Have you ever watched the Big Bang Theory? It’s really about a bunch of geeks. But these days it’s hip to be a geek, because geeks can do something very well. In the case of the Big Bang Theory, it’s Physics, and the characters on that show are really good at it — enough to be conducting research and discovering whole new areas within the field.
In today’s explosive information age, it is very important to do one thing very well. It’s not good enough to know a little of everything because there’s too much of everything to know. And that is the key difference between a geek and a nerd. A geek is focused and perhaps obsessed with doing one thing really well — be it hacking a computer or finding the secrets of the universe. A nerd, on the other hand, is a little interested in everything. You know those people who bore you to death at parties by giving you a lecture about any topic you choose to show you that they know about them.
I remember a funny saying that we had in college. It was that the definition of a nerd was “somebody interested in everything in the world except clothes.” Even in college, we knew it wasn’t really beneficial to know something about everything, but it was very important to know about clothes and how to dress.
It’s true that there is a psychological underpinning for this geek vs. nerd comparison. Our brains actually transform as we get older. As children, we have what is called “fluid intelligence”, which is the ability to grasp and understand entirely new knowledge. In adulthood we have what is called “crystallized intelligence”, which is the ability to comprehend information that is similar to what we already know.
We marvel at a child’s unbounded curiosity. They can study every flower and insect they come across with wide eyes. But if an adult examined ever flower and insert he or she came across with wide eyes, we would consider that person a little weird, if not completely crazy. Children need fluid intelligence to better understand their new world, but adults need crystallized intelligence to learn in a more specific way that helps them be more productive at their jobs and at living an independent life.
So, if you think that a geek and a nerd are the same thing — the ones getting wedgies and bullied on the playground, think again. It is the geeks who are the rock starts of the 21st century, but the nerds will remain what they have always been — nerds.