“in defence of nerds”

The year is 1994. I am 21 years-old, and though I’m convinced I’m so mature, I’m having a hard time finding my way out of a 10×10 room with one door and a map. I’m struggling to figure out who I am, what’s important to me, and what I’m going to do with my life. I’ve spent some time working for NewTek (making really embarrassing videos), and while I’m very proud of the work I’ve contributed to the Video Toaster 4000, something just doesn’t feel exactly right in my life. I’m not sure I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

I’m adrift in a sea of post-teenage confusion, and I’m profoundly immature. Luckily, I am self-aware enough to know how little I know, so I’ve been attempting to educate myself about the world. I’ve been reading philosophy books, because that seems like something smart, insightful people do … but I’ve gotten wrapped up in Beyond Good and Evil and become something of an obnoxious fucking intellectual.

I will eventually grow out of it, but at this moment, in 1994, I’m dealing with the aftermath of being this guy for my entire life to this point, and it isn’t easy. In fact, it’s pretty goddamn painful, but I don’t know how to talk about it or deal with it, so I project this aura of overconfidence that, in retrospect, is pretty embarrassing.

Yet something important happens at this moment in 1994, and it happens on a Star Trek cruise in Alaska. It will change my life, set me on a long and meandering course out of the sea of uncertainty and toward the man I will eventually become. It happens because I find out I am expected to perform with the other actors on the cruse in a talent show, and I am forced to confront the reality that I don’t have any talents beyond acting, and I’m not sure I’m even very good at that.

So I take a walk around the deck of this ship, and instead of pretending to be deep in thought like usual, I actually think. I really think about who I am and what’s important to me, and wonder what I can contribute to this talent show. Honestly? I’m terrified. I feel like a fraud. I wonder if there’s a way I can just sneak out of this thing and not be part of it. Then I remember that I’m on a boat and the water around me is very cold. I keep walking past Star Trek fans — very nice people, every last one of them — and forcing a smile, with some occasional small talk. I’m afraid someone will ask me what my plans are for the talent show, but nobody does.

I don’t remember exactly how I got there, but I eventually found myself alone in the ship’s library. It was quiet, peaceful. I sat in a comfortable chair and looked out the window at the breathtaking Alaskan coastline.

What am I going to do? How can I do anything as entertaining as the other actors? René Auberjonois is going to sing a song from Beauty and the Beast, for fuck’s sake! I hate myself! Why did I leave Star Trek? Why did I do Liar’s Club? Why did I do The Curse? Why can’t I do something better than Stand By Me? Why aren’t I famous and successful? Why am I living in Kansas instead of LA? What am I doing with my life?

I sat there for a long time, wallowing in self pity and self loathing, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, I had an idea.

I write stories from time to time, and they’re not all that bad. Maybe I could write an essay… 

I jumped out of the chair, grabbed a few sheets of paper from an empty table nearby, and wrote across the top of it:

In Defence of Nerds by Wil Wheaton

I started where all 21 year-olds who think they’re clever and insightful start an essay: a dictionary definition.

Nerd – (nurd) n. slang. 1. a stupid, irritating, ineffectual or unattractive person.

Yep, that’s me.

I continued to write for three pages, philosophically pontificating the titular defense (oh, excuse me, I’m very cultured so I use the British spelling – defence) of nerds. What I didn’t know at the time and didn’t realize until just now is that I was writing both a defense and defiant declaration of who I was. For three pages, I defined myself by the things that were important to me — being a nerd and loving nerd things — instead of allowing myself to be defined by who I was — a former child actor who was struggling to find his ass with both hands.

When I finished writing, I felt pretty good about myself and what I’d written. I felt empowered. I felt a little less lame. The talent show I had been dreading couldn’t come soon enough, so I could take the stage and prove to the world that I was more than just a former child actor who had quit Star Trek and was now regretting it. (This may sound familiar to those of you who have read Just A Geek.)

I was on near the end of the program, if I remember correctly. I tucked my pages into my copy of Beyond Good and Evil (because, you see, I had to impress everyone with my deep understanding of Nietzsche, who was relevant to the essay, for, uh, reasons) and walked up onto the stage.

