Re: Fierce Nerds

post by lsusr · 2021-05-19T20:18:06.035Z · LW · GW · 18 comments

This is a link post for http://paulgraham.com/fn.html

Paul Graham just published an article titled Fierce Nerds. It's the most precise description of me I've ever read.

Most people think of nerds as quiet, diffident people. In ordinary social situations they are — as quiet and diffident as the star quarterback would be if he found himself in the middle of a physics symposium. And for the same reason: they are fish out of water. But the apparent diffidence of nerds is an illusion due to the fact that when non-nerds observe them, it's usually in ordinary social situations. In fact some nerds are quite fierce.

This is absolutely true. When I'm in my element I own the room. I am so bored in ordinary social situations I used them to drill my Chinese handwriting for three years.

The fierce nerds are a small but interesting group. They are as a rule extremely competitive — more competitive, I'd say, than highly competitive non-nerds. Competition is more personal for them. Partly perhaps because they're not emotionally mature enough to distance themselves from it, but also because there's less randomness in the kinds of competition they engage in, and they are thus more justified in taking the results personally.

Yup.

Fierce nerds also tend to be somewhat overconfident, especially when young. It might seem like it would be a disadvantage to be mistaken about one's abilities, but empirically it isn't. Up to a point, confidence is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Overconfidence. That's familiar. [LW · GW]

Another quality you find in most fierce nerds is intelligence. Not all nerds are smart, but the fierce ones are always at least moderately so. If they weren't, they wouldn't have the confidence to be fierce.

Yup.

There's also a natural connection between nerdiness and independent-mindedness. 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. And the independent-mindedness of the fierce nerds will obviously be of the aggressive rather than the passive type: they'll be annoyed by rules, rather than dreamily unaware of them.

I have an unusually low tolerance for rules. The first time I hired people I was disconcerted by how much they desired for someone to tell them what to do.

I used to be very aggressive when I was a teenager. I am less aggressive now that I am an adult and I have to follow fewer rules.

I'm less sure why fierce nerds are impatient, but most seem to be. You notice it first in conversation, where they tend to interrupt you. This is merely annoying, but in the more promising fierce nerds it's connected to a deeper impatience about solving problems. Perhaps the competitiveness and impatience of fierce nerds are not separate qualities, but two manifestations of a single underlying drivenness.

This is painfully true. I interrupt people…a lot. I am an exceptionally direct person. One of my early business partners was surprised that when we got together to discuss business we got straight into discussing business.

My direct communication style reflects my direct personality; I am a goal-seeking agent. Most people don't have clear stable objectives. They go with the flow. They want others to tell them what to do. I am impatient because I have clear objectives I am trying to accomplish and anything which slows me down is an obstacle to achieving those objectives.

When you combine all these qualities in sufficient quantities, the result is quite formidable. The most vivid example of fierce nerds in action may be James Watson's The Double Helix. The first sentence of the book is "I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood," and the portrait he goes on to paint of Crick is the quintessential fierce nerd: brilliant, socially awkward, competitive, independent-minded, overconfident. But so is the implicit portrait he paints of himself….

I have never observed myself in a modest mood. I pretend sometimes, but it's just a show of courtesy.

…Indeed, his lack of social awareness makes both portraits that much more realistic, because he baldly states all sorts of opinions and motivations that a smoother person would conceal….

Yup.

…And moreover it's clear from the story that Crick and Watson's fierce nerdiness was integral to their success. Their independent-mindedness caused them to consider approaches that most others ignored, their overconfidence allowed them to work on problems they only half understood (they were literally described as "clowns" by one eminent insider), and their impatience and competitiveness got them to the answer ahead of two other groups that would otherwise have found it within the next year, if not the next several months.

What sticks out to me here is the word "clowns". I laugh a lot compared to other people my age, especially men.

The idea that there could be fierce nerds is an unfamiliar one not just to many normal people but even to some young nerds. Especially early on, nerds spend so much of their time in ordinary social situations and so little doing real work that they get a lot more evidence of their awkwardness than their power. So there will be some who read this description of the fierce nerd and realize "Hmm, that's me." And it is to you, young fierce nerd, that I now turn.

