Monday, January 2, 2012

The Four Letter N-Word

A 14 year old client sat in my office and began our counseling session by describing his difficulty fitting in at school.  He felt unappreciated by family and peers, and unsatisfied with his social life.  He complained that he never got the attention of the “it-girl” in school, didn’t get invited to parties, and didn’t wear the latest fashions.  However, he admitted that he thought the “it-girl” was shallow, he didn’t like parties, and was just fine wearing his very regular looking jeans, plain sneakers, and Spiderman t-shirt.  In his family, he received no genuine praise for being the editor of his school's newsletter, while everyone flocked to see his sister’s dance team competitions. 
After assessing his situation, I was forced to give him a devastating diagnosis.  In my most clinical voice, I said “____, from what you’ve told me, it seems that you’re a nerd.  No one in high school wants to be a nerd, but the prognosis is good.  Things tend to get much better as you grow into adulthood, as long as you accept it and learn to live with it.  Try to own it and make it work for you as best as you can”.
I went further and explained to him that there are folks who have survived this condition and become quite successful.  He was delighted to hear that he’s in the same company as President Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, Chris Rock, and Mark Zuckerberg (creator of Facebook).  All of them are extremely knowledgeable and innovative in their respective fields.  These folks are so enthralled with what they do, that they seek perfection and have reached excellence as a result.  I would bet that none of them were in the “cool” crowd as teenagers. These are just the most popular nerds.  They happen to be in careers that are highly visible to the masses, or became so successful at their careers that fame was inevitable.  Most nerds are not concerned with popularity.  They tend to be introverts who excel in subjects that the general public find boring. 
Of course I didn’t have this exact conversation with my client, but working with him led me to explore the four letter n-word for a deeper, more positive meaning.  According to Wikipedia:
Nerd is a derogatory slang term for an intellectual but socially-impaired, perhaps obsessive person who spends inordinate amounts of time on unpopular or obscure pursuits, to the exclusion of more mainstream activities.
I found the Urban Dictionary definitions of nerd more interesting, as it states:
An 'individual', i.e. a person who does not conform to society's beliefs that all people should follow trends and do what their peers do.  A person who gains pleasure from amassing large quantities of knowledge about subjects often too detailed or complicated for most other people to be bothered with.  Often highly intelligent but socially rejected because of their obsession with a given subject, usually computers. 
Nerds exist covertly within the fabric of society, often choosing to 'nerd it up' in private or in the company of fellow nerds. It is for this reason they are feared the most - unlike geeks, who are easily identified, nerds can only be found out when casual conversation reaches a subject that they like nerding.
The myth is that nerds are goofy, unattractive, and have no social skills.  These are actually “geeks” (think Steve Urkel).  Nerds on the other hand, usually don’t stand out at all.  They tend to be unassuming, and go under the radar (think Peter Parker).  Nerds do have personality quirks, which make them different, but also make them exceptional at what they do.  Geeks are usually annoying, odd, and extremely awkward.  At the other end of the spectrum are the “cool” kids. The cool kids tend to follow the trends of popular culture, and live and die for peer acceptance. 
Often, I see brilliant youngsters fall victim to being too cool.  They underachieve academically, due to the pressure of fitting in to the social norms of popular culture.  Of course there are other factors involved, but I’ve seen coolness ruin more than a few young lives.  Eventually, I disclosed to my client that I am also a nerd. I came out in my late 20’s, after suppressing it since middle school (though many had suspected it).  My attempts to hide it only made it worse in some ways.  My “nerdiness would slip out in some of my coolest moments, nearly snatching away the social capital that I had worked so hard for.  In school, I often “dumbed down” in the company of my friends and stayed away from topics that interested me such as social justice and world events.  Even when engaging in topics of common interest such as hip hop and sports, I often took the conversation into deep waters, resulting in silence or ridicule.  I quickly learned to keep the content at a surface level.  I pretended to be cool for so long, that I actually became kinda cool.
My client and I also discussed how he has the double burden of being a Black nerd.  Being a Black nerd is harder to deal with in an era when Blackness is associated with everything cool such as sports and entertainment, while intellectual curiosity goes under-appreciated (at least in the inner-city).  I tried to help him value his personal qualities and strengths, and encouraged him to find others with similar interests.  I also acknowledged how hard it is to be 14 years old in general, and that his qualities will likely be valued more as an adult.  Nerds are responsible for a significant amount of world progress and social advancement.  It is also a four letter word that could lead to a six-figure income. 


  1. WOW J!!!!! I knew you were a smart, intelligent man (or "nerd" rather), but I didn't know you were also a brilliant writer!!! You captivated me--I was haning on to your every-word! Man, keep writing--counseling too, but definitely writing! Your Friend (the other "J")

  2. its johnnys friend from ralphs, very wonderful read bro... makes me be proud to be nerdy !

  3. Very nice I really liked this! Im Monique I also work with Johnny.

  4. At that difficult age even those that feign confidance are insecure and unable to articulate it. A passion for information is such an asset, dont we wish we could tell them what is really important and what is not. As we said that their age, "Adults just don't understand." It is so ironic and frustrating every day. And I manage to keep some distance from my work! Parenting must be so much harder....

  5. I too am a proud nerd who became pretty cool over time. I was the nerd who was always walking around with a book in her hand, with the big glasses, who never got in trouble. And now, as an adult, one of the things I relish the most is being comfortable in my own skin. Part of that of course is being proud of my lingering nerdhood!

    Thanks for sharing this! It is so beautifully written.

  6. Great article, I love how you are teaching him to love himself and his gifts. I would have loved to have you as a therapist when I was 14 years old.