Why You’re Not Better than Everyone

This is a message intended to help the geeks of the world.

I preface it in this way to make clear my intentions, because otherwise this piece may come across as something between a mocking criticism and a religious tract. But that’s not the point. If you take it that way, and still accept the content in a way that you can use, then I suppose that’s all right, though it won’t improve your opinion of me; but in reality, my purpose is not critical at all. It’s meant to be a hand helping up, not a shot pissing down.

And so, here is the premise: for a long time, and perhaps still, I was a geek. This is no big deal and geeks have a lot going for them. But there are also some serious negatives within their proclivities and their culture, and they’re the dangerous sort of negatives that don’t self-repair, because they’re framed as positives. Once I perceived this, I made an effort to disassociate myself with these habits; and now I’d like to put them into words to help others, perhaps, to do the same.

Who am I talking to here? “Geek” is a pretty vague word, and depending on your vocabulary perhaps I mean nerd, introvert, gamer, dork, or something more derogatory. I’ll use “geek” here, but that hardly matters; if the below applies to you, then you’re it.

The first problem involves being different.


Picture of a twisted and mangled fork. Caption: Just because you are unique does not mean you are useful.

We are all beautiful and unique snowflakes. This is, on some level, true; after all, no two humans are exactly the same, no matter how similar they may be. Everyone is unique and that makes us all individuals.

On the other hand, in some ways, we are the same, for most of us, for the most part, mostly. We are unique snowflakes but we’re still all just freaking snowflakes formed from ice crystals according to certain physical laws and while one or two snowflakes might be made of beer and shaped like Elvis you’re probably not one of them.

The problem is that geeks tend to revel in this first point—the uniqueness—and ignore or even reject the second—the similarities.

My assumption is that in most cases, this situation begins with something outside of one’s control. Probably a geek becomes a geek because he is different in some manner. The traditional symptoms are introvertedness or a dearth of social skills, a fondness for Dungeons & Dragons rather than basketball, or some other deviation from the norm, particularly one that tends to isolate him from his social group.

The trouble is this: from that not-too-troublesome beginning, the problem becomes self-reinforcing. Rather than look at the situation and say, “what can I do about this? How can I [for instance] both play Magic and also reap the rewards of shopping at the Gap?” he instead calls the negative a positive and retreats into it. The D&D players join forces and hang together, which is fine; then they cast derision at the basketball players, asserting how glad they are to be doing this instead of that, as if the two were mutually exclusive; finally, when the disease is full-blown, they elevate anything that is (like them) different, and scorn anything that is mainstream. Dressing in hip waders, speaking in Klingon, staying up four nights in a row via intravenous caffeine? Excellent! Partying, playing sports, buying things from the mall? For shame.

This is a terribly insidious attitude.

Can you, in point of fact, particularly enjoy wearing waders and particularly dislike going to the mall? Of course. No reason why not. If that’s the case, you should probably wear ’em and don’t go.

But there is a vast and qualitative difference between “doing what you want, even if it’s not mainstream,” and “doing something because it’s not mainstream.” The former is following your interests; the latter is a pointless, self-damaging, and unpleasant path, even if you manage to convince yourself otherwise. It’s harmful for two reasons: first of all, you’re doing stuff you don’t necessarily want to, and not doing stuff you maybe do; second, you’re further isolating yourself, which perpetuates the problem and is itself an additional problem (more on this later).

Here is a piece of wisdom which, for whatever reason, seems to escape many. The reason popular things are popular is because most people like them.

Are there perhaps other factors, such as social conformity and perpetuation of trends? Sure. But at the end of the day most cultural memes proliferate because they’re pretty good.

Once upon a time, I wore nothing on my legs, ever, but shorts. Cargo shorts. I had reasons and justifications for this, some of them valid, but in the end I simply turned my nose up at the jeans-wearing sheep of the world, preferring to have this small piece of uniqueness, arbitrary though it might be.

Then one day I blinked a few times and pulled on a pair of jeans. Turns out they’re really pretty comfortable and a decent garment. Hmm—maybe that’s why everyone’s wearing them. Thinking outside the box is fine, but as the late webcomic Guido and Luigi once opined, there’s some pretty good stuff in that box. That’s why it’s in there.

Put simply, in any given respect, you may be different from everyone else, but you are probably not. This is simple probability. If 95% of the population likes something, then you could be in the other 5%, but guess what’s more likely?

You will probably like the things most people like. I assert that dogmatically and without reservation. If your answer is “I’m not like most people,” then I say that in labeling yourself so, you are already deep in the rabbit hole. Nobody is systematically different from the rest of the world, unless their brain was installed upside down; you have absolutely no way of knowing that you won’t like something just because you “tend to go against the norm.” The norm, or its negation, is not a natural kind, has no common thread, unless you put it in a box yourself.

