Renaissance Nerds

This past weekend, I attended a day-long unconference for freelancers. Having been a freelancer already for many years, I found the sessions I attended to be more useful as refreshers than anything else. Still, networking is good and events like this force me to do a bit of that.

By my estimation, attendees consisted of about 75% high tech/design professionals: web developers, graphic/web designers, social media marketing experts. Basically, lots of nerds, a sprinkling of cupcake girls, a dusting of headhunters, and a smattering of life coaches, for comic relief.

But the nerds, they aren’t what they used to be. They’re now what I like to call renaissance nerds. No longer the basement-dwelling social pariahs of yore, they’ve traded their pocket protectors for wetsuits. They do triathlons. They travel. They go to pubs and drink beer. They eat out at exotic restaurants and review them in their foodie blogs. They talk to girls! They do flash mobs. They speak eloquently and passionately at public events (though still about the same nerdy stuff). They appear to be fairly well-rounded individuals and generally they are. But of course, there are exceptions.

Sitting in on a couple of sessions, I had the misfortune of sharing the room with one of these. He happens to be a bit of a celebrity within the tech community and has words like “entrepreneur” and “hacker” and “infovore” attached to his various social media bios. In both sessions, he sat mostly staring at his phone, attending to his twitter account, but he did see fit to open his mouth on a number of occasions to tell various people (presenters and attendees alike) in no uncertain terms how wrong they were in their thinking and approaches. Furthermore, on each occasion, his volume was at least twice that of the person he was dressing down, making him doubly annoying.

Accepting constructive criticism is necessary for personal growth. If someone has proof or experience that’s contrary to yours, they should share it and you should consider it carefully. But there are ways to deliver constructive criticism to strangers on a public stage that I believe are more conducive to success.

I’m sure this individual likes to think of himself as a positive disruptive force. I assume he has some measure of entrepreneurial success (he no doubt has 20+ pre-IPO social cloud mobile API solutions between here and Silicon Valley, finalizing negotiations for third round funding blah blah blah), which he could point to as proof he knows his shit. And it’s true, that as much as I would have liked to tear him down, I agreed with the content of his message.

But form is important too. So is awareness of the context and audience. Most of the attendees and presenters at this conference were newbies (maybe not in their professions, but at least as freelancers). They are excited and scared, eager to learn and eager to share. At the point they are in their learning, they need some easy wins to give them confidence to keep moving forward. Taking an adversarial tone (“You’re doing it wrong!”) is a fantastic way to discourage them or shut them down completely.


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I’m not saying people need to be coddled. These are adults after all. But a person in defence mode may be too distracted to experience the learning moment you want them to have. If they’re too scared to share with other newbies because there’s some been-there-done-that know-it-all ready to tear them down, they may not bother trying in the future.

I’d like to say I hope I don’t have to come anywhere near him again. Unfortunately, he seems to attend a lot of these events. And unfortunately, if I cannot make a reasoned argument against him and I’m in the wrong mood, I may need to simply punch him in his fucking face.

I really don’t want to do that though. He may very well not be aware how much he came off as an ass. Nobody said anything, but then, most people wouldn’t in these situations. Drawing more attention to him would likely not have been helpful either. I’ve already touched a bit on the social issues my son has and what he may be facing some day when there’s no one providing play-by-play commentary for both him and the people around him. It is entirely possible that he could become one of these well-intentioned but socially inept individuals, but I sure hope not and I’m going to do whatever I can to make it not so.

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Cognitive Dissonance: Dealing With Yours

Sour Grapes!

If you’ve read any of my posts, you will quickly realize that I’m not highly edumacated. That doesn’t mean I don’t like intellectual challenges. I’m curious about a great many things, but I tend to lack depth of understanding because I’m simply not disciplined enough to work hard at anything, especially learning. Nevertheless, I like to talk about stuff and I don’t need a doctorate to do so.

Psychology (and more recently the more “technical” cognitive sciences) has always intrigued me. I fondly remember my ‘tween years, perusing the Intro to Psychology section of my single-volume Random House Color Encyclopaedia and being convinced I was afflicted by fully 3/4 of the mental illnesses it described. Good times. Anyway, over the last year, this concept of cognitive dissonance has been itching my brain.

For the uninitiated, an example[1] to illustrate. Assume the following are two statements made by the same person:

“I’m a law-abiding person.”

“I download Hollywood movies from torrentz sites like ahoymovies.net[2]”

Do you see the conflict between these two statements? If you don’t, you are a fucking idiot and/or you’ve arrived at cognitive consonance through some deft mental manoeuvring, aka rationalization.

Perhaps your rationalization involved some lame excuses such as, “The Hollywood-industrial complex is bilking consumers out of millions”, “I can’t afford it”, “movies, like information, software, games, art, and beer, should be free”, etc…

Whatever the case, you are able to justify to yourself a behavior (statutory theft, which is what it is whether you agree with that law or not) that conflicts with your purported beliefs (that you don’t break the laws of your jurisdiction).

We do a lot of this excuse-making on a daily basis. So much so that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. If we were to stop and analyze the motives behind most of our actions, we might uncover a rather unpleasant truth. But we don’t do that. Because we need to do X, Y, Z, because <excuses> (“I need to survive”, “I have a family to support”, “it’s for the common good”, “to protect democracy”, blah blah blah).

And this excuse-making, we do it both individually and collectively, and there are always those who will seek to leverage this. (And no, this isn’t a conspiracy blog, sorry to disappoint!)

The unpleasant truth is most of our actions and choices are based on what’s most convenient. If we can be honest with ourselves about that, then hopefully we’re in a better position to honestly question ourselves, at least as far as such a thing is possible.

“I recognize that I am making the expeditious choice, but at what cost? To me? To others?”

When someone challenges you on your beliefs or your motivations and an answer is on your lips in 0.2s instead of 0.5, check yourself. Is that rationalization cached somewhere? Where does it come from? You? Your peers? Society? Does it need to be reviewed? Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

The theory of cognitive dissonance was first expounded in Leon Festinger’s aptly titled A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. I have not read it, because tl;dr, reasons, etc. 😉 But I highly recommend it to others!

Footnote 1: For a more neutral example, see Aesop’s fable of the Fox and the Grapes.

Footnote 2: At the time of this writing, ahoymovies.net is not a real site, but feel free to report back if it becomes one.