Succeess depends on finding a balance between "geek" and "jock"

by [anonymous]4 min read12th Mar 201539 comments


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Summary: title + LW seems to be already coming from a culture like that, I just want to make it conscious. Also, it is true for individuals and true for groups like nations.

Why too much "jock" is bad

Anti-intellectualism, black-and-white tribalism, impulsivity etc. Social experiment: if you know smart people in/from Latin America ask them about what they dislike there, I think they will tell things along the lines of too much machismo in the culture not being a good environment for intellectualism.

Why too much "geek" is bad

It turns people and cultures into "Markos Sophisticus".

I was shaped largely by "Sophisticos". Too much Vienna and too much Budapest in me, thankfully some Birmingham in me too (Anglo cultures healthily tend away from this) but not enough. It was kind of shocking or me to see LW using intelligence not for intellectual masturbation but for solving problems, getting things done, making actionable things and actioning on them.

This has a bit of a "jock" in it, a bit of that attitude that: problem? Hit it over the head with a suitable club. Problem solved. Next problem. This "checkmark-checkmark-checkmark" attitude.

All this challenging real world problems head-on is a bit of a "jock" thing but you probably don't realize it if you are socialized to Silicon Valley, Paul Graham kinds of cultures. In these cases all you notice is that you are smarter, geekier than the "jocks" around you. But actually you are "jockier" than some of the more "geekier" cultures around the world e.g. the kind of "Sophisticos" attitudes that are all too common here in the Mitteleuropa - read some Stefan Zweig. Or rather not, he will bore you to death, you may as well take my word for it that I was shaped into using intelligence as simply something to bask in it, in my sophisticatedness, and not for making the world or my life better. It was a very novel idea  for me that ideas should be actionable. I think there is also a power problem : things that needed to be actioned were usually prescribed by others and usually not by very smart people.

I mean I know a lot of "Sophisticus" people who would dislike that above mentioned essay. Darwin i.e. dying if you are a wrong as an argument, nature being cruel? "How impossibly crude and  barbarous to reason like that in a debate between intellectuals!" That kind of stuff. The "it is a tough world out there" message of the essay is clearly a bit "jocky". Some people would even consider that essay borderline "reactionary" for its tough-world "assumption".

And that is how too much geek hurts you. Of course you want a lot of geek. You want to be smart and rational, knowledgeable and learned. But you also need that bit of jock in you who actually wants to hit problems over the head with all this and check-off to-dos and changes things.

I suspect that was part of our problems in Europe around 1920-1930 that led to WW2! You observe the era and you find various kinds of fascists e.g. in Italy or even Action Française glorifying "direct action" and having an ultra-masculinist outlook. But why? Or at least, why did this had appeal even to people who were not, at least initially not, evil? Well, at least partially its appeal is explained by it being a reaction against an era of intellectual elites being all too talky and never being able to decide something, make an action plan, and do it. Too many smart words and not enough strength to actually do something to improve things. So other people went the other extreme and began worshipping direct action, strength and violence.

Of course this model does not even begin to try to predict all that happened in that era, I am just saying when non-intellectual people start worshipping direct action and strength, that is a canary in a coalmine signalling intellectuals are being too geeky, ineffectual, and not actually proposing actionable ideas nor insisting enough on following them through.

The "too geek" has smart but unactionable ideas, the "too jock" just takes direct action without much thinking, "smart, rational, actionable" ideas are a balance.

Again, if you are a Silicon Valley type you are probably too much used to this balance and assume you are being "geeky" when in fact you are  actually being a healthy balance of "geeky" and "jocky".

E.g. the term "hacker" a lot of Valley people identify with originally came from someone making furniture with an axe - a definitely crude and unsophisticated, not too classy profession, but very practical and someone who is not too upset from the fact the world out there is tough!

Why does this matter?

To improve the world, try to move things toward this balance everywhere. At the very least, move your friends. Move your jocky friends towards gathering knowledge before acting, move your geeky friends towards focusing on actionable knowledge not intellectual masturbation.

