Why I was unpopular and how it might have helped

I recently discovered PG’s essay on “Why Nerds are Unpopular”. Recommended reading for any smart college kid recovering from high school. It made me think about my own experiences growing up; in particular, the years I spent going through two drastically different education systems.

I was born in Nanjing, China’s old capital and began my education in local kindergardens and schools. My upbringing was academically focused, even by local standards. Aside from the last three years of startup life, the hardest I’ve ever worked was back in in the first grade, where we showed up for school at 7AM to recite vocabulary and multiplication tables, studied in our concrete classrooms until 4 PM, and did homework after school until 7. It didn’t seem at all abnormal when everyone was working just as hard and focused on the same metrics – grades and achievement.

After first grade I moved with my parents to Canada. I remember sitting on the carpeted floors of my pastel classroom playing with blocks and learning single-digit arithmetic. Those nights, I told my parents gleefully, “Mom, Dad, school here is so easy. I’m going to be the top of the class for sure!” I probably also added, “people here are idiots!” My parents nodded and said, “good, so you’ll get straight A’s then, right?” I did, except in French class. I had to learn English first.

In the following years I continued to get good marks at most things my parents suggested. I placed second at the provincial Spelling Bee two years after first starting to learn English. I learned musical instruments early on, took Mandarin lessons on weekends, and enrolled in the “Gifted” program. Still, none of it was quite as rigorous as Mrs. Tang’s first grade gauntlet. My parents later told me that one of the reasons we emigrated was for me to get a better education. I didn’t understand at the time what they meant. Objectively, my education seemed much worse.

Only until about eighth grade did I notice that my classmates’ objectives differed greatly from mine. As a whole, people were less preoccupied with academic achievement - or any achievement at all. Instead, it was a popularity contest and I seemed to be losing quite badly. I didn’t even know I was playing until then. It really registered when one of the girls invited everyone in the class to her birthday party. Everyone, that is, except me and about five other people. Oh the pain…

I resolved that high school would be a fresh start. Few of my previous classmates continued to the same high school that I did. My parents diligently made sure that I transferred into the top public school in the city, which was one hour away by bus. And so, I broke ranks with my fellow nerds and pursued some additional metrics, the ones that everybody else was measuring. My grades didn’t suffer, though. It was tough going, and immigrant parents didn’t supply many queues. Although I’m sure my mom was very cool by Communist China standards.

In my junior year things were already very different. I had a close group of friends who were not only smart but also very sociable. Like me, they didn’t pay much attention to academics so long as we still got good grades. And because we could easily get them, we probably cared less about class than the even average student. One memorable example is my first period biology class in senior year, where my friend and I skipped so often and so erratically that we successfully shared the same desk for weeks at a time, alternating attendance. I was on pretty good terms with most. I wasn’t sitting at the “A Table”. But, then again, my high school seemed less stratified than the ones PG and others describe: perhaps, for some classmates, my table was the A Table.

Looking back, as PG describes, it was a bunch of kids left to their own devices with minimal adult supervision, resulting in Lord of the Flies [1]. In some ways, I wish I had kept solidarity with the nerds and not swapped some of my priorities for that of the masses. I would be a better engineer than I am today. I’m certain, however, that the social skills I learned and EQ [2] I developed during those four years are proving more useful to me now than the additional education. Of course, it is because I’ve still spent much more time studying how to be smart than how to interact with other people.

Today, I constantly assess all of the metrics that both I and my company follow, so as to never be blindsided again. I’m sure it will happen, though. I’ve also noticed that the startup community, one filled with nerds like me or quite possibly nerdier than me, has created a set of metrics that bears an uneasy resemblance to high school. More people are concerned with winning the popularity contest, with TechCrunch as the A Table, than with solving real problems and making money doing it. Of course, PR done right is an insanely effective multiplier on execution, but I worry that too many people are distracted by false indicators: big valuations and hyperbolic marketing slogans that obscure the underlying value being created by startups and the silent labor of the nerds.

Even many YC startups seem swayed by this illusion; despite what I’m sure is wise direction by the mentors there. After all, it’s hard not to see ABC startup acquihired for $xM after five years with no revenue and think: “boy, that seems much easier than the death march of raising multiple rounds to reach profitability while madly chasing growth.” On one hand, there are countless examples where acquisitions, months of pure PR, and chasing down that TechCrunch reporter makes sense. On the other, major tech blogs look increasingly more like the popular kids seeking glory than nerds solving problems.

I can’t say which metrics are valid for the long term. It’s almost definitely a balance. After some big PR recently, we’ve gone silent to the public and worked tirelessly on delivering our product to paying customers. It’s working pretty well. There are great examples supporting emphasis on both metrics – companies that have succeeded triumphantly with press releases every step of the way and companies that made their millions just as quickly without most people ever knowing. I’ve gotten to know founders of such companies as well, and they are all incredibly passionate about their product, employees, vision, and path to success. I wonder, though, if more companies have failed chasing the limelight instead of generating value, as measured in dollars [3], and if their founders still remember what it means to be a nerd, and how that enables us to change the world.

[1] I’m paraphrasing here

[2] Not sure if this is the best term. Nothing else is as succinct, but EQ sounds contrived to me.

[3] and I mean revenue dollars, not investments.


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