“I hate talent shows,” I began with self-deprecating humor, “because they remind me how singularly talented I actually am.”

Some laughter came out of the audience, and I finished introducing myself. I began reading my essay. I can’t recall specifically how the entire thing unfolded — it was almost 20 years ago, after all — but I do recall that it went well, that the audience enjoyed it.

I ended with: “…I will remind my critics that Albert Einsten, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Gates are all nerds and non-conformists.” I paused dramatically. “My name is Wil Wheaton  – and I am a Nerd.”

In my memory, which I want to make extremely clear is not entirely reliable, the audience went crazy with applause, even though I’d had the audacity to compare myself to Einstein, Hawking, and Gates. Ah, the blind arrogance and surety of the 21 year-old philosopher, right?

In the years that followed, I’d occasionally think back to this day in 1994 when I wrote and performed something in public for the first time. I would wonder if it was as good as I remembered or as bad as I feared. I looked for the essay whenever I moved, but I never found it.

Until this weekend.

Going through my garage, clearing out space to build a homebrewery in there, I opened boxes that I haven’t opened since 1995 when I moved out of my parents’ house into my own. Those boxes were mostly filled with books that I didn’t want or need, and they painted a clear picture of who I was back then: lots of SF and Fantasy books, how-to guides on programming in C++, every book Henry Rollins had written up to that point, volume after volume of William Burroughs and some of the Beat writers. There were books on film and acting, and a large number of philosophy books. Among the philosophy books was Beyond Good And Evil.

“Ugh,” I thought to myself, “I know why I haven’t looked in these boxes in years. I was such an insufferable douchebag back then. I should have listened more and talked less.”

I grabbed the book and tossed it into the donation box. It landed on its front, with its spine facing me. I turned back to the box I was emptying, and my eye caught some pieces of paper, folded up and shoved into the book, like a bookmark.

I slowly turned back and looked at them for a long time, not sure I wanted to see what 1994 me had to say, but very sure that I had no choice. I slowly reached out for the book and picked it up. I turned it over, cringed, and pulled out the papers. I unfolded them and saw “In Defence of Nerds by Wil Wheaton

Holy. Shit.

I sat down and read the entire thing. It’s … well, it’s written by the 21 year-old I’ve described above.

I kept it, and I scanned it this morning because it’s something I’d like to make sure I have forever.

Would you like to see it?

Here it is:

It’s not as good as I remember it, but it’s not as bad as I feared. It’s the very best 21 year-old me could do, and I’m proud of him for taking the chance, facing the fear of being laughed off the stage, and speaking passionately about something that mattered to him (that still matters to me).

I’m glad that, on that day in 1994, I set aside pretending to think about things and actually thought about things. It was a small but important step toward finding my way into the life I now have. In fact, if I looked around at the foundation upon which I built my adult life, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that essay awfully close to the keystone.

78 thoughts on ““in defence of nerds””

  1. Bless your 21-year old self, it has the directness of youth. I’m sure nerd culture is a lot more acceptable these days partly in thanks to people like you taking a stand back when computers were monster size :)

  2. It is because you write a slash through your zero that we love you so much. Oh, and that you’ve defended nerds for almost 20 years. Thanks. ::wiping eyes::

  3. Always good to read your thoughts, though I had to pause for a moment when I read…

    “Why am I living in Kansas instead of LA?”

    Hey now! Wait, no, nevermind, I agree.

    Hello from Kansas, heh.

  4. Bless you Wil Wheaton – I wrote something a little similar in support of my son (also 21 and a nerd) recently.
    As others have said, people like you standing up for the right to be accepted have made it easier for those to follow.

  5. This reads very much like something my 21-year-old self would have written, although it wouldn’t have been as relevant. By the time I reached that age, nerd culture was beginning to become more socially accepted.

  6. What a great time to find that, Wil. It seems a fellow child actor, one Angus T. Jones, although a few years younger, is trying to figure himself out. Although we all go through it and ask those questions – Who am I? What am I suppose to do? – I bet child actors have it the worst.

    Glad you got through it and maybe give Angus some words of advice.

  7. Thank you for sharing this. This hit me pretty hard today, as I flounder and flail around in so much uncertainty. It’s both reassuring and heart-rending to read about similar experiences. Thanks for being so accessible and vulnerable. It matters.