And, if possible, move whole nations.

(Also, I realized I am using very stereotypcially and narrowly male terminology here. It all boils down to thinking without acting vs. acting without thinking vs.  both, so thinking and acting, but this is a very textbook male view of things. My wife rather likes to move within the triangle of thinking - feeling - speaking, so adds the feeling component which my geek-jock axis completely ignores, and focuses more on speaking than physically doing. However, it is also true that speaking and doing should not be contrasted much, speaking is a form of doing. I am just saying this to signal I am not entirely unaware of my viewpoint here being a bit too narrowly male and not really inclusive enough.)

What am I even trying to say?

Reading what I wrote so far sounds like I am saying nothing. Actionable ideas that pay rent etc. have always been a core idea on LW. I am simply saying it is not just being a better geek, it is actually being a bit of a jocky geek, I am saying geeks to some extent picked it up from jocks. Possibly, in places where jocks do not hate geeks much but tend to have some respect of shrewd people, jocks push geeks toward practical problems and geeks accept this, or geeks, not hating jocks that much, observe and learn the practicality.

I am simply saying that his kind of instrumental rationality is a crossover between being a philosopher and being a plumber and not an entirely new dimension of things. There are clearly a lot of cultures where plumbers should be more like philosophers and scientists. But there are also a lot of cultures or even individuals even in Anglo cultures who are too much of a philosopher, and need being more of a plumber.

My point is simply that instrumental rationality is not a new kind of geekery but a way of learning from non-geeks: I suspect that in Silicon Valley type cultures this learning happens automatically and subconsciously, maybe it happened so long ago that now geeks learn it from each other, not directly from non-geeks. But this learning needs exported.


39 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:25 PM
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This seems a false dichotomy of sorts; being too much 'jock', and being too much 'nerd', are not the only mistakes you can make in the social domain. There are lots of ways of acting that are not characterised by these two stereotypes.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

False or just simply two variables out of many?

A false dichotomy is when you pose two possibilities as the only choices.

There's a lot here I could respond to, and I may come back with something in depth later, but for now I'll just say: black-and-white tribalism is not a jock-specific thing. In fact, the nerd/jock distinction is probably better understood as a case of binary tribalism (and mostly on the part of people identifying as nerds) than as a personality dimension.

The are plenty of instances of black-and-white tribalism among nerds as well; just look at the editor holy wars.

Counterexamples: Bill Gates nor Arnold Schwarzenegger seem respectively 100% geek and 100% jock, and are among the most successful people on earth. Which seem to show you can be extremely successful without "striking a balance".

Going 100% geek seems like a perfectly viable strategy, especially if you mostly care about success at geeky things (which amazingly a lot of geeks do).

Which isn't to say there aren't any "geek failure modes" to avoid, but "try to strike a balance between geek and jock" doesn't seem like a very useful rule of thumb.

Fun fact: Arnold Schwarzenegger paints his own Christmas cards.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Good god, no, not at all! Gates is already a product of that (subset of) America culture that makes geeks practical and thus more jockey. Compare Gates with someone like Sartre and you will see the difference, Gates had more "plumber" in his, wanting to solve real-world problems, while Sartre was just basking in highbrowery. This is my point: if you are like Sartre, you need to be more like Gates, that is precisely the point.

Arnold is simply extremely strong-willed and success-oriented. While not a natural-born intellectual, he simply learned the things he needed on the way, learned to respect knowledge and intellectualism as tools to get goals reached and that also pushed him closer to the balance. He was never the kind of weight lifter who would think a scrawny nutrition scientist should not try to teach him things.

I believe you replied to the wrong comment here, it's attached to a child comment that's responding in a similar vein to what you've written.

In somewhat related news, Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel publishes paper in math journal.

Here is a smarter guy: Chris Borland, 24, to retire from NFL, cites fear of concussions.

[-][anonymous]6y 2

Define success.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Getting future states of things you want.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Why should success depend on a nerd ---- jock distribution?

