting status ("I know this thing, you don't"), though I agree it doesn't intrinsically have to be.

> The fact that so many open source projects have had to adopt "code of conducts" is IMO a direct reflection of the fierce competition that has always been inherent to software development.

This is something that has bothered me about a lot of people's views on competition, whether it's sports or business or whatever. Being competitive does not have anything to do with being an asshole.

I never got into trash-talking during games. It was always just easier for me to ignore it/use the other person's trash-talking as their own distraction against me running circles around them.

And then in software, Code of Conducts are not covering anything about how the project interacts with other projects. They're covering how contributors treat each other within the project. You're not in competition with your project mates. The sorts of harassing and belitting behavior that CoCs are supposed to address (whether they do or not is a different discussion) comes about from some sort of glory-hog mentality that is ultimately anti-productive. Insert roll-safe meme: "If I drive away most of the other contributors, my own efforts will be a much bigger proportion of the overall whole".

> Perhaps because I'm one, but whether it's Magic the gathering, Demoparties, rubics cube solving, chess, Counterstrike LANs, academia, or any of my tech jobs, every "nerdy" activity I've ever engaged with has always been overly competitive.

I think that is little bit you choosing very competitive things to engage in. People who were obsessed with start trek for example did not build competitive societies. And I worked in multiple teams that did not felt overly competitive to me at all.

Through, I would not see Counterstrike nerdy at all. This sort of games is more of the most stereotypical guy pastime that exists.

LAN parties are nerdy for sure.

Watching anime. Or Star Trek.

I enjoy reading Paul Graham's musings on nerds / nerdiness, but I can't help but have difficulty relating.

Maybe it's a generational thing (born in '92), but Graham often seems to paint a picture of nerds similar to what you might see in movies and TV shows depicting the 80s, like the kids in Stranger Things.

Even this article, while I can certainly conjure which of my friends growing up were the "fierce nerd", it still feels a little disconnected from my reality.

For example, Graham begins by explaining that the concept of a fierce nerd is one unknown to the general public. But I'm not sure I agree. In the era I grew up, there was not so much social distinction between who is a nerd, but there was a lot of social distinction for those who were argumentative, or "fierce". In my experience, everyone knew who the "fierce nerds" were (although not by that name), because they were known for their awkwardness and combativeness - not for their nerdiness. Indeed, my own nerdy friend circle in high school spanned a wide range of popularities and I would say "fierceness" (or rather, lack thereof) was probably the best indicator of popularity.

I see these themes spanning Graham's other musings on nerds, typically trying to characterize a class of kids who are hated for their interests and passions, but that's just never been my experience. I think it's a generational thing.

Same, born in 92 and his characterization of being nerdy and young seems super antiquated. “Nerdy” interests don’t make you a social pariah, they transcend groupings all together; the star quarterback plays dnd, the head cheerleader builds robots in her basement, the stigma on having unique or “nerdy” hobbies and interests is mostly gone. When I think of what PG is describing, it’s characterized by poor social skills and bad hygiene.

I'm just five years older than you and strongly relate to these descriptions of being a nerd, having academic interests not shared by young peers and consequently caring very little for social games. Even in adulthood, unless I carefully choose who I hang out with. And I'm from Europe, not the US, so it's not a thing local to the US either.

If it's truly a generational change, that would be a very interesting development. Especially if it happened in just the five years between when we were teenagers - I had no impression that people a few years younger than me had a wildly different experience than me. But I could certainly be mistaken.

Do you find no familiarity at all in these descriptions? Meaning some of the following - Being more interested in reading than gossiping, liking technical projects more than team sports, being uninterested in popularity contests and social status games to such a degree that you barely care about losing them, prioritizing learning over number of superficial acquaintances, having ideas and thoughts that you assume to be true but for which you experience lashback for stating out loud. Potentially experiencing some loneliness or hostility over this, not necessarily making that part of your identity, eventually seeking a small number of like-minded folks...

Has the world really changed this much? From my perspective, it seems likely that you're just not the target demographic for this essay.

I knew many people who fit that description, but with even a little social intelligence it seemed to me their experiences in highschool were pretty great; they weren’t nerds, they were just smart and studious and many were very well liked. Our homecoming king was on the academic decathalon team. Im not saying that smart, introverted folks with underdeveloped social skills don’t exist, just that they don’t exist opposite to bros and jocks and cool kids (and weren’t mercilessly bullied for being themselves).

