Last month's issue of Wired included an essay by Paul Graham entitled Why Nerds Are Unpopular which is an expert from his book "Hackers & Painters" published by my favorite technical book outfit, O'Reilly.
Here is a little taste of what he has to say:
And that, I think, is the root of the problem. Nerds serve two masters. They want to be popular, certainly, but they want even more to be smart. And popularity is not something you can do in your spare time, not in the fiercely competitive environment of an American secondary school.
Leon Battista Alberti, arguably the archetype of the Renaissance man, writes that "no art, however minor, demands less than total dedication if you want to excel in it." I wonder if anyone in the world works harder at anything than American school kids work at popularity. Navy SEALs and neurosurgery residents seem like slackers by comparison. They occasionally take vacations; some even have hobbies. A teenager may work at being popular every waking hour, 365 days a year.
The main reason nerds are unpopular is that they have other things to think about. Their attention is drawn to books or the natural world, not fashions and parties. They're like someone trying to play soccer while balancing a glass of water on his head. Other players who can focus their whole attention on the game beat them effortlessly and wonder why they seem so incapable.
It is unquestionable that I was a nerd during most of my time in school (ok, during all of it), and I remain to this day a nerd (though I think I am more of a geek than a nerd, however for most people the terms are interchangeable). Was I unpopular in school?
Nope. Mind you, I wasn't the most popular kid in school, but I also wasn't mocked mercilessly by anyone; keep in mind that not only was I a nerd in school but I was the tormentors best friend, a fat nerd.
It is true that this lack of mocking might have something to do with the fact that I went to a highschool that was Nerd Mecca; our debate team was better funded than any of our sports teams (and we didn't even have a football team). I like to think there was more to it than that.
Even though I went to a nerdy highschool I was still near the top of the nerd scale, even amongst other nerds. I love Star Trek, I was President of the Simulated Games club, and once during gym class Mr. Donodeo yelled at me, 'We're not playing the game in slow motion, McNulty!'
That is a good thumbnail of my highschool experience, yet I wasn't unpopular, and I didn't care about how popular I may or may not have been (a trait I still have).
Does this mean I am not a nerd? Nope, it just means that you have to be careful when you generalize. A nerd is not a nerd is not a nerd.