The Tao of Cool, or Why Nerd Culture is a Myth

Posted on 27 December, 2008 at 12:14am


Homer: Maybe if you’re truly cool, you don’t need to be told you’re cool.
Bart: Well, sure you do.
Lisa: How else would you know?

Do you remember the popular kids? You know, the people who sat at the best lunch table, wore the most fashionable clothes, and went to awesome parties? Objectively, there was nothing particularly special about this clique, but everyone understood that they were “cool.” Coolness was in fact their salient characteristic.

What I find interesting about being cool is that it’s simply not a label you can give yourself. In this context, cool means that everyone else thinks you’re cool. Think about what that does to the locus of control when it comes to coolness. The popular kids didn’t make themselves cool – it was the rest of the school who did.

(Once in a while, someone can define a new understanding of coolness, but only if they are not trying to be cool. It is one of the great paradoxes of human interaction.)

The thing is, this phenomenon does not just apply to cool. It applies to just about any feature or characteristic you can think of to define a group of people as different from others. You can be an emo, a goth, a slut, a jock, a dork, a hipster, or whatever else, without passing some objective test that shows you have the right set of qualities to earn the label. Those are labels other people give you based on their understanding of you and the world.

This is normal and I suspect mostly understood. We all do it; it helps us formulate our big-picture worldview without spending too much processing time on individuals that aren’t immediately relevant to us. The problem is when the label starts to mean something to you as an identity.

Let’s talk about the word “nerd.” Let’s just deal with that word for a second and think about what it means. I assume that most of the people reading this article are like me and probably think of themselves as nerds. I’m also going to assume they are reasonably internet-literate and have read their share of the incredibly common treatises on what it means to be a nerd and why we’re better than everyone else (especially if you read Reddit). Perhaps the most well-known of these is Rands’ Nerd Handbook. It’s actually quite well-written, and I personally have a lot of respect for the author. But I find this particular article condescending and counterproductive. It reads like a laundry list of excuses written for people who don’t “get” nerds.

Listen. Being a nerd is just like being cool. It’s an arbitrary label originally assigned to you or people like you because you act a certain way or have certain interests. If you encounter someone who doesn’t seem to “get” you, it’s not because they need a five-page article about what you’re about. It’s because they are interested enough in you to try to get past the label and interact with you on a level that’s deeper than just “nerd” or “not nerd.” Shoving them back over the line with a huff and a mumbled “it’s a nerd thing, you wouldn’t understand” is escapist or elitist, depending on your mood that day. Take your pick — the stereotypical nerd is both.

The cool kids aren’t fundamentally different than any other clique, and neither are nerds. Yet it seems as though we keeping trying to believe that we are. It’s stupid and just as bad as telling yourself that it’s okay to act the way you do because you’re “cool.”

Embrace what you are, but don’t use a label as an excuse to stop growing. Be a good person, whatever that means to you. There are enough walls and boundaries in this world without us trying to build them higher.

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The Discussion

4 Comments on “The Tao of Cool, or Why Nerd Culture is a Myth”
  • Lame and uncool

  • I think this is just a great and inspirational post. I’ve found myself trying to look “smart” by acting in the same way I saw other smart people acting: cocky, condescending, and overall like a huge jerk. I made a decision very similar to your last paragraph some months ago, to just be a good person and not worry about who thinks I’m smart and who doesn’t. The change has been surprisingly relieving, actually. From the handful of posts you’ve written so far, you have very insightful thoughts, and express them very elegantly. I only hope that my blog can some day be so well written as to actually have a good shot at helping people, in the same way yours is.

  • Steven: Thank you for the extremely generous comment!

    Anonymous: As usual, you have an amazing sense of humor.

  • Bravo, what phrase…, a brilliant idea

    P.S. Please review icons

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