I have some good news, and some bad news. The good news is that your fierceness will be a great help in solving difficult problems. And not just the kind of scientific and technical problems that nerds have traditionally solved. As the world progresses, the number of things you can win at by getting the right answer increases. Recently getting rich became one of them: 7 of the 8 richest people in America are now fierce nerds.

Indeed, being a fierce nerd is probably even more helpful in business than in nerds' original territory of scholarship. Fierceness seems optional there. Darwin for example doesn't seem to have been especially fierce. Whereas it's impossible to be the CEO of a company over a certain size without being fierce, so now that nerds can win at business, fierce nerds will increasingly monopolize the really big successes.

When I was young my parents and I thought I was destined to become an academic. Entrepreneurship is a way better fit. In academia you have to follow rules and conform to social expectations. In entrepreneurship you are rewarded for breaking obsolete rules and if you conform to expectations you lose.

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.

Normal people can life normal lives. A fierce nerd following the rules is like a wild animal in a zoo. If you don't do daring things you'll go nuts.

How do you avoid this fate? Work on ambitious projects. If you succeed, it will bring you a kind of satisfaction that neutralizes bitterness. But you don't need to have succeeded to feel this; merely working on hard projects gives most fierce nerds some feeling of satisfaction. And those it doesn't, it at least keeps busy.

My entire life has been a long series of trying to do something I think is ambitious followed by realizing it wasn't ambitious enough.

Another solution may be to somehow turn off your fierceness, by devoting yourself to meditation or psychotherapy or something like that. Maybe that's the right answer for some people. I have no idea. But it doesn't seem the optimal solution to me. If you're given a sharp knife, it seems to me better to use it than to blunt its edge to avoid cutting yourself.

I do Zen meditation. It makes me weirder. It makes me care less about social expectations. It is the opposite of dulling a knife.

Alternative forms of meditation might reduce your fierceness. I tried them out. They weren't for me.

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.…

Yup.

…At least not till the nerds end it themselves by bringing about the singularity.

18 comments

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comment by Jozdien · 2021-05-19T21:07:59.781Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm generally biased against someone trying to describe traits of a certain class of people because it's so easy to think you're getting more than you are (horoscopes, for example).  And starting to read the article, I thought that of a couple lines - most people I know, people who are definitely not nerds, are fierce in their element, and reserved otherwise.  Some lines also stood out to me as just the right combination of self-deprecatory and self-empowering to make me want to believe them (Partly perhaps because they're not emotionally mature enough to distance themselves from it...).

That said, the rest of it started to be specific enough to convince me.  I'm more (openly, at least) confident than my friends, I lose a lot more steam working around archaic rules than my classmates (although that might just be a difference in exposure), I think I work on more unorthodox things than people I know, and I definitely laugh a lot more than other people.  My first thoughts still stand, but I think it's a good article.

comment by gwern · 2021-05-22T01:42:16.256Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Fierce nerd" sounds a bit like rediscovering Eysenck's paradigm of genius: intelligence, energy, and Psychoticism (essentially, low Agreeableness).

comment by Willa (Eh_Yo_Lexa) · 2021-05-20T04:59:28.401Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I enjoyed how you turned PG's essay into a manifesto (still a bit implicit, but it's there) via what you quoted and replied. Nicely done and well agreed! I'm curious to see what such would look like if explicitly written, I do love me some manifestos.

I see overlap between "fierce nerds", "being a holy madman", and/or "being highly agentic" [LW · GW] in how each type acts aggressively independently minded in clear and deliberate pursuit of goals, even if the path to those goals is extraordinarily uncertain. And socially often end up in positions/situations of isolation or seem incomprehensibly other in some way [LW · GW]. Which, definitely seems to be where thinking truly independently may lead. [LW · GW]. I don't have much of a point writing this besides pointing out the overlap between those types and linking what seem to be relevant articles to social implications for being those types. That seems enough though, for a comment.

"'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.'

Normal people can life normal lives. A fierce nerd following the rules is like a wild animal in a zoo. If you don't do daring things you'll go nuts."

Having met many grumpy sysadmins and others deeply struck by bitterness and utter cynicism and been one [grumpy sysadmin type person] myself for a short time, this feels all too painfully accurate. The people who I've met who were once fierce (whether fierce nerds or fierce in different capacities) and didn't take the riskier yet ambitious path are almost universally deeply unhappy, negative, cynical, and deeply bitter (I'm related to several such individuals) or have become totally passive and checked out. Conforming and being passive and hiding ones fierceness (of whatever kind it may be) a single iota more than is strictly necessary to survive at one's present stage of life, situation, privilege or lack thereof, and so on is a trap, a very dangerous game. I'm still escaping that and becoming stronger [LW · GW]. [? · GW], because death still exists and myself and others need to get rid of it.

