Nerds and Hippies

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Jobs and Wozniak
One of the classic hippie and nerd teams.

I recently watched the movie “The Social Network”. Prior to watching it, I read many accounts questioning the historical accuracy of the story. I very much enjoyed the movie, however, not as a historical record but as a comment on the recurring theme of the manipulation of the “nerd” in order to take advantage of his creativity, hard work and intellectual property. Among other factors, part of the reason much of this happens is a difference in motivators between the nerd and the narcissist.

I read Steve Wozniak's book, "I Woz" about a year ago. Steve is the archetypal and quintessential nerd, being co-founder of Apple Computer. In reading the book, I can see how a non-nerd could easily think on superficial examination that Woz’s personality type is that of a self-centred narcissist. Woz refers to projects he has undertaken in the past in a way that could easily be construed as boasting. To understand Woz or Zuckerberg properly, however, you need to be familiar with the nerd mindset. While both the narcissist and the nerd see people around them in a different way to the general population, the nature of the social dysfunction is different.

The narcissist sees himself as being special, and sees people around him as objects to be manipulated for his own end. If someone he comes across has a skill or an object, he naturally feels an entitlement to it and in the absence of guilt will simply acquire it. The narcissist is capable of short bursts of creativity, but often finds that it is simpler to just acquire creative work from others, many of whom are willing to give it.

The nerd often has a special skill which usually has been acquired with many thousands of hours of practice or "rehearsal", but often he is oblivious to the special nature of this skill. The nerd does not think that he is special so much as wonders to himself why others around him do not have the same skill. I wonder how many coding gods are working in obscurity, hidden from view? How many potential Einsteins are working in menial jobs to earn a living, content to express their creativity inside their own head?

A nerd will experiment and hammer away at a problem over and over making mistakes along the way and solving them, tweaking the procedure, content in knowing that his personal creative process will eventually bear fruit and enjoying the journey as much as the potential reward. Along the way, he is willing to experiment with physical reality, walk paths not yet walked, and sometimes stumble. For the nerd, this is just the price to be paid for the creative process. This is why the nerd's efforts go into creating things as opposed to the narcissist being focussed on acquiring them.  

For the non-nerd, the effort required to create is too high a price to pay when there is the possibility no financial or other material reward. For every Zuckerberg and Wozniak, there are hundreds of others who have not realised financial wealth. Nerds are not averse to wanting to have lots of money, but the reason they wish to have it is to gain the freedom to work on creating. Wozniak creates for fun - he designed and built the first Apple computer for no end other than to show his friends at the Homebrew Computer Club. Once he made enough money, he spent his time exploring his creativity in different ways. I recently met Dick Smith, who described how his billionaire friends could not understand why he sold Dick Smith Electronics to Woolworths at the age of 36 and gave up literally billions of future dollars to pursue what are essentially hobbies - aviation, geography and the like. We all know that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are giving away over half of their present and future worth and Gates has left Microsoft to pursue personal projects.

Regular people just can't get it into their heads that there are people who create things simply because they want to pursue their passion to create and for no other reason. When I describe the open source movement, regular people can not understand why somebody would put so much effort into something without wanting financial return, and at the same time allowing "competitors" to have access to their code. They probably see this as naive, as they cannot grasp the motivation. Some nerds come across opportunities that help them make millions - Woz met Steve Jobs, Bill Gates made his deal with IBM more or less by chance. The ones that come across and seize these opportunities are the ones that become millionaires. In general, though, nerds are happy to enjoy the fruits of their labour themselves or just to share with other nerds.

I have heard it said that great technological startups are mostly founded by a hippie and a nerd. I think that perhaps a more accurate description would be a narcissist and a nerd. The narcissist will approach a problem by attempting to change reality - hence the "reality distortion field",and the flair for marketing and hyperbole. Through persuasion, the suitably motivated narcissist is able to create his own market. This approach, in its pure form, is incompatible with creativity. The nerd will create because he has a firm understanding of the physical world and is willing to explore how the world behaves and manipulate it within discrete, unbending rules. When the nerd observes the edge of the playing field as defined by these rules and nudges right up against it, creativity results.

It does not take much effort to see how the relationship between the nerd and the hippy results - the hippy lacks internal creative ability or the willingness to expend the enormous effort required to develop or cultivate it, and the nerd lacks motivation beyond his intense focus on the immediate task at hand and will not undertake a task or carry it out effectively unless it is interesting, fun or challenging. It is also easy to see why, as financial rewards flow and the opportunity for creativity wanes, the relationship often drifts apart because the core motivation is different. Thus, Apple Computer continues on while Wozniak is gone. Microsoft continues without Gates, and Dick Smith Electronics carries on without Dick Smith. The company lives on - it has already been bootstrapped and as long as it is managed properly will continue to exist. The nerd, however, has moved on to a place where he is able to create.

I think this may be why Mark Zuckerberg refuses to sell Facebook. He has no hippy on his back to tie him down and he still has great creative control. The world sees Facebook as a fabulously successful tool for communication that has made billions of dollars. Zuckerberg sees it as a creative work in progress. For him, the process of creation is reward in itself.

© Steven and Andrea Kazoullis 2014