So, how do you know if something’s for you? You try it. Genius or obvious? It should be the latter, but once again all manner of bizarre arguments tend to spring forth against this basic empirical practice. Buddy, I don’t know if you’ll like freak dancing, but neither do you unless you’ve tried it, and trying it means really taking a shot, not just giving a token effort to cross it off your list.

Here’s an example from my life. I cannot count the number of geeks I have known—yes, including myself—who avoided alcohol and drugs for the longest time. Various reasons were given. All were manifestly insipid, but we’re great at justifying things, so they’re convincing to us. So time winds on, and periodically I get these little notes by instant message or suchlike, and guess what—Joe Geek is partying up a storm and having the time of his life. Or having whatever kind of time. Good, bad. The point is that he’s going through the same process everyone goes through in terms of exploring this stuff and figuring out what he’s into, he just got into it many years later, and there was absolutely no purpose to the delay except these weird notions of anti-conformity. He’s not a special snowflake, he’s just behind the curve.

Aside from this self-reinforcing feedback loop that encourages difference for its own sake, there’s another factor that contributes here, and it’s simply the basic elements of habit and practice. I can tell you to go try clubbing, but even if I convince you that you’re not avoiding it for any good reason, it’s not quite that easy. The folks who have been clubbing for years know the drill and understand how to handle themselves, whereas it’s completely new to you. Do you really want to stumble around like a freshman getting acclimated, learning the ropes and embarassing yourself? Where would you even start? You don’t know this crowd of people. You don’t know how to act. The entire paradigm is a mystery to you. Wouldn’t it be easier to stay home and play World of Warcraft?

It sure would. Which is why these things perpetuate themselves. The more entrenched they are, the greater the effort required to upset them; often you really need a shake-up from the outside, because once you’ve settle into a habitual lifestyle it’s always easier to maintain it than to change. Habit is universally easier than novelty. You have to open your eyes one day and realize that you’re simply not getting what you want out of life, then light a fire under your ass and force the changes you desire; that’s the only way to overcome this inertia. On rare occasions you may stumble into these redirections, or get them forced upon you from outside, but that’s not the norm. Sorry. Life is pain. Change is hard. Only you can make it happen.

Now, in all fairness, I should acknowledge something here, and that’s the possibility that being different does have some intrinsic value, or that being the same has some downsides. This is true. The world is more interesting with uniqueness and variety, and a whole lot of the same stuff gets a little tedious. This is the position that the twisted fork up there has taken to excess, and that I’m arguing against, but it does have something going for it. What’s missing from this interpretation is the flip side: there are nice things about being different, but also not-so-nice things. It isolates you from others. It pushes you to do things for no reason other than irreverence. As for advantages to being mainstream, the stereotypical football captain with the cheerleader girlfriend can probably tell you all about them. Both sides have things going for them, and neither one is the moral high ground.

So what’s the answer? Simple. Unless you’re intentionally trying to shake up the world with a shock to the status quo or some such artistic position, don’t seek out uniqueness. Likewise, don’t avoid it. There are pros and cons of both sides, so just go with the one you prefer, and make that evaluation on a case-by-case basis rather than across the board.

But here are the two points that the geeks need to emphasize. First, you must try the options; you cannot simply stand on your comfortable habits and ignore the alternatives. No matter how you ended up in the place you are now, or how long you’ve been there, you can still experiment with the alternatives. Second, starting with the mainstream option is usually the best method. There is a reason that everyone’s doing it, and acknowledging this means accepting that you might be into it too, not assuming that you won’t.

The most interesting people in the world are often noted for their idiosyncrasies and unique quirks. However, the really compelling people, the confident alphas, the ones who end up in the history books and make heads turn when they enter a room, are the ones whose unique features are there for a reason. If they love the color pink, then they’ll wear pink. But they won’t do it just to be “the pink guy,” and if they did, they wouldn’t be as striking or look as comfortable in their lives and in their skin. Moreover, they may be wearing pink, but they’re chatting like a normal person and they drive a Honda. If they really wanted to ride a horse to work, maybe they would, and they wouldn’t apologize for it; but they certainly won’t do it just to be crazy. That’s what it means to be unique.

Now, let me focus down on one particular aspect of this dynamic, which involves social interaction.

People need people

One of the ways that this “runaway uniqueness” often shows up is in a geek’s tendencies towards introvertedness. Now, look, people differ by nature, and not everyone wants or needs the same amount of shared time. One nice definition I’ve seen, from the Meyer-Briggs personality test, is that introverts tend to “draw their energy” from being alone; they can be amongst others, but then they’ll need to retire to their personal space to “rest back up.” Extroverts are the opposite, needing to be around others to thrive. In any case, the point is that there’s no such thing as a “pure” introvert or extrovert; pretty much everyone does some of both.