On the other end, nerd-culture had permeated all levels of the social strata, and my very popular friends who partied every weekend were also semi-pro halo players and avid anime fans and didn’t hide either of those facts.

It’s only six years, but it could have been wide exposure to the internet? Also very possible I’m seeing the past through rose colored glasses.

There is a pretty wide variance from school to school, town to town, and state to state/country to country. Maybe you were in a particularly well-adjusted school, and other schools and communities are still more judgmental of non-blessed interests? Or maybe the nerds remain, but they had different interests from the new main-stream. I'd hardly call Halo a nerd thing, for example.

Maybe it was a well adjusted school, or maybe it was a school in which achievement culture and college application stacking and reverse engineering had fully run their course. After all, 'well rounded' on paper people get into elite colleges, and people from elite colleges have a better shot at becoming rich. Nothing less nerdy than wanting to be rich.

Halo isn't a nerd thing. Pro gaming is.

How old is PG? Born in 1964, so age 56, according to Wiki. I'm from the same era. Being young and nerdy in the '60s and '70s was pretty isolating.

Computers weren't available until the early '80s, and weren't affordable for another decade, so few kids had easy access to them, and networks didn't arise until about 1990. So if you were born before '80-'85, you had a tough time rallying around tech toys with other nerds/geeks to share your enlightened world view.

Stewing nerds in their own juices through adolescence tends to foment fierceness, which is just another word for not understanding or tolerating non-nerds very well. With today's omnipresent social connectivity, isolation should be less a problem in 2021, since tech content and cool devices are everywhere today.

What I would have given to play around with RPi or robots in my teens...

I think that a total disinterest in politicking is why so many people on here complain about how software engineers are treated at non tech companies

I can tell you as someone that graduated college in 92 that being nerdy as a kid in the 70s/80s it was very different from that, at least in my area of the world (Midwest USA).

If you want a not very distorted glimpse of what it was like watch the movie, "Revenge of the Nerds".

In that movie, nerds publicly sexually harass and worst their enemies girlfriend. Yes, girlfriend mocks him at one moment, but the response is ridiculous. Are you sure you want to claim that is how things actually were?

Edit: in the movie nerds sell secretly taken naked pictures of said girlfriend to earn money. The movie is old and ridiculous, but when you start to claim this is how things were, I want to know wtf was going on in your school.

stuff like that happened at my high school, and not that long ago. do you not believe that kind of thing happens/happened, or do you just not believe that "nerds" can be the perpetrators?

these kinds of events can fly under the radar if you aren't involved. I only know of the situation I'm thinking of because the girl found out and complained to the school, which ended up expelling the others involved.

I do not think the movie is "a not very distorted glimpse of what it was like".

More importantly, if movie is accurate, then nerds are no better then evil jocks. They are just two groups of bullies and assholes locked in a fight where everybody who avoids them is doing something smart.

In your school, did the girl that got her nudes public got together with the dude that took them and sold them? You can peel levels of that movie how much you want, you won't get meaningfull image of reality.

Where are you (or GP) from? Im also ‘92. I grew up in California, but in a rural part of the state. Nerdy interests absolutely had a stigma. My high school didn’t even have a CS class, no academic decathlon team, and certainly no robotics club. It was the “best” school in my district, too.

In challenging or AP classes you had essentially two groups, the jocks, who were trying to follow a college track, for which sports were essentially requisite in our district, and the nerds who just liked learning stuff. The jocks(male and female) did their homework as a group, complained loudly about difficult tests/assignments and consistently used their relative influence to affect their grades. The nerds brought in their own lessons, asked questions that lead the class off topic, consistently read the textbook and stayed late to ask questions rather than negotiate.

Anyway, thought I’d throw this anecdote out there for variety.

I was in a semi-rural suburb of San Antonio, Texas. We had a CS class, our academic decathalon team team placed 6th in state (I was a C but placed 3rd in individual), and I took a lot of AP science and math so I spent a lot of time with the top people in our class. It was… a great time. Non-AP classes were hit or miss, but AP physics C, calculus B/C, and art history were some of my all time favorite school experiences. I feel very lucky to have had the time I did.

Things have changed a lot since then though. In a positive way.

You're a bit young then. I'm a decade older, and see very clear similarities in my age cohort to what he's describing, particularly when I was in my early 20s and teens. Which is interesting, because a good theory of behavior is not limited that tightly in time.

