Before we start, I shan’t use “nice guy” without defining it first: a “nice guy” is man whose sexual intentions are focused on love and relationships, with no interest in high-frequency promiscuity or social dominance. A nice guy is one who treats others as he would like to be treated, in friendships as well as in dating. A “nice guy” need not be milquetoast or weak; in fact, most “nice guys” aren’t.
Paul Graham, a celebrity in the technology/startup community, is known for his brilliant essays on a wide variety of topics. (However, he is completely wrong about ML and static typing. Haskell is the pwn sauce.) Among them is “Why Nerds Are Unpopular“. Although long, I recommend reading it in full. The ideas central to his essay apply to the current dating and sexual market, so I’m posting excerpts, with commentary, here.
I know a lot of people who were nerds in school, and they all tell the same story: there is a strong correlation between being smart and being a nerd, and an even stronger inverse correlation between being a nerd and being popular. Being smart seems to make you unpopular.
Why? To someone in school now, that may seem an odd question to ask. The mere fact is so overwhelming that it may seem strange to imagine that it could be any other way. But it could. Being smart doesn’t make you an outcast in elementary school. Nor does it harm you in the real world. Nor, as far as I can tell, is the problem so bad in most other countries. But in a typical American secondary school, being smart is likely to make your life difficult. Why? […]
In the schools I went to, being smart just didn’t matter much. Kids didn’t admire it or despise it. All other things being equal, they would have preferred to be on the smart side of average rather than the dumb side, but intelligence counted far less than, say, physical appearance, charisma, or athletic ability.
So if intelligence in itself is not a factor in popularity, why are smart kids so consistently unpopular? The answer, I think, is that they don’t really want to be popular.
If someone had told me that at the time, I would have laughed at him. Being unpopular in school makes kids miserable, some of them so miserable that they commit suicide. Telling me that I didn’t want to be popular would have seemed like telling someone dying of thirst in a desert that he didn’t want a glass of water. Of course I wanted to be popular.
But in fact I didn’t, not enough. There was something else I wanted more: to be smart. Not simply to do well in school, though that counted for something, but to design beautiful rockets, or to write well, or to understand how to program computers. In general, to make great things. […]
Nerds serve two masters. They want to be popular, certainly, but they want even more to be smart. And popularity is not something you can do in your spare time, not in the fiercely competitive environment of an American secondary school. (All emphasis mine.)
Paul’s thesis, which I consider correct, is that smart high school students aren’t popular because they don’t work hard enough at being so. I tend to agree. I wouldn’t say that nerds are unpopular. They’re respected but generally ignored, never popular and viewed as almost asexual. They get picked on by a few people, but most people are too wrapped up in their own concerns to bother the nerds. A nerd who tries very hard to be popular will be struck down, for punching above his weight, but no one is out to pick on him just because he’s smart.
If you don’t work hard to be popular in high school, you probably won’t be. You may be respected and have good friends, but you won’t reach the A-list. Likewise, if you don’t strive for psychosocial dominance, or “alpha” status on the dating market, you won’t have it. Here we confront the plight of the “nice guy” or “beta male”: too invested in higher interests– love, work, art, spirituality– to enter the idiotic “alpha” contest with force, he makes an insufficient entrance or none at all. He lacks “game”.
[…] I wonder if anyone in the world works harder at anything than American school kids work at popularity. Navy SEALs and neurosurgery residents seem slackers by comparison. They occasionally take vacations; some even have hobbies. An American teenager may work at being popular every waking hour, 365 days a year.
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.
The conformity is very similar to what we see in combat dating, defined as dating in which the assertion and assessment of social status take priority over growing to know, and eventually love, another person. Men want to bed the “objective HB9” because other guys desire her, so she’s a challenge. Women want the socially dominant badboy whom other girls want (preselection). In both cases, they’re operating against their own interests. The runner-up “beta”, getting one-tenth the attention, is often just as attractive, more interesting, and better suited for a long-term relationship. To pursue him or her would be a more intelligent decision, but one that is rarely made.
For betas to pursue each other would be the logical decision, but they generally lack the competence to find each other in the modern dating market. Beta males are very unskilled at discerning actual nerdy women from garden-variety bubbly/slutty girls who’ve co-opted the “quirky” look and aura. Beta females are shy and rarely make any approaches.
So far I’ve been finessing the relationship between smart and nerd, using them as if they were interchangeable. In fact it’s only the context that makes them so. A nerd is someone who isn’t socially adept enough. But “enough” depends on where you are. In a typical American school, standards for coolness are so high (or at least, so specific) that you don’t have to be especially awkward to look awkward by comparison.
This sounds exactly like the plight of the beta male. His social skills are average or better– more than enough to excel in the workplace, make friends, and hold a family together. Yet, he lacks a specialized and highly superficial set of social skills, and looks like a doofus (in comparison to the “suave” men) when he tries to get a date.
Around the age of eleven, though, kids seem to start treating their family as a day job. They create a new world among themselves, and standing in this world is what matters, not standing in their family. Indeed, being in trouble in their family can win them points in the world they care about.
