On Under-Appreciated Nerdism and How to Get Past It

Nerd professions like; computer programming, electrical engineering, general science jobs and others, may not be as denigrated as other professions like that of the noble garbage man or awe inspiring septic waste engineer, but they certainly come with drawbacks.  The problem I often run into is a lack of appreciation and interest among friends and family.

Like everything else on the planet, you can blame those who came before you. Past generations have and still do herald the nerd arts as a form of magic the masses will never understand. It has been the goal of past generations to free the user of the details, so that they can just enjoy the things we create, and it's important that we do that. It's also important, not only for us professionals but also society, to understand that computers are not built with the mystical super powers of nerds, but with hard work and lots of typing.  Not everyone can or wants to become computer scientists or electrical engineers, but we should at least give them a basic understanding of how these things work.

A second problem and double edged sword is the crazy smart and out there nerd. The most common response I am presented with when telling people that I am a computer programmer, "You must be smart". Friends and family often don't want to take it any further than that. Many nerds love the accolades and are happy to live their lives being seen as the "smart guy" or "Computer Geek".  However, this title also comes with implications.  It makes the bearer often seem inaccessible and unapproachable.  It gives people the impression that your job is not hard. I don't know how many times I have heard people say, "It must be easy sitting at your desk all day". While it's not a physically taxing profession, it is often mentally exhausting.  I come home from a hard day at work as eager to relax and enjoy my leisure time as much as anyone else on the planet.  When you work in the intellectual professions people don't care what you do. 90% of people that ask me what I do stop listening as soon as I mention computer programming. I assume they are either not interested in computers or feel like they won't understand what I'm talking about, thanks again to the "Magic Men" idea. This can be frustrating at times, I will spend a significant portion of my time creating something that I am proud of, and I'm the only one that cares. I would love to be able to share my work and have it appreciated liked a painting, photograph, or finely crafted good. 

To solve this problem I have employed several methodologies. First is reassuring people that it's not that difficult to understand.  Give a few words of encouragement for people that are terrified of looking like dolts for not understanding what you do. Secondly, I explain what I am doing in an easy to understand metaphor. Of course your mom isn't going to know what you’re saying if you tell her that you’re using mysql to create database for your World of Warcraft guild. How about, "I'm creating a way to store lots of information for a group of my friends that play a popular game. It's kind of like a filing a cabinet we can pull statistics from, but on the internet".  For the love of all that is holy, have a little sympathy for the people in your life, they are not idiots. This stuff can be scary and hard to understand. 

This brings me back to the "Magic". The general populous does not understand what we do therefore we are unable to share it with them. Most people understand how a painting is created the talent required, the materials that go into, and what is good or bad. Most professions are based on things that are tangible and have been around for hundreds or even thousands of years.  Computer science and most high tech jobs have been around just over 60 years and have only existed as common practice for 20 - 30 years.  This profession might not be truly understandable for the masses for another fifty to a hundred years, and we nerds will have to deal with it.

Often even people with a high propensity for understanding my interests don't give a damn. After thinking about a while, I have decided that I shouldn't expect them too. Instead I have developed a strategy of moving more towards them.  I learn the basics of the things people are talking about. I don't watch football and I don't even like football, unless it's my college go beavers, but I take the time every other week or so to catch up on what’s going on in the football world.  I have a small idea of what players and teams are in the news, and general understanding of what people find interesting.  This small amount of effort and knowledge have allowed me to connect with the people I am around most often, and gives them a way to connect with me.  It has opened up a lot of avenues and allowed people to gain a better understanding of who I am. It doesn't matter what you learn as long as the people around you find it interesting and want to have a discussion about it.  This small jumping off point leads to other conversations about totally different things and helps you to find things you share in common.

If you are nerd that is feeling alienated and a bit underappreciated, I feel your pain. You have had a legacy of mighty jerk bags evangelizing the nerd arts as some sort of black magic for the last 50 years, your vocation and interests are on the fringes of society, and most people just don't get you. To unwind preconceived notions and dispel the myths of our arts try explaining what it is we do and why people should care.  If that doesn't work, take up a new hobby that those around you can relate to, and DON'T treat people like morons for not understanding you.

Good luck and nerd speed.

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