My latest from the Stanford Alumni blog…
Just this week, the United States National Science Foundation released its annual report listing the “geekiest cities in America.” The findings were less than surprising. Hello, San Francisco! Great to see you, San Mateo! How’s the weather, Boston? A few dark horses threw themselves in here and there (Nice to meet you, Destin, Florida!), but for the most part the so-called “geekiest” cities were just about where you’d expect them to be. What was surprising about the report was the definition of “geek” as detailed by the Foundation. According to them, a geek is “any worker with a bachelor’s level of knowledge and education in science or engineering-related fields or workers in occupations that require some degree of technical knowledge or training.” Now, granted, this definition of geek works specifically within the parameters of the Foundation itself and is meant more as a broad term for those engaged in the technical or scientific professions. But then are they really geeks? Aren’t they, to put it in Stanford terms, just “techies”? Perhaps I’m dating myself but “techies” and “fuzzies” were the two factions during my tenure at Stanford and I was just about the fuzziest person ever to walk the hallowed halls of the Farm. (My unfortunate perm and untamed eyebrows didn’t help..) But despite how you fell on the techie/fuzzy spectrum, you could still be a geek.
I’m a geek. Not a technical, scientific, Destin, Floridian geek, but a literature buff, Monty Python quoting, New York Times crossword obsessive, Cabbage Patch dancing geek. Which makes me wonder…just what is the definiton of a geek?
I asked my husband just this question at dinner last night and he responded with “isn’t a geek someone who is socially awkward?” Wow. And here I am with a blog entitled “My Life as a Geek.” Should I just rename it “My Life as a Social Misfit” or maybe “My Life as a Women who Once Used the ‘Doctor Who’ Theme Song as her Ringtone”? Painful as it was to hear, I understood his point. Stereotypically, when one thinks of the word “geek” one does envision pocket protectors, Members Only jackets, sweatshirts with binary code on them and, yes, a fair amount of donkey laughs and knowledge of when Pi Day is. (March 14th, for those of you who are interested.) But once you scratch the surface of that…once you get over the “Revenge of the Nerds” references and really start to consider what the ingredients of geekdom are…it gets a little blurry.
Is “geek” one of those words that is fluid; offering varying degrees of translation depending upon the individual? I decided to poll a few of my friends to see how they would define geek and the results were fascinating. One of my dearest friends told me that the word refers to someone who is “super smart and has suffered teasing due to that intellect.” The fact that, to her, teasing was the true hallmark of a geek really interested me. I honestly hadn’t made that connection, and yet my first of these columns detailed my ridicule at the hands of a rather nasty seventh-grade girl. Whether I was aware of it or not, I used teasing as an example of my evolution as a geek. So does my self-proclaimed geekiness stem from specific incidences of teasing? It may very well be so, since those first few instances of teasing, while certainly painful and Depeche Mode inducing, still led me down a path of acceptance of my own unique qualities. Being teased for being smart was, perhaps, one of the best things that happened to me since it simultaneously told me how the world saw me and then allowed me to figure our how I felt about that designation. It took me a while to get there, but I did.
Another friend of mine defined geeks as “those who aren’t afraid to say the smart things when the dumb thing is most popular” and I ADORED his answer. With that one sentence, he perfectly captured the choice that geeks make to be true to their minds despite the popular vote. This fearlessness, this willingness to use the brain in their head is, for me, what defines a true geek. I am a geek. I embrace my geekdom and the definition that I have for it. I didn’t start out that way. I did my fair share of crying in the girl’s bathroom because I raised my hand too much or got extra credit for dressing up as an Egyptian Scribe for my 7th grade oral report. But now, as a 37 year old woman, I am utterly confident in my intelligence. Not in some Mensa, never-make-a-mistake, aren’t-I-amazing sort of way, but in a way that I don’t ever question the quality of my mind. Lord knows I’ve questioned just about everything else – my appearance, my sense of humor, my cooking, my parenting, my weight, my place in the world – but I will never question my brain and what it holds. I’m proud of this brain of mine and will continue to throw the geek word around with great abandon and self-assurance in the hopes of removing the stigma attached to it. And also in the hopes of proving to each and every kid out there who thinks the dumb answer might be the better option to think twice and never, ever apologize for your mind. We are all defined by the moments in which we reveal our true selves. So shine on, geeks and say the smart thing.