  8. I really appreciated reading this. Recently, in the path of a photography series I’m working on, I wrote about what it meant to embrace the kid that I was, and how that kid has shaped the adult I’ve become.

    I am a nerd, and was a nerd then. However, I was able to find a balance between the two worlds. Computer camp fit nicely into a slot of time in the summer between other camps that either resembled my middle school/high school settings, or were focusing on ballet and cheerleading. I had this secret place I’d vanish to for three weeks every year. Then I went to work there, incidentally, being a girl at computer camp? Best odds ever.

    I’m 29 now and I work in entertainment, I love my life, I’ve built a career that I am extremely happy with. I’m comfortable in my own skin in a way I never was then, and it turns out all the folks I’m surrounded by are nerds to, go figure. Thanks for this sir.

  9. Strangely enough, my best friend and I just had very similar conversation today: thinking of how many times we act out of some misguided loyalty to a past version of ourself, and how often that version needs to be allowed to move on, or be killed off, so we can be loyal to the current version of ourself.
    Thanks

  10. My first thought upon reading this (besides recognizing the fact that we all are a little bit of insufferable douchebags at 21) is the fact that I actually just yelled the phrase “When the fuck did he live in Kansas?” at my screen. I am angry at my teenage self for not knowing this. Also, while we might not be as exciting as LA Kansas still has some good stuff :D

  11. Wow, what a piece of personal history. That is a pretty cool find that seems (at least to someone who isn’t you) to be a pretty pivotal event in your life. It is stories like these that make me wonder what other directions your life could’ve taken and where my pivotal moments have been and may yet be.
    Not that it really matters, but the other thought I had was that it also gives a significant increase in genuine nerd-cred as this was something that wasn’t known outside of those on the cruise and came well before you gained fame and acclaim for your nerdiness.
    Nerd pride!

  12. 21 year old me got in trouble for using ‘societal’ in an academic paper. I was told it wasn’t a word, but google informs me otherwise.

  13. I’m part of a local Star Trek group called the USS Joshua. We had a member named John Bunton who told me about a Star Trek cruise he once took. Pretty sure I remember he said you were on it. Wonder if it was that one. I can’t ask him about it because he died of liver cancer a few years ago. Really moving post though.

  14. I went through this process a couple years ago. Mostly coming across stuff from my college days (19-21 years old). I feel the same sort of embarrassment about my former self but at the same time I’ve also come to terms with the fact that I just didn’t know what I know today.That old adage about being able to go back knowing what you know now comes to mind. Still, I also realized that in order to become the 2012 me, I had to walk the path I took over the last 20 years. Sure, it might have helped if certain events happened sooner or if some things happened at all but to whip out another adage, hindsight is 20/20. Personally, I prefer 2012 me even if I’d rather have some of the benefits of 1992 me. :)

  15. Wil, You may not be a Albert Einstein , Stephen Hawking, or Bill Gates, But then again, Albert Einstein was not a Stephen Hawking, or Bill Gates.Stephen Hawking is not a Albert Einstein or Bill Gates and Bill Gates is not a Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking.

    People become great because of the sum of their lives, not what it looked like at any one point. At one point Albert Einstein was a divorced man who failed at his passion, playing the violin. Stephen Hawkings was a guy who was struggling though Cambridge while facing the fact he had ALS. And who can forget that Bill Gates was arrested in New Mexico for a traffic violation?

    As a line from a deleted scene of Bruce Almighty told to us by Morgan Freeman states:
    “You see Bruce, triumph is born out of struggle. … If you want to paint pictures like this, you have to use some dark colors.”

  16. Wil – thanks for sharing this.

    Great post.

    When I was 17 (so it must have been 1990 or 1991) I went to a Star Trek convention with my mom. Patrick Stewart was there. Someone asked him who his favorite character on the show was and he said “Wesley Crusher.”

    I always respected him for that.

  17. At the time, 18 year old me would have agreed with you whole-heartedly. Now, at 37, I find my self in the same frame of mind.

    A few years ago my wife and I were at a home improvement store buying tools for her work. The teenage girl at the register automatically assumed they were for me.