I find it interesting that almost all the good advice I read - whether regarding the workplace, romance, friendships, shopping, etc - translates, in your vocabulary, to "be more jock." Be more pushy, more demanding, set higher expectations, make things happen, be the first mover, be more assertive. While all this is individually interesting, it nevertheless leads to the question of why there should be free "fitness points" for a generic strategy change across a wide range of areas - which you would expect not to be the case.

My naive hypothesis is that something has changed to make "jock" a more attractive strategy now than in the past, so social and cultural mores push us into a more "geek" direction than is good for us. But this seems a rather unsatisfactory explanation for various reasons. Does anyone have better explanations?

why there should be free "fitness points" for a generic strategy change across a wide range of areas

I think you need to remember that "us geeks" are outliers, a tail of the distribution. For some things that's too far out of the mainstream and moving back towards the center would be useful. For comparison look at the other tail -- impulsive, not too smart, hold-mah-beer-and-watch-this people. Their "free fitness points" are in becoming more thoughtful, in reflecting more on themselves and the world, etc.

Having said that, I think that in specific cases -- particularly Russia under Stalin -- there was a significant enough culling of the population to affect the gene pool. Dumb and obedient people survived, smart and active did not.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Smart and obedient? Dumb and active?.. Just let them interbreed.

I don't know enough about Russia under Stalin. I can believe that passivity was a good strategy, but how about knowing how to manipulate the system, if only in small ways?

My impression is that periodic purges made any kind of success dangerous -- the best survival strategy was just to keep your head down and not stick out in any way.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

It is perfectly satisfactory. Two world wars, several genocides, and a cold war dun it. Being too jock on the collective level became incredibly dangerous, you really, really don't want any "hawks" or "direct action worshippers" around nukes. It was more like "Think twice, think thrice, heck, think a million times and still don't press that button!"

Around the 1960's, the hippie era, came the geek revolution which took things a bit too far and now we are correcting, regressing back to the mean. Largely because we feel safer now, current problems East Ukraine and ISIS notwithstanding are NOT Cuban Missile Crisis level of problems.

Also, geeks with computers at home are way more formidable than geeks stuffed away into a bleak research lab in 1950. This made us a bit over-confident. We need reminders that even with a geeky software startup success depends on more jocky hard-work and discipline and so on than just smart ideas.

Finally, because intelligence or rationality is supposed to be a self-correcting virtue or tool: perhaps the only one of them? So it is part of intelligence or rationality to figure out when you need to rely on something else than it. To know its own limitations. To figure out how people who economized their time differently and spent their time on building other virtues or tools may have advantages. Intelligence is a universal learner, even from the less intelligent, and while the intelligent tend to economize their time towards intellectual learning part of the universal learning is about the outcomes of other optimizations.

The terms you picked, while convenient, have somewhat wrong connotations for me.

What you called "geeks" are really the Russian/Eastern European concept of "intelligentsia" -- and note that as opposed to true Western geeks, intelligentsia is overwhelmingly liberal-arts people, not hackers.

And what you called "jocks" I would call get-shit-done people. The are not necessarily into sports or machismo, they're just... practical.

The Russian word "intelligentsia" is very complicated, it does not translate into "geek" either as used by OP, or by anyone else who is an English speaker. There is a lot of cultural context, worldview, and Russian history behind this word. It also means something quite different from the word "intelligentsia" in English.

There is an element of "the invisible aristocracy" (with all that this entails).

Well, sure, but I'm not trying to use the Russian word here, I'm trying to convey the concept of liberal arts/humanities people who have something of a disdain for the material world (and think that is the proper attitude) and generally think that ideas matter much more than things. Oh, and of course they have a high opinion of themselves X-)

Well, sure, but I'm not trying to use the Russian word here

What you called "geeks" are really the Russian/Eastern European concept of "intelligentsia"


of course they have a high opinion of themselves

It's not just that. There is:

(a) aristocracy (ordering from better to worse, moreover by birth)

(b) invisible (independent of actual rank in society)

There is also an element of "noblesse oblige" and "betterment of all mankind at the expense of self" in how the intelligentsia is to conduct itself. Self interest considered "vulgar," etc.