But it’s true that there is a range of personality types and some individuals want or need less socialization. This is fine, and as far as it goes, there’s nothing wrong with staying home a little more or reading a book rather than relaxing with friends, should that be your preference. Different strokes, etc.

Despite this, however, it is critical to recognize that human beings, intrinsically and organically, are in fact social creatures. This is indisputable—short of someone who is truly pathologically inhuman in how they’re built, everyone needs some amount of social interaction in order to be well-adjusted and functional. (And trust me, you don’t want to try to dodge this one by putting yourself in the pathological category; I’m talking about clinical sociopaths, not quirky introverts.)

So what? Well, here again the above problem surfaces. When our wayward geek finds himself different in certain ways, particularly in ways that isolate him (such as subpar social skills), and starts to walk down that self-reinforcing loop that further sets him apart, he is not just making a general problem for himself, he’s sucking away an essential nutrient of life. Being without people is not a separate-but-equal condition to being with people, in the same way that having no water or Vitamin C is actually, objectively, qualitatively worse than the alternative.

Worse still is when the previously-discussed justification mechanisms kick in. Now our geek is not just in a problematic but correctable state of inadequate socialization, he’s convincing himself that it’s not a problem at all. It’s just how he is; it’s a legitimate lifestyle; friends, companions, girlfriends, those things are all Okay but just aren’t for him. He doesn’t need to change because there’s nothing wrong, so he won’t—and the situation continues, and worsens. Like anything else social skills atrophy without practice, so the less our geek uses them (or to the extent that he never learned them at all), the worse they get, which makes it even harder to reestablish his social networks. He doesn’t know people. He doesn’t know how to meet them. He’s no good at conversation or face-to-face interaction (although he may use partial-but-inadequate palliatives like chatrooms, web forums, and online gaming groups). In other words, it’s hard to deal with and it keeps getting harder, so just as above, it takes a mighty force of will and probably a lengthy effort to turn things around—assuming a recognition of the problem at all, which requires breaking through the often formidable walls of justification and may never happen.

You do need people. It’s not just that socialization “has its upsides,” along the lines of wearing jeans; you need it. Maybe more, maybe less; that’s a valid realm of differentiation; but you do need some, and that’s not somewhere you can say “maybe most do, but not me.” If that’s the card you’re playing, You Are Wrong and that’s the justification talking.

I wish it weren’t true that the right thing is the hard one, but it is. The fact that you’ve managed to survive this far in your current condition doesn’t mean that it’s right, it just means that it’s survivable, temporarily at least. You can survive being on fire for a little while too, but that doesn’t mean it’s a legitimate lifestyle choice. This is one of the unfortunate situations in life where a potential decision is terribly difficult and challenging and may not have any rewards for a long time—but is nevertheless necessary. You Need People. People can be a pain in the neck and encroach on your independence and require major resource expenditure to keep around, but You Need Them. You don’t get to stop drinking water even if you hate it and it’s just a general pain in the neck, and the same situation applies here; you’ve simply got to bite the bullet and find a way to normalize your relationships, because the alternative isn’t only a bad way to live, it’s not living at all. It’s hibernating.

So what, smart guy?

At this point I’ve either convinced you, which is probably unlikely, or I’ve got you shaking your head and muttering about how I don’t know you. The trouble is that the syndrome I’m attempting to describe goes hand-in-hand with a bodyguard of well-developed justification, so even for someone prone to introspection on the level necessary for addressing such things, the odds are pretty poor that my diagnosis will come across to you as anything more relevant than the bearded guy on the street corner proclaiming the “end times.” I just can’t compete with the elaborate and well-crafted suite of protective justifications you have internalized; really, the only person who can dismantle them is you.

So what’s the point of all this griping?

My goal here is to offer you a different paradigm for viewing your situation. You might not use it; indeed, right off the bat, you almost certainly won’t. First you’ll need some reason to question the usefulness of your current paradigm, which may come about in due time, perhaps from an eventual realization that you’re not totally happy where you are right now. Again, I can’t make this happen for you, since you’d just fight it off as an external criticism; you need to bring it about internally and naturally. But once it does happen, if you have “on file” the explanation I’ve given here, then you can bring it out and see if it fits—and then perhaps get busy moving towards a better life.

All I’m asking is that you consider the possibility that what I’ve laid out here applies to you, on some level or to some extent. All I’m asking is for you to be slightly more critical about the reasons for your choices and examine why you are the way you are. In every instance you find that it’s exactly how you want to be, and you’ve actually tried the alternatives, and it couldn’t be better for you, then great—leave it how it is. If you’re doing what you’re doing because it’s what you want, keep doing it. But if you’re doing it for any other reason, then you should be aware of that error, aware that you’ve got a problem, and hopefully, eventually, move towards the light.