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Reblogged:Individuation and Second-Handedness

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It's an old essay, but quite thought-provoking. Venture capitalist Paul Graham considers why it is that "nerds" are so unpopular in middle school and high school. The below excerpt, from about midway through, gives an indication of what to expect, but the whole thing deserves a read.

Because I didn't fit into this world, I thought that something must be wrong with me. I didn't realize that the reason we nerds didn't fit in was that in some ways we were a step ahead. We were already thinking about the kind of things that matter in the real world, instead of spending all our time playing an exacting but mostly pointless game like the others.

We were a bit like an adult would be if he were thrust back into middle school. He wouldn't know the right clothes to wear, the right music to like, the right slang to use. He'd seem to the kids a complete alien. The thing is, he'd know enough not to care what they thought. We had no such confidence.

A lot of people seem to think it's good for smart kids to be thrown together with "normal" kids at this stage of their lives. Perhaps. But in at least some cases the reason the nerds don't fit in really is that everyone else is crazy. I remember sitting in the audience at a "pep rally" at my high school, watching as the cheerleaders threw an effigy of an opposing player into the audience to be torn to pieces. I felt like an explorer witnessing some bizarre tribal ritual. [bold added]
Much of this will remind anyone familiar with Ayn Rand of her concept of second-handers, and rightfully so. And many of these might be tempted, as I was at first, to indict the state of our culture and government schools for this entirely. (It's not entirely to blame, but as Graham indicates, it deserves the lion's share.) That said, I think some aspects of the phenomenon stem from the transition any child has to make from dependence on his parents to independent adulthood. As a parent, I am glad to have encountered this piece again, and will keep it in mind, now that I am a parent.

-- CAV

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A lot of good stuff in there. I respect Paul Graham, even though like so many in the valley he's into many of the practical aspects of objectivism, but not so much the theoretical.

I don't believe much in schools anymore, and the popularity contest is just another reminder of that. I think it's a huge waste of time. People should learn real skills instead.

Do they learn about cash flow in shcools? Balance sheets? Income statements? No.

How to evaluate the value of a business? No.

How to build a business? No.

How to do accounting? No.

Do they learn what attributes to look for in a potential spouse? What are the attributes that suggest that a person will be successful later? How can you make yourself an attractive partner? No.

How to set life-goals and achieve them? No.

How to make yourself happy and successful? No.


I talked with one kid. He was learning how the trees were procreating. Others are learning about religions. He didn't learn how he could succeed genetically, but how the trees were doing it.

Maybe the whole school system is dated. It was invented hundreds of years ago, and have now come to dominate childhood for most people all over the world. I know I regret wasting so many years doing something so useless. The best years of learning and fun wasted.

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From about a quarter of the way into the linked article "Why Nerds are Unpopular"

I don't mean to suggest they do this consciously. Some of them truly are little Machiavellis, but what I really mean here is that teenagers are always on duty as conformists.

For example, teenage kids pay a great deal of attention to clothes. They don't consciously dress to be popular. They dress to look good. But to who? To the other kids. Other kids' opinions become their definition of right, not just for clothes, but for almost everything they do, right down to the way they walk. And so every effort they make to do things "right" is also, consciously or not, an effort to be more popular.

Nerds don't realize this. They don't realize that it takes work to be popular. In general, people outside some very demanding field don't realize the extent to which success depends on constant (though often unconscious) effort. For example, most people seem to consider the ability to draw as some kind of innate quality, like being tall. In fact, most people who "can draw" like drawing, and have spent many hours doing it; that's why they're good at it. Likewise, popular isn't just something you are or you aren't, but something you make yourself.

So why isn't Objectivism popular?

For starters, Objectivism isn't a popularity contest. Demanding fields are popular. Medicine, for instance. Relief for the poor. Egalitarianism. The success in these fields rely on the unconscious acceptance of the bromides put forth to promote them. Note the switch from "the ability to draw" to those who "can draw" as "having spent many hours doing it."

Yet incoming questions are often asked: If Objectivism is true, why isn't it more widely embraced in the world? Or: Objectivism is true, but in order to implement it, a new existential Atlantis need be erected in place of

the city of Atlantis or the Garden of Eden or some kingdom of perfection, always behind us. The root of that legend exists, not in the past of the race, but in the past of every man. You still retain a sense—not as firm as a memory, but diffused like the pain of hopeless longing—that somewhere in the starting years of your childhood, before you had learned to submit, to absorb the terror of unreason and to doubt the value of your mind, you had known a radiant state of existence, you had known the independence of a rational consciousness facing an open universe. That is the paradise which you have lost, which you seek—which is yours for the taking.

Yes, the current educational system undermines making such a paradise yours for the taking. But if you have been spared the irrevocable damage from such a program of indoctrination, don't you owe it to yourself to discover this for yourself? After all, in terms of essentials and absolutes, the psychological price of admission to Atlantis is a precondition of the possibility of entering it existentially.

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