“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. I am a 22-year-old geek. Stuff is going pretty crazy in my life right now, and my world has turned upside-down, leaving me to pick up the pieces and to figure out who I am. This post really got to me. To hear, from all these people, that this is just the beginning, that there is more to life than just right now, that things can and will get better, that’s exactly what I needed.

    For motivating me to continue to pick up the pieces and carry on, I thank you, Wil Wheaton.

  2. Well, that was awesome! I’m really impressed that you were able to do that at 21…much better than most people that age.

  3. Thank you for pioneering geek culture for us younger generation…. and thank you for sharing a personal moment of clarity. Can’t imagine that was easy.

  4. This might sound weird, but I really love it when you bare your soul in your writing like this. It’s so true, so honest, so moving. Thank you so much for writing this, and sharing your work.

  5. As soon as I read “insufferable douchebag”, I thought, “His majesty is like the clap — and a stream of bat’s piss.” Any blog post that can remind me of a Python sketch is the highlight of my day. Interesting — to me, anyway — that you were adrift when you were no longer adrift — and found treasure in what you thought was garbage. Now if anyone knows anyone who is looking for someone to write fortune-cookie fortunes, I appear to be on a roll.

  6. I was going to say that MY slightly douchey 21 yr old self would have loved this – which is true, but then I realized at the time I would have been my painfully shy and nerdy 11 yr old self – who would have been INSPIRED. Glad you found such a cool relic.

  7. In Defence of Nerds by Wil Wheaton

    Nerd – (nûrd) n. slang. 1. a stupid, irritating, inneffectual or unattractive person. 2. an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a non social hobby or pursuit. a computer nerd.

    This definition comes to us from a societyAn interesting way of saying ‘get a life’ from a society that embraces Monster Truck racing and The WWF, don’t you think? Well, I have a life. We all do – our lives just don’t agree with what society has determined to be socially accpetable.

    It is historically proven that society feels threatened by that which it does not understand and, in most cases, fears, and attampts to destroy it. Such is the fate of the nerd.

    I first experienced this in Elementary school – being more interested in Academics than Athletics, I was jeered at by the popular children as they went to the playground to hurl balls at one another in a senseless, barbaric competition called “dodgeball”. While they were improvingdeveloping their athletic prowess and going to parties to improve their social status, we were improvingdeveloping our minds and going to summer school to improve our grades. While they were developing their athletic prowess, we were devloping our minds, when they went to parties and passed out by the keg, we played D&D and passed out behind the dungeon master’s screen.

    The dictionary of contemporary slang says that in the early 1970s an underground comic book portrayed nerds as a subspecies of suburban dullards. Sub-species? I don’t think so. Sub-culture is more accurate.

    Our achievements are not less important, or even greater than theirs. They are simply different. Defeating a monstrous Wyvern or closing the final stitch on your uniform is just as exhilarating as scoring the winning touchdown or getting into a fraternity.

    Why is it then that society feels it necessary to label Star Trek clubs – a place where it is acceptable to wear your spacesuit and cheer the defeat of the Borg – as wierd and anti-social when calls fraternities a place where it is acceptable to get drunk and sexually harass – an important part of every boy’s college life?

    Could it be that, because trekkies don’t fit squarely into society and frat guys are as predicatable as the dawning of the day, that society feels more comfortable with the beligerant drunk than it does with the freethinking and creative trekkieer? Certainly they are less threatening – our slang, words like BRB and AFK are more cryptic than the grunting and snarling offered us by the Jock and consequently MUST be dangerous!

    I propose that the societal whole is threatened by anything which challenges its conformity and sense of rightwousness, and as a result it persecutes the non-conformist – it persecutes the nerd.

    It takes great courage to stand for that which you believe in and hold dear, in the face of such persecution generally born of fear and ignorance. Now I am not suggesting that sending(?)protesting the cancellation of star trek, or taking your Dungeon Master’s Guide and Fiend Folio with you to your parochial school puts you in league with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but all things done in the presence of an unsympathetic populous are worthy of accolade, no matter how small.

    I will remind my critics that Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates are all nerds and non-conformists.

    In regard to the non-conformist, Nietzsche said: (Read #29)

    My name is Wil Wheaton – and I am a nerd.

    1. Argh. My attempted double-strikeout of “improving” in the “athletic prowess” paragraph totally mucked up the strikeout of that whole paragraph. Also the underlining <u>s seem to have been ignored. :-( Sorry. Take it as a first-draft transcript.

    2. Thank you!
      Here is Nietzche’s #29:

      It’s the business of very few people to be independent: – that is a right of the strong. And whoever attempts it – even with the best right to it, but without being compelled to – shows by that action that he is probably not only strong but exuberantly daring. He is entering a labyrinth; he is increasing a thousand-fold the dangers which life already brings with it, not the least of which is the fact that no one’s eyes see how and where he goes astray, gets isolated, and is torn to pieces by some cavern-dwelling Minotaur of conscience.5 Suppose such a person comes to a bad end, that happens so far away from men’s understanding that they feel nothing and have no sympathy: – and he cannot go back any more! He cannot even go back to human pity!-

      5. . . . Minotaur : In Greek mythology a monster, part man, part bull, living in the middle of the Labyrinth in Cnossus in Crete.