None of this has anything to do with the OP's posts on building a better asshole.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

building a better asshole

Awesome. If I borrow this for the sequence name, do you want attribution?

Also, I think I really need to write "ethics as if the world was boring" now to explain it (^・ω・^ )

do you want attribution?

No (thank you though).


Concept, not word. Intelligentsia is a valid English noun.

Ok, done here.

[-][anonymous]6y -2

Well, it is true that I think that I think to post effectively on LW is to translate my rather diverse life experience to Americanese and it is leaky. But it is nowhere this leaky.

There are mind people and body people. Where it comes from is a good question, but this phenomenon goes back to tribal chieftains vs. shamans, warriors vs clergy and who knows where.

Ultimately it comes from the fact that man is a smart animal and these two aspects are in a constant tension. Satoshi Kanazawa have put it so that as IQ is a general problem-solver, it tends to suppress earlier adapted problem-solver instincts, making intelligent people not too good at things like common sense, read signs of romantic attraction, pick up social cues and so on.

So this problem already arose at the earliest tribal societies, of the triangular chieftain - shaman - warrior dynamic. The warriors were the perfectly primates, who represented what is in humans like in every animal, who respected physical health and strength, liked such challenges, liked tackling problems head-on preferably clubbing them over the head, liked direct and impulsive action and raised the fiercest of them as chieftains. And the shaman was the intellectual who represented what is specifically human in man, the intelligence, which was back then probably interpreted as suggestions from spirits and gods perhaps through a bicameral mind setup.

If Kanazawa is right that the tension is inherent, because not only stupid people are not smart but also smart people are not good at being instinctive and sensible, then I think that explains it. But even when not I think the basic tension can also be seen empirically.

Liberal-arts intelligentsia and hackers are of the same mind-people, ex-clergy, ex-shaman stock. The whole point is that with some influence from body people they are more likely to become hackers than postmodernists :-) (Intelligentsia is much more a French than Russian concept.)

And the get-shit-done comes from the same body-orientation as machismo or sports come from, as our heads can be in any kinds of clouds but our body is always in the here in now, it is through the body how minds have contact with reality. People who care about their ass sitting on an uncomfortable chair will be practical and fix the chair. People who are not interested in their ass being uncomfortable because the body is a mere lowly vessel of their minds won't.

So this problem already arose at the earliest tribal societies, of the triangular chieftain - shaman - warrior dynamic.

That, ahem, sounds like bullshit to me. I would like to see some empirical evidence.

Liberal-arts intelligentsia and hackers are of the same mind-people, ex-clergy, ex-shaman stock.

I disagree. I think they are very different kind of people -- you may know their opposition as poets vs. techies. Of course both are different from rah-rah idiots, but that still doesn't make them similar.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Well, you know anthro is hard, because the fact that currently living hunter-gatherers stayed so while everybody else moved on makes them rather atypical and unrepresentative, and everything else is just reasoning from archeology aka throwing darts to a football field from a helicopter. So I cannot provide that.

As for poets vs. technies being a very different kind, sure, my post is about the difference, I am just arguing they are hatched from the same egg. A techie is a poet with a hammer, because he has a certain respect for the blacksmith with a hammer, this kind of my point.

...they are hatched from the same egg. A techie is a poet with a hammer

And that's what I'm disagreeing with :-) I think they are two different subspecies and even if a poet picks up a hammer out of the respect for the blacksmith, he's not going to become a techie. Similarly, a techie who puts down his hammer is not a poet.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Okay. Let's try to get empirical - which will not be easy. In my high school, 1992-96, correlation between interest in computers and interest in literature: high. Getting good grades in literature or history vs. math, science: mid-high. Visual arts vs math: low.