The problem is, the world these kids create for themselves is at first a very crude one. If you leave a bunch of eleven-year-olds to their own devices, what you get is Lord of the Flies. Like a lot of American kids, I read this book in school. Presumably it was not a coincidence. Presumably someone wanted to point out to us that we were savages, and that we had made ourselves a cruel and stupid world. This was too subtle for me. While the book seemed entirely believable, I didn’t get the additional message. I wish they had just told us outright that we were savages and our world was stupid.
Kids are supposed to grow up, and adolescent cruelty should end. Should. Casual sex is an adolescent behavior, not an adult one. So is status-obsessed dating. The rise of “hookup culture” and combat dating among young urban professionals are an example of juvenilization, and the world they’ve spawned is, in fact, “cruel and stupid”. Americans are refusing to grow up, even in their 20s and 30s.
Public school teachers are in much the same position as prison wardens. Wardens’ main concern is to keep the prisoners on the premises. They also need to keep them fed, and as far as possible prevent them from killing one another. Beyond that, they want to have as little to do with the prisoners as possible, so they leave them to create whatever social organization they want. From what I’ve read, the society that the prisoners create is warped, savage, and pervasive, and it is no fun to be at the bottom of it.
In outline, it was the same at the schools I went to. The most important thing was to stay on the premises. While there, the authorities fed you, prevented overt violence, and made some effort to teach you something. But beyond that they didn’t want to have too much to do with the kids. Like prison wardens, the teachers mostly left us to ourselves. And, like prisoners, the culture we created was barbaric.
Why is the real world more hospitable to nerds? It might seem that the answer is simply that it’s populated by adults, who are too mature to pick on one another. But I don’t think this is true. Adults in prison certainly pick on one another. And so, apparently, do society wives; in some parts of Manhattan, life for women sounds like a continuation of high school, with all the same petty intrigues.
High school inherits its culture from the notion of an educational “factory”, and has been slow to deviate from this stencil due to the sleepy, gradual nature of suburban life. Prisons are institutions whose purpose is to confine and punish. Socialites have empty, pointless lives. All of the environments thus created are permissive but disempowering— you can do almost anything, but nothing you do matters– and in such situations, people become cruel and perverse. Respect fades and cruelty becomes common. This was observed most poignantly in Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. Well-adjusted college students were placed into a makeshift prison culture and assigned roles of authority or submission. The experiment was terminated early because they were treating each other so badly.
The battleground of casual sex and combat dating, where men and women refuse to treat each other with basic respect, is a similar place: permissive but disempowering. You can fuck 50 people per year if you want, but you’ll be laughed at and treated as “clingy” if you strive for a serious relationship; you’re not even supposed, many advice-givers assert, to return calls! Most well-adjusted people do not want to be in this game, but there seems to be no alternative. One can abstain from casual sex, as I do, but avoiding combat dating is harder. Even I, “nice guy” of the Roissy-sphere, have picked up an abominable array of asshole dating habits over the years.
I think the important thing about the real world is not that it’s populated by adults, but that it’s very large, and the things you do have real effects. (Emphasis mine.) That’s what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.
When the things you do have real effects, it’s no longer enough just to be pleasing. It starts to be important to get the right answers, and that’s where nerds show to advantage. Bill Gates will of course come to mind. Though notoriously lacking in social skills, he gets the right answers, at least as measured in revenue.
In the romantic sphere, the much-needed “real effects” are love– one of the most beautiful emotions we can experience– the heights of sexual experience that can only be achieved with a loving partner, and family formation. These give meaning to dating, romantic relationships, and sexuality. Without them, all of these are utterly meaningless. So, whatever happened to the “adult world” in which dating and sex were geared toward these ends? Why are we, the urban 20- and 30-somethings, possibly the richest and smartest generational subculture in history, completely unable to get ourselves out of a high-school-esque, “game”-ridden, sexual-marketplace hell? I can’t answer that. I wish I knew.
As a thirteen-year-old kid, I didn’t have much more experience of the world than what I saw immediately around me. The warped little world we lived in was, I thought, the world. The world seemed cruel and boring, and I’m not sure which was worse.
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.
Many 20- to 35-year-old betas feel the exact same way about modern dating. Unfortunately, the “real world” of love and marriage we had hoped to graduate into is being depopulated rapidly. Our generation has spent too much time learning “game” and too little time building the relational skills necessary to form relationships based on (in this order, with each supporting its predecessors and successors) respect, friendship, admiration, love, and then sex and (optionally) family formation.
And as for the schools, they were just holding pens within this fake world. Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.
What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren’t told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they’re called misfits.
We also have a “caste of giants” in urban combat dating. We call them “alpha males” or “pickup artists”. Instead of chasing a football, which at least counts as physical exercise, they develop a set of domain-specific social skills suited to a purpose that, thirty years ago, would be found extremely distasteful.