    Me: “No, they’re for her. She’s the machinist. I’m the geek.”
    Cashier: “You really shouldn’t call yourself names, you know.”
    Me: O_o

    Ah, memories. :P

  18. I vaguely remember young Wheaton the Grey from those halcyon days here in Topeka, Kansas. I think he’d be proud of Wheaton the White, who has journeyed to the Lands in the West.

    I know we are, back here in the Shire. :-)

      1. Ahh…back when Topeka was cool, for about 2.4 seconds. We can thank you for that. I also remember Wheaton the Grey. I used to wait tables at Celini’s and would always get you Newtek guys when you came in. You guys were always fun and I loved being your waitress. I also think he’d be extremely proud of Wheaton the White.

  19. You can tell that there was passion behind that, but you can also tell that you’ve come a long way since then, both as a person and as a writer! It’s nice to know that, as a confused twenty-something who is trying to work out what to do with their life, that no matter how far you feel you’ve come by that age there’s still plenty of time to find your place in the world.

  20. That is quite an awesome piece of personal history. I, too, was quite insufferable when I was 21. Now I wonder just why people chose to put up with me.

    For what it’s worth, there are those of us who recognized the issues you were going through in your life at that time. It showed through in your acting. Not in a bad way, but for someone else who was going through a similar inner war at the time, it was easy to see. I was quite defensive and lost at the age of 21, and I, too, was desperate to find myself in one way or another.

    I really appreciate you for sharing this. It just confirms what I suspected all along–Wil Wheaton has always been more than meets the eye.

  21. I’m quite certain that, at some point in everyone’s lives, if they could go back and smack around their 21-year-old-self, they would.

    Having just turned 40, I look back at what I was doing in my late teens, and early 20’s, and realize how much time I’ve wasted. I wonder how things would have been different had I not chosen the ‘easy’ road at times, or made less socially acceptable decisions at others.

    Then I wonder if I’m going to look back when I’m 80, and wonder the same thing about the 60 year old me (does the cycle ever stop?).

    Then it dawned on me: The point of retrospection is not to help yourself, but to provide guidance to the next generation. My parents gave me the best advice and all the knowledge they had. I had the luxury (rather, privilege) or standing on their shoulders, and slingshotting myself into a great life. Now it’s my turn. I give my 17 year old all the insight and knowledge and information I wish my young-adult self had 20 years ago, and hope he makes good decisions.

  22. I so wish there had been a Wil Wheaton around when I was a young teenage nerd looking for some direction, but I am so happy, and delighted that you are the person you became on that day in 1994. Well, you always WERE that person, you just didn’t know it til that day. You know, you haven’t just helped people your age and younger feel better about their “nerd-dom,” there are plenty of us older nerds who look at you and think “ah, finally, our time has come.” HA! You are our Neo!

  23. I liked it so much I have transcribed it into an Open Office document. (Electronic copies are ever-so more flexible.) I’d like to send it to you if you like.

  24. Ah, just as I suspected. The real you WAS in one of those boxes after all!

    My son says, “I’m a weirdo.” I tell him, “Here’s a secret that nobody tells you – we all are, in our own ways.” I wish somebody would have told me that, when I was a kid.

  25. Not bad, 21-year-old-Wil. Probably better than I could put it myself, today.

    Though I have often doubted whether homeschooling my kids was a good idea, I feel almost vindicated that my step-daughter, who is 16 and in community college, is a proud, strong geek who doesn’t care that she is not “normal.” Nobody in our family is normal, and we prefer it that way. Because, really, who wants to be just average?

    But for me, I had to fight these same feelings, and I was older than 21 when I finally learned to accept me for me rather than compare myself to who everyone wanted me to be. I’m sure the same is true of a great many of your readers. Thanks for sharing this “old” you with us.

  26. Hi Wil –

    I really like your writing. A lot of it I love, particularly the geek-growing-up material as so often does it seem to come straight out of my past/experience. This time I’m reminded of the perfect quote from (of all things), an Austin Powers movie:

    “There’s only two things I hate in this world – people who are intolerant of other cultures, and the Dutch.”