If there are star QBs that play DND (somehow I doubt there actually are that many) this is just proof that DND has gone mainstream and is therefore being commercialized as nerdy while actually not nerdy any more. This is known in some parlances as 'nerd-chic'.

I think after the dotcom craze, it stopped being "edgy" or "different" to be passionate/ambitious about technology. If anything, it's the most straightforward thing to pursue ideas or business interests with these days, especially if you have a "fierce" personality.

To be fair, there's a lot more to the "nerd" archetype than just technology. But, from my experience, it was not particularly edgy or differentiating to be passionate about video games, board games, card games, literature, obscure TV, fanfics, internet culture, etc.

there's a lot more to the "nerd" archetype than just technology.

I'd probably go as far as saying that technology (or at least practical technical skills) has become far less relevant as a 'nerd' marker.

Many of the self identifying 'nerds' I meet might be avid technophiles, but it's not like most of them know how to code better than anybody else (or at all in many cases).

Is the word "geek" no longer used for what you are describing? Although there a lot of overlap, I thought nerd referred to strong interests in academic subjects and geek referred to niche cultural subjects.

True, I've been conflating the two in all of my posts. As far as how they were used when I was growing up, the distinction tended to be moot because they were most commonly used ironically or jokingly.

That is the problem with using labels rather than talking about what people are doing or what specific actions they are taking.

Yeah... if anything that seems normal these days? Many young adults are passionate about at least one of those things, whereas for Gen-X (Paul's generational cohort) those were far more underground interests.

Paul Graham himself muses in this post that the main contrast is between people who are "good at making deals" and those who are actually competent in some relevant domain. We can see this shift happening in politics as well.

A year ago he was musing how categorizing people into two groups was too basic.

Xist versus Yist, and he showed us with some pretty basic math.

Now two groups is all we need to understand the world?

The two group categorization is a rhetorical device commonly used everywhere, throughout the world, to help drive a point, worldview, or allegory home. In it's correct form, it is never intended to be a dichotomy (as this would make it fallacious).

So perhaps the way to understand it is PG believes people fit in these two groups, but those are not the only two groups you fit in, and they are by no means all-encompassing.

It's kind of like, you are either a member of team red, or team blue. You may be a blue type of person, another is a red, but that by no means defines the entirety of your being.

Let's try to have a little more good faith here, when trying to understand people's musings. The reality is, most of us here wouldn't have the courage to put our thoughts and opinions out there on the internet for the whole world to see, at least not to the extent PG does.

I am reminded of a fun idea:

The reason that 4 quadrant divisions of the world seem like they always work is because any two vectors chosen at random in a high dimensional space are nearly orthogonal with high probability.

If one were suitably cynical (and independent-minded, another of his bugaboos) one might suggest that it's always been "the kind Paul appeals to" and "the bad people".

The article is an attempt of classifying people into neat groups with certain characteristics, without acknowledging their true inner personality as a result of the cultural background and the particular individual qualities. "Nerd" is one such classification, "fierce" is a sub-classification. Semantic word-play with little empirical or anecdotal evidence.

Well, we could certainly speak to the difference between those whose emotional needs are served by sharing their advice with the world, and those for whom they aren't.

I’d take PG more seriously if he actually had to work to maintain his flock. Folks who struck it rich in the lottery talk about how suddenly everyone wanted to be their friend.

I’ve been rummaging around the human experience for 41 years, applying technology to problems at public uni and big corp, building houses, growing food, hunting, earned degrees in electrical engineering and math.

To me that’s all there is, to go do directly.

All this feels like is someone who is riding off that lottery ticket.

That is, I’m not seeing an information advantage. Just a political capital advantage.

I thought we did away with allegiance to unelected political agents?

There's definitely some eccentric people in the field, but a vast majority people I've met working in tech were hardly the Poindexter type characterized in these articles

But do they think of themselves as such?

I don't think so. I saw a lot of that kind of mentality in university among CS students, but it faded away immediately once I entered the workforce.

> Maybe it's a generational thing (born in '92), but Graham often seems to paint a picture of nerds similar to what you might see in movies and TV shows depicting the 80s, like the kids in Stranger Things.

Graham's characterizations of nerds reminds me of the "They don't know" meme[1] guy.

[1] https://www.buzzfeed.com/kristatorres/they-dont-know-twitter

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