Bitterness, cynicism, mean-spirited-ness, and so on are not helpful to anyone trying to change the world and/or help others in whatever ways one wishes to do so, they are counterproductive tendencies to possess.

Fierceness, kindness, magnanimity, probity, and so on are much more helpful for getting things done and solving difficult important problems.

Replies from: lsusr
comment by lsusr · 2021-05-20T05:39:32.462Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Zen helps me along the holy madman path. I like this way of being but it is not for everybody.

The people who I've met who were once fierce (whether fierce nerds or fierce in different capacities) and didn't take the riskier yet ambitious path are almost universally deeply unhappy, negative, cynical, and deeply bitter (I'm related to several such individuals) or have become totally passive and checked out.

Good food for thought. This may explain a lot.

Replies from: Eh_Yo_Lexa
comment by Willa (Eh_Yo_Lexa) · 2021-05-20T15:06:53.328Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How does Zen help you move along that path?

Is it the control of yet unbinding (de-categorizing might be a better word) of self, clarity of thought, and wordless insights that one gains which provide the benefit? Or some other things?

Practising Zen does seem particularly useful for learning how to better carve reality at its joints [LW · GW], so that must be a significant beneficial impact, yes?

Replies from: lsusr
comment by lsusr · 2021-05-21T01:58:45.694Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Zen quiets your mind. It feels like what happens one minute into this scene from Wonder Woman where the music changes, the world slows down, the noise disappears and you get back to what you were supposed to be doing all along.

Replies from: Eh_Yo_Lexa
comment by Willa (Eh_Yo_Lexa) · 2021-05-28T20:05:46.674Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you :)

That matches with my (albeit limited) experience of Zen so far. The quiet and power gained from it makes it easier to do things to further oneself down that path, I think.

comment by NicholasKross · 2021-05-19T20:53:50.776Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Obligatory comment where I'm jealous of having that much dopamine. Dopamine helps motivation, but my meds don't make me more viscerally-goal-directed (i.e., right now I'm just reading and writing comments, instead of goals I've actually come up with for myself).

Anyone here have this problem? Energy, goals, and not enough linkage between them? (Currently thinking it's related to dark flow or superstimuli [LW · GW], but some Agenty people still do "fun" things without spiralling or neglecting their Big Goals.)

Replies from: aram-baghdassarian-1
comment by MarcelloV (aram-baghdassarian-1) · 2021-05-20T03:32:22.531Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I also have this problem and the same experience with ADHD meds. I tried a bunch of tactics that I can go into if you want but they all had varying degrees of success. Annoyed of trying quick tricks, I tried going for the root cause. 

I thought the root cause was related to low willpower, so I tried multiple things that have been shown to improve willpower in studies (meditation, exercise, squeezing a hand grip) but I didn't see much benefit after at least a month of doing these actions daily so I stopped.

I then thought that maybe it's not so much low willpower but rather low conscientiousness (one of the Big Five personality traits). They seemed similar but studies distinguished between them so I tried to peruse the research on ways to improve conscientiousness. Unfortunately, the studies I read all seemed to be tied to some unique therapy that was only broadly described and I wasn't sure how to find someone who specializes in those techniques. There was one 2021 study that used an app to successfully improve this, but the app isn't released it.

If you find a solution to this problem, please let me know.

Replies from: NicholasKross
comment by NicholasKross · 2021-05-24T20:23:14.479Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry that you haven't had much success, but I am interested in which tactics you used turned out best.

Replies from: aram-baghdassarian-1
comment by MarcelloV (aram-baghdassarian-1) · 2021-05-26T19:34:22.899Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here are the two most effective "quick trick" tactics. I say "quick trick" because they tackled the symptoms not the root cause (albeit effectively) via brute force, leading me to eventually burn out and abandon them:

Boss as a Service: The most extreme tactic I've tried. You pay someone each month to be your "boss", meaning you send them your goals for each day/week and then you report back to them at the end of the day/week on how you did. Was very effective, but was too draining so I stopped using it.

