There’s no definitive answer to where the term “nerd” came from. It seems to have developed in the early 1950s, but its first printed use can’t account for its current meaning – in Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo – and its first appearance in its current iteration – a 1951 Time article – gives no context for its origin.
While the history of the term may be lost to the eddies and fog of time, its continued usage is crystal clear. Beginning as an insult aimed at glasses-wearing engineer types, it took on a broader description through the 1980s, when it basically meant uncool – a yang to the jock’s yin.
In 1989, a fashion show entitled “Jocks and Nerds: Men’s Style in the Twentieth Century” made its way to New York, with the nerd’s attire comprised of “madras shirts” and “fifties glasses held together with tape at the bridge of the nose,” according to the New Yorker.
These days, we’re supposedly all nerds of a sort. Everyone is a science nerd or a video game nerd or a music nerd or any other sort of specialist. We’ve given up on being a collection of insights and feeling and decided that it’s probably acceptable to simply squeeze ourselves into a single box, letting the label on the front do most of the talking.
In that sense, the term “nerd” is basically meaningless – a synonym for “fan” or “enthusiast.” I’m happy to dispense with this cheapened understanding of the term and to advocate for real, honest to god, slide rule-wielding nerds.
The nerd you need
Words are important. What you call something has a lot to do with your perception of the thing, or person, in this case. If you’re called a “boss” – Hi, J.P. – it means something different than when you’re called a “line manager.”
If you’re a nerd, it has to mean something apart from just a person interested in a subject. It also means something different than being called a “geek” or a “dork.” Those terms may overlap in some instances – and may apply to the same person, in fact – but they don’t mean the same thing.
Patton Oswalt touched on this in a piece for Wired back in 2010. “I’m not a nerd,” he wrote. “I used to be one, back 30 years ago when nerd meant something.”
He argued that the classic conception of nerds was actually like the Japanese idea of an otaku – someone who has “obsessive, minute interests—especially stuff like anime or video games.” Your business, no matter how big or small, is already full of otakus.
I want to divide the world into two segments. On one side, well put the Oswalt nerds. The guy in your IT department with an inexplicable knowledge of Rush music – “Did you know that there’s only one song in the Gangster of Boats trilogy?”
This is the group I’m going to lump all the basketball nerds and Star Wars nerds and video game nerds into. This is just modern life. We’re all nerds of some popular sort.
What your business needs is a 1960s-esque, taped-up glasses-wearing, robot-tinkering nerd. A person that you catch playing number games in meetings. A person who tries to construct a trisected angle in their spare time.
You know a few of these folks on Facebook. The guy who builds the LED Star Wars Christmas displays or the woman who volunteers for the local afterschool Makers Group. These are the people who can speak in mathematics or quote chunks of the AP style guide.
Everyone needs a nerd
I want to double down on the idea of everyone needing a nerd. I want to be clear that I don’t mean, “every software company or consulting startup” – I mean everyone.
Sell used cars? You need a nerd. Plumbing business? Nerd up. Catering company for the local wedding scene? Guess what – nerd time.
There’s a twofold reason for this. First, concepts – numbers, grammar, physics, art, etc. – are more important to your business than you may think, and you might already value them highly. Second, you should expand the range of personalities in your business to its widest reasonable point. Let’s talk about concepts.
Concepts and ideas are the things that drive people and they’re the things that make businesses tick. That may seem like an odd claim but think about all the world’s most iconic brands. Apple, Google, Coke, the New York Times, and Facebook, are all good examples. These brands are valuable because they stand for concepts, and people love concepts.
Having a person on your staff that understands why concepts are interesting is incredibly meaningful. They’ll be the ones to see the value in building a community around an idea. They’ll help keep your business on track when it seems like your mission is slipping. They’ll be the ones to turn your plumbing business into a household name because they understand how people obsess over concepts.
That leads me right into the second point. Your staff’s outlook on life should overlap with your target customers’ world views in as many places as possible.
An anecdote. I worked for a web design company for a few years as a project manager/customer service guy/whatever else needed doing. One day, my boss and I went to pitch a new site to a local association.
He’s a nerd (art) and I’m just a business person. The pitch is going well and he’s showing off these great mock-ups and four of the five folks there love it. The association’s finance director is clearly underwhelmed. He finishes the pitch and she asks, “How does this new site help us?”
He’s just laid out all the nerdy stuff he had and it connected with the idea people in the audience. They bought into this concept. The finance director was also a nerd, but she wanted a business person to tell her something that wasn’t art. Honestly, I don’t think she noticed much difference between the ten mock-ups.
“We’ve fixed the site’s navigation, we’re going to change up the reservation system, and we can put payment right on the site,” I said. She smiled and said thank you and that was the end of it for her.
People of all stripes give you more points of overlap with your customers. People mock the old idea of a used-car salesman because that sweaty handshaking, weird combover guy didn’t overlap with a lot of customers. People hated going there.
Now, step into a car mega-mart and you can talk to the retired nurse, the gearhead, or the smiling handshake. Nerds are few and far between, and adding one to your team can increase your ability to connect with customers in ways you’ve never imagined.
Nerds teach you something new every day
This is pulled straight from an office-wide email a few years back.
I brought in ice trays so we can now all enjoy chilled beverages. (I’m from Boston, so no, it’s never too cold for iced coffee).
Feel free to take cubes as you need – just pleaseeee refill if you’re the last person to empty the tray – so we can all enjoy our iced beverages and never be without ice again!
Fun fact: hot water freezes faster than cold water.
“Oh that’s cool,” we all thought. “Iced drinks and a neat little fact.” Then, the physics nerd hooked the office up.
I don’t intend to start an ice cube war, but it’s not exactly true that hot water freezes faster than cold water. It’s called the Mpemba effect and it’s an effect which means it’s really just an observation, just like the Coriolis effect. It has to do with the density of the water at certain temperatures and specifically the hydrogen bonds so there is some truth in the observation, however in most non-lab settings it is rarely true and replication is rarely consistent.
We could always have a Capterra freeze-off to determine this officially, but expect me to say, “BAM! SCIENCE!” when the cold water freezes faster. 🙂
This. This is the reason that I will advocate for hiring nerds at every turn. It’s an awesome fact, it’s something no one else here knew (I’m guessing), and it’s indicative of exactly what you get out of having nerds around.
Final nerd thoughts
I’ll finish by saying this – everyone has a role to play. I’m advocating for adding nerds to your payroll because I think they add a lot to your business, but so does employing a guy who’s deep into skateboards or a woman who’s run the city dodgeball league for ten years.
People with passion are the best sort of people. Find those people and get them on your side. The more you know about the way people work and think, the more successful your business will be. Let me know about the nerds you’ve loved in the comments below or shoot me an email. Good luck.