I came across a link while scanning through my Lifehacker.com RSS feed. This feed is one of my favorites, as I am always interested in efficiency and how to hack my regular behavioral patterns to streamline my daily routines and maximize effectiveness and throughput (thats a mouthful). The title of the article piqued my curiosity, so I marked it to come back to later. Today, I finally had a moment to read the article in its entirety and I can now say ‘The Nerd Handbook’ describes my life and thought process to an alarming degree of accuracy. If you ever date me, know me, or even just want to motivate me to do something, then this is required reading.
Read the short essay here.
I am now sorely tempted to buy his book: Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager
I copied the full essay after the break in case the site ever goes down.
Article originally found here:
Posted: November 11, 2007
Author: Michael Lopp (Rands)
The Nerd Handbook
A nerd needs a project because a nerd builds stuff. All the time. Those lulls in the conversation over dinner? Thatâ€™s the nerd working on his project in his head.
Itâ€™s unlikely that this project is a nerdâ€™s day job because his opinion regarding his job is, â€œBeen there, done thatâ€. Weâ€™ll explore the consequences of this seemingly short attention span in a bit, but for now this project is the other big thing your nerd is building and Iâ€™ve no idea what is, but you should.
At some point, you, the nerdâ€™s companion, were the project. You were showered with the fire hose of attention because you were the bright and shiny new development in your nerdâ€™s life. There is also a chance that youâ€™re lucky and you are currently your nerdâ€™s project. Congrats. Donâ€™t get too comfortable because heâ€™ll move on, and, when that happens, youâ€™ll be wondering what happened to all the attention. This handbook might help.
Regarding gender: for this piece, my prototypical nerd is a he as a convenience. There are plenty of she nerds out there for which these observations equally apply.
Understand your nerdâ€™s relation to the computer. Itâ€™s clichÃ©d, but a nerd is defined by his computer, and you need to understand why.
First, a majority of the folks on the planet either have no idea how a computer works or they look at it and think â€œitâ€™s magicâ€. Nerds know how a computer works. They intimately know how a computer works. When you ask a nerd, â€œWhen I click this, it takes awhile for the thing to show up. Do you know whatâ€™s wrong?â€ they know whatâ€™s wrong. A nerd has a mental model of the hardware and the software in his head. While the rest of the world sees magic, your nerd knows how the magic works, he knows the magic is a long series of ones and zeros moving across your screen with impressive speed, and he knows how to make those bits move faster.
The nerd has based his career, maybe his life, on the computer, and as weâ€™ll see, this intimate relationship has altered his view of the world. He sees the world as a system which, given enough time and effort, is completely knowable. This is a fragile illusion that your nerd has adopted, but itâ€™s a pleasant one that gets your nerd through the day. When the illusion is broken, you are going to discover thatâ€¦
Your nerd has control issues. Your nerd lives in a monospaced typeface world. Whereas everyone else is traipsing around picking dazzling fonts to describe their world, your nerd has carefully selected a monospace typeface, which he avidly uses to manipulate the world deftly via a command line interface while the rest fumble around with a mouse.
The reason for this typeface selection is, of course, practicality. Monospace typefaces have a knowable width. Ten letters on one line are same width as ten other letters, which puts the world into a pleasant grid construction where X and Y mean something.
These control issues mean your nerd is sensitive to drastic changes in his environment. Think travel. Think job changes. These types of system-redefining events force your nerd to recognize that the world is not always or entirely a knowable place, and until he reconstructs this illusion, heâ€™s going to be frustrated and heâ€™s going to act erratically. I develop an incredibly short fuse during system-redefining events and Iâ€™m much more likely to lose it over something trivial and stupid. This is one of the reasons thatâ€¦
Your nerd has built himself a cave. Iâ€™ve written about The Cave elsewhere, but here are the basics. The Cave is designed to allow your nerd to do his favorite thing, which is working on the project. If you want to understand your nerd, stare long and hard at his Cave. How does he have it arranged? When does he tend to go there? How long does he stay?