  8. I have two sons. Since having them, I see all men differently; each of them may be a bit like what my boys will be when they are all grown up.

    I hope that, at 21, they have your earnest honesty and I hope they find their footing on paths that lead them to fulfillment and contentment the way you did.

    You’re a good man, Wil Wheaton. ;)

  9. Hi Wil,
    I’ve been reading your blog on the regular for a long while, and this post compelled me to comment for the first time. I love your 21-year-old writing showcase for the TNG talent show! I would have cheered like crazy for those words, since I grew up as a little girl who loved scifi, and that just wasn’t cool, of course. I think you are ever so hard on yourself – I’ve seen you at PAX and read your books, and you don’t cut yourself enough slack. I think you handled your transitions with a lot more grace than many of us have mustered, but you probably felt everything more keenly because you were in the public eye, as it were. I’m sending you a virtual hug!

    I watched Trek Nation recently, and heard Rod talk about how Gene felt that Wesley, Riker and Picard were all stages of himself at different points in life (a cool thing I had never realized!). Since I was a kid when TNG aired, I identified with Wesley and remember how envious I was that he got to sit on the bridge and run the conn; you were always cool in my eyes and I’m sure that holds true for many. Judging from all the awesome you’ve been putting out over the years, I’d say you are well on your way to achieving ‘Picard’ status someday (although hopefully with a full head of hair lol). Keep up the great work, and know how much your fans continue to identify with your journey as they experience moments of growth throughout adulthood just like this one.
    Cheers,
    ~Amy

    P.S. I just started the final season of Eureka, and I so enjoyed seeing Parrish sit down with Fargo to comfort him and play an RPG. It warmed my little nerd heart!

  10. I think I would have enjoyed blowing 21 (well, 23, I didn’t start college until ’95) year old Wil Wheaton’s mind by being a nexus of 2 alien worlds. I was and am a dice rolling, pen and paper gaming, LAN partying (hey it was the 90s) nerd. I was also a ‘frat boy’. Yup… I’m a trailblazer.

  11. Tiger Beat? Really? 0.0
    Well, never mind how we all came to be aware of your existence. We all transcended something to get where we are now. I am SO glad you decided to become a writer.
    And grats to you, for turning your particular stint as a “rope over an abyss” into a bridge toward inspiration and fulfillment. Here’s to self confidence and nerd love!

    PS; “All things done in the presence of an unsympathetic populace are worthy of accolade, no matter how small”… I am going to be quoting that FOREVER. \m/

  12. Talked with my friend Gail from our USS Joshua Star Trek fan club when we went to dinner this evening after our meeting today. I remember her husband once telling me about a Star Trek cruise they had been on years before and was pretty sure he said you were on it. He passed away from cancer a few years ago. I asked her when this cruise was and she confirmed it was the one in 1994! I told her about this post and have just emailed her the link to it. She said she and her friend did a lot of things off the ship, but that John had stayed on the ship most of the cruise. I thought, “Wow, what a coincidence!” Now I’m interested to see if she attended/remembers the talent show you talk about here.

    1. I tweeted at you about this, but don’t know if you saw it. I know how engrossing Minecraft can be; I’ve spent a lot of time mining blocks myself. Anyway, my friend emailed me back this morning and said her husband loved to tape stuff and may have taped the talent show! She’s been meaning to go through his tapes since he passed. I don’t want to get to too excited about this: can she find it, quality, ect. I’ll see her this afternoon when our Star Trek club does it’s annual Adopt-A-Family Christmas event and talk with her more about it. If she can find it, would you be interested in seeing it? Maybe we can get (at least your part) digitized for you. It could be a bit of a task, but I’m willing to try and make it happen if you want.

      1. I think it would be equal parts amazing and facepalm, but it sounds like a lot of work and it’s probably going to cost more than it’s worth.

        1. I was thinking about the same (re: your reaction to seeing it; probably similar to when you found the script you had written). If she can find it, I have a VHS player, cables and a computer. I think I can manage to capture the video into a file. When I see her this afternoon I’ll tell her you would be interested in seeing it. I’ll see where we can go with this and I’ll keep you informed of any developments.

        2. I talked with my friend at this afternoon (we had a very successful Adopt-A-Family event that left everyone in tears of joy). She said she read your post and remembers that library was quite impressive. She says her husband took a lot of video that trip, but the tapes aren’t labelled or organized. I told her you sounded interested to see the recording if we can find it. I also offered to help her go through the footage. She lives across town, but we’ve gone and done stuff together before and I usually see her at least once a month. She has invited me to go ice skating with her in the past, so this may be a reason to take her up on it. My legs are in better shape for these days then when she first asked. She said it was a very fun trip and I would like to see the footage from the cruise. As for the tech part of it, she has a dual DVD/VHS unit that he husband bought to transfer video from tape to DVD. It may take some time, there is a recording of your story, I will do my best to find it and get you a copy.

  13. Wil, as a person from the old Soapbox days, I remember when we pushed for you to publish your writings. Seeing this example of your 1994 self, I see you were always meant to write, especially if this was your only draft. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us all these years.

    (There’s something to be said for hardcopies. I wish I had the forethought back then to backup my own posts from the forum. I think I occasionally said something that wasn’t stupid).

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