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Bookeater: Go geek

Literary columnist Jennifer Bennett on embracing geekdom

Published Nov. 8, 2012

I read Russian literature for fun. I enjoy translating Ciceronian Latin. I’m obsessed with Tolkien. I’ve never said, “I hate math.” I can name more than five comic book characters, and I can give you a million reasons why Marvel is better than DC. I’m geeky, I’m proud and I’m not alone.

Books such as Alexandra Robbins’ “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School” and David Anderegg’s “Nerds: How Dorks, Dweebs, Techies, and Trekkies Can Save America” highlight the benefits of being … different.

They argue that traits that get you branded as geeky or weird in middle and high school end up helping you as an adult. I agree.

Anderegg’s book focuses on what designates someone as a geek, why kids try to avoid that label and why geekiness is ultimately a pretty desirable trait. Being branded a geek can be as simple as liking science or using your computer for more than checking Facebook.

Basically, according to Anderegg, the difference between geeks and everyone else boils down to “smart people can’t also be sexy, and sexy people can’t also be smart.” There are plenty of famous individuals out there who disprove this (such as Harvard-educated actress Natalie Portman and straight-A student/NFL star Peyton Manning), but the stereotype persists. Being pretty doesn’t make you stupid, and being ugly doesn’t make you smart.

Robbins’ book follows seven individuals as they navigate high school without sacrificing their individuality. Additionally, Robbins interviews hundreds of formerly teased geeks about their adult lives — and get this: they all say that the qualities their middle school peers found weird are the very qualities that make them successful. Robbins uses quirk theory to explain this phenomenon: differences (“quirks”) that lead to exclusion in adolescence end up being extremely useful in adulthood. For example, teenage isolation turned one woman into a “shrewd people observer,” leading to success as a celebrity publicist. Love of literature turned another friend into a publishing superstar.

Anderegg and Robbins both argue for examining our unconscious assumptions about geekiness. Qualities like attention to detail and the ability to remember massive amounts of information on a subject — hallmarks of traditional geekiness — can actually lead to professional success. Having original ideas and being able to stand out from the crowd are also boons. What makes companies like Amazon, Apple, Chipotle and HBO so special? It’s their ability to be innovative that leads to their commercial success.

Anderegg pays special attention to national competitiveness and its interaction with geek/nerd labeling. Elementary and middle school students learn that being a nerd is bad. They learn that liking math and science makes you a nerd. They stop wanting to learn about math and science, even if they’re actually good at those subjects. The U.S. then loses ground in science, technology, math and engineering to other countries. Anderegg argues that to reverse this trend, students in the U.S. need to be taught that it’s OK to excel in science and math. For that to happen, “nerd” needs to stop being used as an insult. Anderegg wants people to realize that there’s nothing wrong with being smart and pursuing your interests, even if they’re a little off the beaten path.

I love all of my “geeky” qualities. My all-consuming passion for causes I believe in led me to my campus work and summer internship with Autism Speaks. My obsession with obscure details led me to study law. My reverence for all things educational led me here to MU. Sure, I got picked on for some of these things when I was younger — I was teased for caring too much and actually enjoying going to school. Now, all of the things that used to make me feel like an outsider are helping me to build my life into what I want it to be. Does the future really belong to the geeks? Given the popularity of technology and the high pay for the kinds of jobs that require many years of study (such as medicine and engineering), I’d agree with Robbins and Anderegg that it does.

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