Rules for life

When I was about ten years old, I, in my youthful hubris, decided to write a book on “Rules for Living,” telling people how to best improve their lives.  Fortunately, it stopped after only two rules, which I still remember:

1.  When you run a bath, put the cold water on first and then the hot.  Otherwise you might burn yourself.

2.  When you button your shirt, start at the bottom.  That way you won’t wind up with buttons in the wrong holes.

About ten years later, having a bit more experience of life, I came up with two more “rules”—which were really observations:

1.  Everyone thinks that “they’re a little bit nuts”—in a good way.

2.  Nobody thinks that they’re a complete jerk, as people with such a self-image could not live with themselves.  But since some people are complete jerks, that means that lots of people don’t have an accurate self-image.

Well, take that for the “wisdom” of a twenty year old.

Driving back from the grocery store last weekend, I suddenly remembered my dumb “rules for life” book, which I hadn’t thought of in at least two decades.  And immediately a new “rule” struck me, something that I’d been subconsciously chewing on for a while:

A large number of the people who call themselves “geeks” and “nerds” don’t use the term in a winsome, self-deprecating way.  Rather, they use it to imply that “I’m smarter than you are.”

Let me hasten to add that I don’t think everyone who calls themselves geeks or nerds are intellectually arrogant. Just some of them—but not an insignificant number.  When I was young, people who fit the “geek” stereotype of somebody interested in things scientific, and also socially inept, would rarely apply these terms to themselves.  “Geek” and “nerd” were derogatory terms applied to you by others.  But increasingly I see them used as self-branding signs of intellectual superiority.  And when people apply these terms to themselves, the words grate on me, precisely as the word “brights”—meaning “atheists”—grates on me.

Agree or disagree, but add, if you will, your own “rules for life”.  Oh, I just thought of one more:

If two friends tell you the same thing about yourself, it’s probably true.


p.s. It’s still a good idea to button your shirt from the bottom up.


  1. Tort
    Posted February 5, 2011 at 4:18 am | Permalink

    Maybe Jerry and I are the only ones who have to talk to these people. I have to deal with a person (who you may have guessed can get on my nerves) who refers to himself as a nerd. He does it in such a way that he’s purely saying that he knows more about a topic than you. You’ll be talking about science news and he’ll explain it to you because he’s “a bit of a science nerd”. It just does not feel genuine. It’s like he’s trying to sneak in a pejorative term to make it more socially acceptable to say that he’s smart. Sometimes people know more about a topic than you and there is no problem with that. It’s the way they are calling themselves nerds but using it in such a way that it is clear they take no negative connotations from the word. It can get on your nerves.

    • Posted February 5, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      Have you ever called him on it? If so, what kind of response did you get?

      • Tort
        Posted February 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

        No, I just deal with it. It’s slightly annoying but I have to work with the guy, don’t want to make it any more uncomfortable.

    • latsot
      Posted February 6, 2011 at 6:14 am | Permalink

      Yeah, I understand how annoying that can be and I know people like that. Perhaps I’m a bit like that myself. But try to think about it from the other person’s point of view. We’re talking about people who often really *do* know a lot. People who read a lot and have a need to understand what they are reading on a fairly deep level. And people who want other people to understand cool stuff too.

      I frequently catch myself correcting people when there’s probably no need and I realise I can come across as a smartarse because of it. But it is sincerely not meant this way. I’m not trying to show off what I know, I’m just genuinely and enthusiastically trying to help people understand cool stuff, because I assume (often wrongly) that they’re as interested in it as I am. Often, the reason they’re wrong about something is more interesting (to me) than what they were saying in the first place and I get carried away. I understand why this pisses people off, but it’s not something I do on purpose and I don’t realise I’m doing it until afterwards or – awkardly – half way through.

      Perhaps, of course, your guy is just a bit of a dick, but it’s possible that he’s actually sincerely trying to tell you cool stuff. Using the word ‘nerd’ might be a defense mechanism as someone else suggested. Perhaps he’s aware that he does this kind of thing but finds it hard to control or to recognise and he uses the term as a kind of excuse. “I’m a nerd, I might seem like I’m trying to look clever, sorry.” Or he might be a dick, who knows?

      Don’t underestimate the power of the compulsion many people have to correct others!

