Become Nerdsniped | #220
April 22nd, 2023: Greetings from Austin! I hit a fun milestone this week, hitting 20k copies of my book sold across all platforms. It took nearly a year to hit 10k and then only 97 days to hit the next 10k. This is why a publisher was trying to acquire my book, which I wrote about last week.
I expect it may slow a bit but I really don’t even know what to expect with the book. It feels too good to be true 🤯
#1 When was the last time you were nerdsniped?
To be “nerdnisped” is to lose yourself in something so fascinating that you stop paying attention to things around you. I am not certain but the origins of this term but it seems to date to this xkcd comic which presents a dramatic case of snipedness.
More colloquially, this term is used online to signal the feeling someone gets when they discover something so interesting that they need to spend time diving down a rabbit hole of internet-supported nerdiness.
And now since we are all nerdsniped, let’s go down an AI-powered rabbit hole of our own to learn more about these lobsters:
The 60% right-handed / 40% left-handed split is pretty interesting. This makes me think about Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene and think that there must be some survival reason for this.
The great thing about these new chat AI apps (below is Google Bard) is that it’s a little more fun and easy than clicking throughout the internet to find answers.
You can just keep asking questions:
Hmm so maybe it has something to do with fighting and rates of survival or it could have to do with the direction that their prey moves?
I could go on and on but you get the point.
Hopefully going down this kind of rabbit hole is familiar to you. If not, you are missing out on one of the most joyous parts of being human, something Richard Feynman called, “the joy of finding things out.”
The internet has made this easier. At first with encyclopedias on CD-Roms, then with Google searches and magical places like Wikipedia. NowAI chatbots make these rabbit holes possible for everyone.
The Upsides To Useless Knowledge
It’s a great time to be alive for people with curiosity that cannot be tamed. But I sense that far too few people actually ever become nerdsniped by anything in the modern world. One reason is that distraction increased more rapidly than the nerdsnipeable information. You have to first filter and curate to even get exposed to the nerdier and deeper information. A deep dive into the roman empire is hard to maintain when the latest political outrage, murder mystery, missing plane, or crisis is begging you to divert your attention.
For me, I’ve been nerdsniped by our relationship with work and why it is so hard for so many otherwise intelligent people to redirect their lives when that relationship goes awry. I really can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve read dozens of books about it, thousands of essays, had hundreds of conversations, and like to think about it on long walks. It’s fun and it’s led to me writing a book and sharing ideas that people seem to like, which has only helped me take my nerdsnipery deeper.
We live in a world that on its surface looks down upon this kind of rabbit hole chasing. We value “useful knowledge,” the kind that is legible on a resume and helps you land a good salary. This is opposed to what Bertrand Russell once called “useless knowledge”:
Throughout the last hundred and fifty years, men have questioned more and more vigorously the value of “useless” knowledge, and have come increasingly to believe that the only knowledge worth having is that which is applicable to some part of the economic life of the community.
He wrote that in the 1930s and in the last 100 years, we’ve probably only leaned further away from useless knowledge:
Does remembering a beautifully-written line of Shakespeare’s get us a brand new Mercedes? Does it help to highlight the ills of capitalism, or get us to the top of the social hierarchy? I’m afraid not.
David Perell seemed to be channeling similar thoughts this week when he was writing about the value of studying “useless” majors like literature or philosophy.
The treasures of the liberal arts lie not in financial riches, but rather in the wealth that comes with depth and wisdom — the stuff of a life well-lived. That we belittle such a worthy endeavor as a “useless major” and a “colossal waste of time” should make us wonder what’s gone wrong.
When we only elevate the functional, we might find financial security but we cheapen life. And when everyone does it, we collectively forget that there is a different way of being at all.
Report Card Mode seems to be one of the most consistently nerdsniped people I’ve run across. This is why people love his writing. While reading his stuff, people think how the hell could someone go this deep on this topic? And then again across dozens of topics.
How does he do it? In his telling, he doesn't know any other way to be:
Which isn’t to say I didn’t work hard at my learning at all. I just worked hard in the sense of nerding out over topics that I actually enjoyed, mostly by reading far beyond and outside of the syllabus on topics I got nerdsniped by, so that I learned what was in the syllabus almost in passing. I almost never encountered a subject I couldn’t get nerdsniped by. In college and grad school, this pattern mostly continued, though I of course discovered more subjects I had very little aptitude for and didn’t get nerdsniped by. I eventually got promoted to the level of my academic mediocrity, never having learned to work hard for grades along the way. This feels a bit tragic to me now.
He contrasts this with “report card mode” which is what many of me and you likely excelled at for most of our lives and are still trying to recover from:
Solving for a good report card is very different from surrendering to a nerdy impulse. When you get nerdsniped by an idea, you double down on things that come naturally to you and ignore everything else. When you solve for a good report card, you strive to do well even on things that don’t come naturally to you, and learn to resist the temptation to spend all your time on things you get nerdy pleasure from. This is an important life skill I regret never acquiring.
It’s interesting to hear someone regret not having developed this ability. For me, my report card skills were incredibly overdeveloped. Maybe yours too. The whole meta-theme of my book is about how I learned to detach from report card mode.
But Venkat’s wish that he had developed this skill makes sense. Report card mode is the de facto mode of the world and you should only ignore it at your peril. It can be incredibly useful when you need to do the final 10% of a project, navigate modern bureaucracies, or go after some goal that seems attainable and worthwhile (like improving your health).
I like how he contrasts the two modes as integrative vs. disintegrative experiences:
Being nerdsniped and doubling down on a natural aptitude is an integrative experience. It makes you cohere more strongly, and develop a more clearly defined identity and personality. With each nerdy fugue, you become a truer version of who you were meant to be. This feels exhilarating. Eventually you might even ignite into a sun.
Studying for a good report card on the other hand is fundamentally a disintegrative experience. It tears you down the way a drill sergeant tears new basic training cadets down. It force fits you into the Procrustean bed of an external set of priorities, rather than letting you cohere into your natural shape and size according to an inner logic of aptitudes.
To be nerdsniped is to fully and deeply connect with yourself. This is what Erich Fromm called “creative union,” something he argued was a pathway to experiencing love.
This is too rare in today’s world and our culture has lost collective wisdom about how to find such states. Not a single teacher or adult ever gave me the advice to follow my curiosity above other things. Instead, everything was about mastering report card mode. Don’t quit, learn how to put up with the shittiness. Learn how to struggle with boring topics for good grades. Pick a good major so that you get a good starting salary. I’m not mad about any of this and I fully embraced it myself. I just wish someone had shown me a portal to a different way of being.
In the first couple of years after quitting my job I found this state. I didn’t have the language or understanding of what I was experiencing at the time but it was exactly as Venkat describes: integrative. True. In the flow of life. It was and remains a delightful state of being. I honestly didn’t know you could work on things that interested you and I realized I am willing to give up a lot to be able to exist in that state more than most people.
I have a hard time relating to many people because of this these days. I am so fired up and excited about life. But many people are not like this, they are disintegrated from their own interests and when I ask the following questions, many people are more likely to become defensive than curious:
What fires you up?
Why not do more of that? (thing they are interested in)
What questions are you asking that others aren’t?
What are you actively learning and how?
On a scale of zero to nerdsniped, where would you rate yourself?
I suspect that the ability to become nerdsniped in adulthood is one of the most important things to develop in today’s world and will likely lead to more upside on a personal level and even financial level over the long term than anything else.
But of course, I can’t prove it. You’ll just have to find out.
Maybe useless knowledge is useless. But I suspect it has always been worthwhile.
Thanks For Reading!
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