In almost any group of people you’ll find hierarchy. When groups of adults form in the real world, it’s generally for some common purpose, and the leaders end up being those who are best at it. The problem with most schools is, they have no purpose. But hierarchy there must be. And so the kids make one out of nothing.
We have a phrase to describe what happens when rankings have to be created without any meaningful criteria. We say that the situation degenerates into a popularity contest. And that’s exactly what happens in most American schools. Instead of depending on some real test, one’s rank depends mostly on one’s ability to increase one’s rank. It’s like the court of Louis XIV. There is no external opponent, so the kids become one another’s opponents. (Emphasis mine.)
I think it’s obvious how this applies to “game”. The single strongest determinant of whether a modern, urban woman will date or sleep with a man is if he has learned the superficial and manipulative skills necessary to get a woman to sleep with him. Modern women are actually consciously attracted to men with game, because it’s a signal of preselection, superficial sociosexual confidence, and experience. None of these would matter in the context of a loving relationship that develops over time.
The mediocrity of American public schools has worse consequences than just making kids unhappy for six years. It breeds a rebelliousness that actively drives kids away from the things they’re supposed to be learning.
Rebellion out of frustration? Yes. As much enjoyment as I get from bashing women and their behavior on the internet, I’d rather be in the arms of one.
And– shit, man– the fact that we’ve had an adult Columbine recently makes even more sense.
I mistrusted words like “character” and “integrity” because they had been so debased by adults. As they were used then, these words all seemed to mean the same thing: obedience. The kids who got praised for these qualities tended to be at best dull-witted prize bulls, and at worst facile schmoozers. If that was what character and integrity were, I wanted no part of them.
If life seems awful to kids, it’s neither because hormones are turning you all into monsters (as your parents believe), nor because life actually is awful (as you believe). It’s because the adults, who no longer have any economic use for you, have abandoned you to spend years cooped up together with nothing real to do. Any society of that type is awful to live in. You don’t have to look any further to explain why teenage kids are unhappy.
Likewise, I disagree with the Roissy-ite misogynists who claim that all men are promiscuous, superficial assholes, and that women are alpha-seeking and amoral sluts. Human “nature” is to be infinitely flexible and adaptable, intelligent even beyond our own comprehension. Casual sex and combat dating have created a horrendous sexual environment but we, as humans, don’t have to be this way. A lot of us don’t want to be like this, and are desperately trying to find a way out.
I’ve said some harsh things in this essay, but really the thesis is an optimistic one– that several problems we take for granted are in fact not insoluble after all. Teenage kids are not inherently unhappy monsters. That should be encouraging news to kids and adults both.
Amen, Paul. I think the same holds true of yuppies in their 20s. Many of us want to treat each other better, and to be treated better, and eventually to find love. Unfortunately, the normal method of achieving this– a patient dating process based on companionship and admiration, as opposed to the more modern one driven by sexual impulsiveness and obsessions over social status– is rapidly fading from the scene. People don’t even know how to do it anymore.
Our “nature” can be improved, and we can graduate to a “real world” better than the hell we’ve created, but we face two challenges that disaffected high schoolers don’t. First, unlike high school students, we have no one to blame. It’s not our bosses or our parents or even pop-culture that created this execrable sociosexual environment. It’s us. It’s men who use “game” and women who fall for it. It’s all the people out there– men and women, myself not excluded– who’ve made stupid dating and sexual choices in the past, rewarded bad behavior, and polluted the environment with a mean spirit and bitterness.
Second, high school has a defined end. Traditionally, graduating from high school and attending college meant that one would be entering an environment that encouraged and nurtured intellectualism, growth, and refinement. (Once “hookup culture” crept into the college scene, college’s social environment became an extension of high school.) The “real world”, as Graham defines it, begins when high school and its phony social contests end. Unfortunately, major cities nurture a dating environment that refuses to advance beyond adolescence. When the majority of young professionals are playing the combat dating game, it’s almost impossible to avoid it. Many of us desperately want to evolve into some notion of the “real world”, where things that actually matter (e.g. love, integrity, patience) are valued, but we fail to do so. Game über alles.
There’s hope. As dismal as Manhattan’s dating environment may seem, it’s not necessarily destined to remain this way forever. Despite the doom-peddlers’ extremely negative take on human nature– especially female human nature– I think we are capable of something much better than what exists. In fact, with sufficient good will and intelligence, we can create a better dating environment than any that has ever existed. (About half of the women I’ve dated I would not have been able to legally marry, in some U.S. states, before 1967.)
As adults, we don’t turn on our close friends when they lose their jobs or get sick, and we don’t stuff people in lockers at the workplace. Even in actual high school, at least as I remember it, peoples’ behavior wasn’t 1/50 as evil as Hollywood depictions of high school let me to expect– and I was a nerd at the 30th-percentile of popularity. So I don’t believe there’s anything natural or inevitable about an opposite-sex landscape characterized by adolescent behaviors like casual sex and combat dating, and I think we, as humans, can do a whole lot better.