  2. Posted February 5, 2011 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    I’m the guy who always sets up the presentations and web conferences at meetings, and (if I’m feeling generous) who sorts out my colleagues’ computer issueus, but I seldom if ever use the term “nerd” or “geek” for myself.

    I suppose since some of the richest and most powerful people on earth are “geeks”, it’s not a slur anymore.

  3. Posted February 5, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Given people’s tendency to exhalt themselves at your expense, take their compliments at face value and think twice about their critiques.

    • MrLokiNight
      Posted February 5, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      I like your comment fg ~ because it’s true

      • Posted February 5, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

        Indeed, and I would be a happier man if I learned to do that. Instead, I tend to take compliments as flattery or politeness, and critiques as devastating condemnations.

  4. latsot
    Posted February 6, 2011 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    I call myself a geek, but I don’t think I use it to imply intellectual superiority. I’m just identifying with a culture that celebrates many of the things that interest me and the behavioural traits I exhibit.

    Admittedly, this is also probably a tacit claim that yes, I probably can fix your computer, but it’s fun to be able to admit to and even celebrate all the things I was bullied for as a child. It’s fun to be able to admit that I love Star Trek despite how awful it is and great to be able to explain why the technobabble of the day wouldn’t work. Better still, I can GET AWAY WITH IT because I make no secret of being a geek and people make allowances for it!

    I don’t identify as a nerd though. Although I have some nerdy tendencies, I think ‘geek’ carries the implication of finding things interesting that lots of other people don’t. That’s not an insult, it’s something to aspire to. Nerdiness is an insult because it seems to imply that there’s something automatically wrong with having such interests and obsessive behavioural traits.

  5. Capercaillie
    Posted February 6, 2011 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    In tenth grade we had an american exchange student (I’m norwegian) that talked about the different types of ‘groups’ among youngsters, e.g. sports jocks, people way too fond of cars, etc, and of course, the nerds and the geeks.

    From this, I realised that you could just as well apply the term ‘sports nerd’, ‘car nerd’ etc, but the differing factor being how socially accepted this all was.

    This later made me come up with the term ‘looks autism’ for the stereotype blonde woman who spends all her time on her great looks, but essentially doesn’t know or care diddly squat about anything else.

    • litchik
      Posted February 6, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      and what do you call the man with same affliction? Also, are there separate terms determined by hair color?

  6. K E Decilon
    Posted February 6, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Michigan has a new Republican Governor. He ran his entire campaign on the theme that he was “one tough nerd”.

    Former CEO of Gateway Computers, he bragged about how he had created “thousands of jobs”. His opponent pointed out that most of those jobs were in China and North Dakota, but apparently being a tough nerd was more important than that.

    An early ad campaign showed Rick Snyder bragging that “he has a plan to re-invent Michigan, but it is so complicated that no politician could understand it.” So he ran for 10 months, and never once mentioned the specifics of his “plan”.

    So yes, I agree. Many arrogant SOBs have come to use the term “nerd” to make the implication that they are way smarter than everyone else.

  7. Posted February 6, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    #1: Do not piss off 4chan.
    #2: No, seriously. Do not piss off 4chan.
    #3: Never feel too clever. In six months time you’ll look back and think your current self is an idiot.
    #4: If a year goes by and #3 doesn’t happen, start worrying.
    #5: The long term cost of pretending to be something you’re not always outweighs any short term benefit.
    #6: Enjoy your pet peeves, it’s what they’re for.
    #7: Humanity is worth the effort.
    #8: Your assumptions are more likely to be wrong the less you’ve thought about them.
    #9: Choose a career you enjoy – but if you manage this, never tell anyone else as it will only make them more miserable.
    #10: Before responding to an argument, always think first: If I held that person’s position, how would I respond to the point I’m about to make?

  8. Posted February 7, 2011 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    These were developed over 20 years at IBM.

    Rules of Management
    1 Never say anything you wouldn’t eat
    2 Never call an asshole an asshole
    3 You can pick up more dead flies with honey than with vinegar
    4 Don’t rub the boss’ nose in it especially if it’s the boss’
    5 Don’t expect a slug to have a backbone
    6 If you can’t find your butt with both hands, you can’t find it with eight
    7 Burn no bridge before its time

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