    I loved dodgeball, baseball, basketball…most anything with a ball or a puck…as much as I loved RoleMaster or Call of C’thulhu. Though certainly not unique, those of my sub-sub-species were not in the majority, and had to listen to our friends vent about the crappy popular kids/jocks/preppies and how they were evil because of their stereotype of “us smart kids”.

    I wonder how I would have responded then as a very-slightly-older-than-21. I also wonder if I would have been willing to post something I wrote/said in public then these 20ish years later. Probably not. Thanks for sharing – I’m glad you did. :)

    I think maybe my favorite part of geekdom going more mainstream is that now I get to talk with friends about last night’s DnD game while we eat wings and watch football…or complain about the NHL lockout while sorting the bits for Arkham Horror.

    1. I am of your sub-sub species! Hello, brother!

      I wrote fanfic and played women’s football at the same time in my twenties, and as a kid I played softball and soccer as well as obsessed about TNG and was a seriously hard-cord band geek. Now? I cosplay and run adventure 5Ks.

      I always felt as if I straddled both worlds, but didn’t *quite* fit in in either one. Nice to “meet” a fellow interdimensional traveler. ;)

  27. I have to laugh at myself because the 46 y/o me thinks this is great. I would never had embraced my geekness at 21. I was such a geek I thought you were so cool. Despite the fact you are a few years my junior I wanted to be you. I guess at 21 we all want to be somebody else.

  28. This type of retrospective on our lives seems omnipresent and important. What kills me is that as a teacher in a high school, I can not get most teenagers to understand that they won’t always think the way they currently do. If we knew that at a younger age, it may take some edge off of the angst. Thank you for being willing to share your growth with all of us.

  29. “Until this weekend.”

    I really went, “oh shit.” I can’t believe that was in there too.
    It’s late and I have to fly to Phoenix tomorrow so I can’t get my brain and eyes to work together to read the handwriting just yet.
    I’m glad there wasn’t an audience (aka facebook) when I went through that so independent awkward phase from about 18 to 22. I’m lucky I’m alive and unscathed, the dumb things I did.
    I’m sorry now for my young family who says ignorant things and other kids going through that phase so publicly. Part of growing up in the Internet age, I guess.

  30. I think I was on that same cruise, if I remember right it was put on by Cruise Trek and it set sail from Vancouver BC, and did the inside passage. It did have breath taking views. I believe I even have a picture with you somewhere. You couldn’t have been to much of a “douchebag”, if you posed for a picture and took the time to share a few words. Then again I was only 20 myself, so perhaps I didn’t percieve your forced smile or internal turmoil at the time, rather I was just in fanboy mode. No matter what I do remember leaving with a smile on my face, so thank you!

  31. This is so freaking awesome. I am up WAY past my bedtime reading this and will doubtless regret it tomorrow. So worth it. Thank you. This is beautiful.

  32. I recall getting to meet you at the NewTek Christmas party but didn’t as I was momentarily distracted by the woman in the spray-painted on dress sitting on Penn Jillette’s lap. Alas, I was also too chicken to walk up to you at Hypermart in the middle of the night as well. The midnight NewTek posse was an imposing bunch.

    I was less of a nerd back then and more of a dork. I have since embraced my nerdness and escaped Topeka to Colorado. Calling myself a nerd now is in a small way thanks to people like you who weren’t afraid to be called nerds. I have never looked back on calling myself a nerd and now my son proudly calls himself one too.

    Thanks Wil.

  33. What a great find! Thank you for sharing this bit of yourself with us, Wil.

    You know, it’s funny. I was recently asked where I would go if I could travel back in time to any point in my life. My answer read like this: “…If we can change things, honestly, I’d rather not open that can of worms. Time travel paradoxes give me a headache. And frankly, though there are, of course, things I would change in every decade of my life, changing anything would change the person I am now, and I might end up a lot worse off.”

    It’s still true. Nearly all of us go though that douchebag phase, Wil, and most of us come out better for it. A very few of us never endure it, but those few are lucky indeed. So be proud of 21 year-old you, because without him, you wouldn’t be now-you, and that would be a shame.

    1. “There are many parts of my youth that I’m not proud of. There were… loose threads – untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I pulled on one of those threads – it’d unravel the tapestry of my life.” – Captain Picard

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