Each object in the Cave has a particular place and purpose. Even the clutter is well designed. Donâ€™t believe me? Grab that seemingly discarded Mac Mini which has been sitting on the floor for two months and hide it. Youâ€™ll have 10 minutes before heâ€™ll come stomping out of the Cave â€” â€œWhereâ€™s the Mac?â€
The Cave is also frustrating you because your impression is that itâ€™s your nerdâ€™s way of checking out, and you are, unfortunately, completely correct. A correctly designed Cave removes your nerd from the physical world and plants him firmly in a virtual one complete with all the toys he needs. Becauseâ€¦
Your nerd loves toys and puzzles. The joy your nerd finds in his project is one of problem solving and discovery. As each part of the project is completed, your nerd receives an adrenaline rush that weâ€™re going to call The High. Every profession has this â€” the moment when youâ€™ve moved significantly closer to done. In many jobs, itâ€™s easy to discern when progress is being made: â€œLook, now we have a doorâ€. But in nerdsâ€™ bit-based work, progress is measured mentally and invisibly in code, algorithms, efficiency, and small mental victories that donâ€™t exist in a world of atoms.
There are other ways your nerd can create The High and he does it all the time. Itâ€™s another juicy clichÃ© to say that nerds love video games, but thatâ€™s not what they love. A video game is just one more system where your nerdâ€™s job is to figure out the rules that define it, which will enable him to beat it. Yeah, we love to stare at games with a bazillion polygons, but we get the same high out of playing Bejeweled, getting our Night Elf to Level 70, or endlessly tinkering with a Rubikâ€™s Cube. This fits nicely with the fact thatâ€¦
Nerds are fucking funny. Your nerd spent a lot of his younger life being an outcast because of his strange affinity with the computer. This created a basic bitterness in his psyche that is the foundation for his humor. Now, combine this basic distrust of everything with your nerdâ€™s other natural talents and youâ€™ll realize that he sees humor is another game.
Humor is an intellectual puzzle, â€œHow can this particular set of esoteric trivia be constructed to maximize hilarity as quickly as possible?â€ Your nerd listens hard to recognize humor potential and when he hears it, he furiously scours his mind to find relevant content from his experience so he can get the funny out as quickly as possible.
This quick wit is only augmented by the fact thatâ€¦
Your nerd has an amazing appetite for information. Many years ago, I dubbed this behavior NADD, and you should read the article to learn more and to understand what mental muscles your nerd has developed.
How does a nerd watch TV? Probably one of two ways. First, thereâ€™s watching TV with you where the two of you sit and watch one show. Then thereâ€™s how he watches by himself when he watches three shows at once. It looks insane. You walk into the room and youâ€™re watching your nerd jump between channels every five minutes.
â€œHow can you keep track of anything?â€
He keeps track of everything. See, heâ€™s already seen all three of these moviesâ€¦ multiple times. He knows the compelling parts of the arcs and is mentally editing his own versions while watching all three. The basic mental move here is the context switch, and your nerd is the king of the context switch.
The ability to instantly context switch also comes from a life on the computer. Your nerdâ€™s mental information model for the world is one contained within well-bounded tidy windows where the most important tool is one that allows your nerd to move swiftly from one window to the next. Itâ€™s irrelevant that there may be no relationship between these windows. Your nerd is used to making huge contextual leaps where heâ€™s talking to a friend in one window, worrying about his 401k in another, and reading about World War II in yet another.
You might suspect that given a world where context is constantly shifting, your nerd canâ€™t focus, and youâ€™d be partially correct. All that multi-tasking isnâ€™t efficient. Your nerd knows very little about a lot. For many topics, his knowledge is an inch deep and four miles wide. Heâ€™s comfortable with this fact because he knows that deep knowledge about any topic is a clever keystroke away. Seeâ€¦
Your nerd has built an annoyingly efficient relevancy engine in his head. Itâ€™s the end of the day and you and your nerd are hanging out on the couch. The TV is off. There isnâ€™t a computer anywhere nearby and youâ€™re giving your nerd the daily debrief. â€œSpent an hour at the post office trying to ship that package to your mom, and then I went down to that bistro â€” you know â€” the one next the flower shop, and itâ€™s closed. Can you believe that?â€
And your nerd says, â€œCoolâ€.
Cool? Whatâ€™s cool? The business closing? The package? How is any of it cool? None of itâ€™s cool. Actually, all of it might be cool, but your nerd doesnâ€™t believe any of what youâ€™re saying is relevant. This is what he heard, â€œSpent an hour at the post office blah blah blahâ€¦â€
You can be rightfully pissed off by this behavior â€” itâ€™s simply rude â€” but seriously, Iâ€™m trying to help here. Your nerdâ€™s insatiable quest for information and The High has tweaked his brain in an interesting way. For any given piece of incoming information, your nerd is making a lightning fast assessment: relevant or not relevant? Relevance means that the incoming information fits into the system of things your nerd currently cares about. Expect active involvement from your nerd when you trip the relevance flag. If you trip the irrelevance flag, look for verbal punctuation announcing his judgment of irrelevance. Itâ€™s the word your nerd says when heâ€™s not listening and itâ€™s always the same. My word is â€œCoolâ€, and when you hear â€œCoolâ€, Iâ€™m not listening.