Focusmate: Lets you do 50-minute work sessions with your camera on with a stranger. You each say your goals in the beginning of the session and then work the rest. It increased the probability that I would actually work on my goals but wasn't foolproof. Since the sessions required a taxing amount of focus, I eventually stopped scheduling them.

Meditating and exercising daily as well as the Pomodoro method didn't seem to have much of an effect on staying focused on goals.  Also, taking the meds with food seemed to make me less bouncy and more likely to actually work on my goals.

Replies from: NicholasKross
comment by NicholasKross · 2021-05-26T20:52:25.703Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! Meds during meals works well for me also.

comment by George (George3d6) · 2021-05-20T14:12:27.380Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the thing missing here is "fierce about what".

Being fierce about spacecrafts, osk therapy or ecological materials is basically good.

Being fierce about Unix, ml, rust or fpgas is morally neutral, but can be good or bad depending on the trends in society and your industry.

Being fierce about my little pony, debating people online, arguing for extremist political views, reading up on past wars, being a ""PUA"" and playing starcraft is bad, bad of society, but more so for the individual which is slowly consumed by it.

Elon musk is annoying because he thinks he knows everything and is often to agressive in imposing his vision, everybody still like Elon musk.

But if someone acted like Elon musk, but couldn't afford a home, raise a family, buy a Tesla, build cool hardware ,or go on wild vacations to Ibiza in order to hook up with models... we'd call that person delusional, we'd recommend they take some meds, do some CBT, see a therapist, get some hobbies and try to make friends.

comment by Vanilla_cabs · 2021-05-20T06:36:38.764Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Normal people can life normal lives. A fierce nerd following the rules is like a wild animal in a zoo. If you don't do daring things you'll go nuts.

That resonated strongly, in both ways. I've always wondered how most people I knew (ordinary people, for lack of a better word) could unquestioningly accept society rules and life as we are expected to live it, or even keep a facade of accepting it. For some time I've even been jealous of it. But I've given up, that acceptance is completely out of reach for me.

Replies from: lorenzo-rex
comment by Lorenzo Rex (lorenzo-rex) · 2021-05-23T19:56:06.904Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That acceptance is in my experience due to lack of skills/intelligence. By realising that you don't have enough skills/intelligence to withstand the (possible) consequences of speaking up, it is rational to comply with the rules and just hope that somebody else will bring the change. 

Replies from: Vanilla_cabs
comment by Vanilla_cabs · 2021-05-24T07:39:26.867Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's one possibility, but I see others.

  1. in my personal case, my ego was inflated in childhood by words such as "you can do anything" ("if you focus and work hard enough", but my child brain conveniently ignored the last part). That ego still plays a large role in my dissatisfaction. I think it's mostly a good thing, though, insofar as it aligns with my other values.
  2. there is genuine, deep joy and happiness to be found in living the life of a 'loser' in the terms of the Gervais principle as summed up here: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/wd7qxFBF2swRscBiS/academia-as-company-hierarchy [LW · GW] That is, people who work in the lower strata of a hierarchy, but whose real life is in the time outside work: friends, family, activities... Maybe there's a high variability here, so that some people skilled enough to speak up as you say prefer not to because they have amazing friends or an amazing hobby.
comment by MarcelloV (aram-baghdassarian-1) · 2021-05-22T01:03:36.507Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another solution may be to somehow turn off your fierceness, by devoting yourself to meditation or psychotherapy or something like that. Maybe that's the right answer for some people. I have no idea. But it doesn't seem the optimal solution to me. If you're given a sharp knife, it seems to me better to use it than to blunt its edge to avoid cutting yourself.


This seems like sunk cost fallacy. If your goal is to maximize your happiness in life, then you shouldn't base your decision off of the abilities you have now if utilizing them won't make you happier. This seems like an easy path for the stereotypical Gifted Kid to fall prey to: having succeeded by unhappily working themselves extremely hard through high school and/or college, and then feeling like they need to continue performing at that level since they've already built up so much knowledge, accolades, job connections, etc.

Replies from: Kenny
comment by Kenny · 2021-05-24T23:12:03.277Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think the "stereotypical Gifted Kid" did work hard at all through high school and/or college.

But you make a good point about a fixed expectation about performing at a high level. I know I get frustrated when I can't do so (for a variety of reasons).