Information that your nerd is exposed to when the irrelevance flag is waving is forgotten almost immediately. I mean it. Next time you hear â€œCoolâ€, I want you to ask, â€œWhatâ€™d I just say?â€ That awkward grin on your nerdâ€™s face is the first step in getting him to acknowledge that heâ€™s the problem in this particular conversation. This behavior is one of the reasons thatâ€¦
Your nerd might come off as not liking people. Small talk. Those first awkward five minutes when two people are forced to interact. Small talk is the bane of the nerdâ€™s existence because small talk is a combination of aspects of the world that your nerd hates. When your nerd is staring at a stranger, all heâ€™s thinking is, â€œI have no system for understanding this messy person in front of meâ€. This is where the shy comes from. This is why nerds hate presenting to crowds.
The skills to interact with other people are there. They just lack a well-defined system.
Advanced Nerd Tweakage
If youâ€™re still reading, then Iâ€™m thinking that your nerd is worth keeping. Even though heâ€™s apt to vanish for hours, has a strange sense of humor, doesnâ€™t like you touching his stuff, and often doesnâ€™t listen when youâ€™re talking directly at him, heâ€™s a keeper. Go figure.
Map the things heâ€™s bad at to the things he loves. You love to travel, but your nerd would prefer to hide in his cave for hours on end chasing The High. You need to convince him of two things. First, you need to convince him that youâ€™re going to do your best to recreate his cave in his new surrounding. Youâ€™re going to create a quiet, dark place here he can orient himself and figure out which way the water flushes down the toilet. Traveling internationally? Carve out three days somewhere quiet at the beginning of the trip. Traveling across the US? How about letting him chill on the bed for a half-day before you drag him out to see the Golden Gate Bridge?
Second, and more importantly, you need to remind him about his insatiable appetite for information. You need to appeal to his deep love of discovering new content and help him understand that there may be no greater content fire hose than waking up in a hotel overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice where you donâ€™t speak a word of Italian.
Make it a project. You mightâ€™ve noticed your nerdâ€™s strange relation to food. Does he eat fast? Like really fast? You should know whatâ€™s going on here. Food is thrown into the irrelevant bucket because itâ€™s getting in the way of the content. Exercise, too. Thing is, you want your nerd to eat healthily so that heâ€™s here in another thirty years, so how do you change this behavior? You make diet and exercise the project.
For me, exercise became the project ten years ago after a horrible break-up. When the project was no longer the Ex, I dove into exercise every single day of the week. There were charts tracking my workouts, there were graphs tracking my weight, and there was the exercise. Every single day for two years until the day I passed out in a McDonaldâ€™s post-workout after not eating for a day. Ok, so time for a new project. Yeah, nerds also have moderation issues. Thatâ€™s another essay.
Significant nerd behavioral change is only going to happen if your nerd engages in the project heart and soul, otherwise itâ€™s just another thought for the irrelevant bucket.
People are the most interesting content out there. If youâ€™ve got a seriously shy nerd on your hands, try this: ask him how many folks are in his buddy list? How many friends does he have in Facebook? How many folks are following him on Twitter? LiveJournal? My guess is that, collectively, your nerd interacts with ten times more people than you think he does. He can do this because the interaction is via a system he understands â€” the computer.
Your nerd knows that people are interesting. Just because he canâ€™t look your best friend straight in the eye doesnâ€™t mean he doesnâ€™t want to know what makes her tick, but you need to be the social buffer â€” the translation layer. You need to find one common thread of interest between your nerd and your friend and then heâ€™ll engage because he will have found relevance.
The Next High
As you discovered when you were the project, your nerdâ€™s focus can be deliciously overwhelming, but it will stop. Once a nerd believe he fully knows how a system works, the challenge to understand ceases to exist and he moves on in search of The Next High.
While I donâ€™t know who you are or why in the world you chose a nerd for your companion, I do know that you are not a knowable system. I know that you are messy, just like your nerd. Being your own quirky self will be more than enough to present new and interesting challenges to your nerd.
Besides, itâ€™s just as much a nerdâ€™s job to figure you out and maybe someone somewhere is writing an article about your particular quirks. Good news, heâ€™s probably reading it right now.