I think there is a large gap between hard mathy science and the visual arts.

But the gap between programming and reading / writing stuff not high - most of programming is not actually that mathy as it is advertised to be, while schools like to start with computing the Fibonacci, much of it in real life is just a bit more rigorous way of defining processes in pseudo-English. To give you a good example, Ruby on Rails is considered a fine piece of hackerdom, I think DHH won some hacker award with that, I looked into the codebase, and it is smart, often too much so (i.e. hairy, at least the early version I looked at) but it is more of a writing type of brilliance twisting expression this way and that way rather than mathy hard-science kind. Or another example, and this is considered a tutorial with fairly high-level concepts, frankly it is way easier for my non-mathy mind than even calculus. It is just writing rigorously.

So let's define a scale


Hard mathy science, programing, writing, visual arts

Putting it differently. The closest relative to programming is that kind of more rigorous analytical philosophy Wittgenstein was doing. Like the "Is the king of France bald?" problem which cannot be answered with Y or N if you know France has no king. A programmer would instantly go "Oh, we have a KingOfFrance class and it used to have instances and now it has no instance, and baldness is an instance attribute and..."

And I think the gap between analytical philosophy and quantum physics is huge. The gap between that and writing smart essays, not so much.

One evening, when a friend and me were drunk, we seriously got into discussing things like the Krshna-religion he was interested in is basically the idea that the godhead is the base class all other classes inherit attributes from, and I was saying I am more interested in Buddhism because I see no fixed classes just processes bit like in Erlang and and and... my point is we seriously built theology on top of programming. I am not exactly proud of this exercise, but we were drunk and young. So my point is, we went really far off the softest soft science - liberal arts direction and we were still related to programmers-hackers.

I agree that programming is much more related to logic and analytical thinking than to math. I, too, think that math and programming are not as close as they are usually made out to be.

I disagree that literature (fiction) and writing are close to programming. Academic or technical writing, maybe, but fiction -- especially fiction that the liberal-arts people revere -- nope.

Yes, there is Tolkien with his world-building, but notice how he is beloved by (techie) geeks and looked down at by (poet) high-culture literary types. Those literary types much prefer writers like James Joyce, or Nabokov, or maybe Marquez, writers who are not analytic and are not much concerned with logic, consistency, etc. And, of course, there is poetry.

A programmer would instantly go "Oh, we have a KingOfFrance class...

Yeah. Reminds me of an old joke about a programmer who each evening would put two glasses on his nightstand: one full of water if he gets thirsty during the night; and one empty one if he doesn't :-)

I agree that programming is much more related to logic and analytical thinking than to math.

"Math" of the kind that's taught in school/college is really a specialized kind of logical/analytical thinking. You wouldn't expect to use, say, calculus or linear algebra in a Rails database application, but math-heavy computer science (databases, parsing and whatnot) comes up all the time.

fiction -- especially fiction that the liberal-arts people revere -- nope.

Even literary fiction uses common narrative tropes all the time. And one ingredient that makes it popular in liberal-arts academia (and that's sorely lacking in the likes of Tolkien, and most sci-fi/fantasy) is basically characterization of an introspective kind. But HP:MoR is heavily based on that kind of introspection. Also, even James Joyce only used "non-logical" language as a hack to immerse the reader in the characters' thought process. A lot of poetry does the same thing: it's highly evocative and not at all "logical', but that doesn't mean it can't be understood on its own terms. There's no real divergence, only a contingent cultural divide.

"Math" of the kind that's taught in school/college is really a specialized kind of logical/analytical thinking.

Technically speaking, yes, practically speaking, no. In particular, people good at logical/analytical thinking are not necessarily good at math and vice versa.

So this problem already arose at the earliest tribal societies, of the triangular chieftain - shaman - warrior dynamic.

Do you have good anthropological evidence that this "dynamic" actually exists / existed, and corresponds to what you're referring to?

"How our proud ancestors lived" in popular culture is full of bad/old science, romantic notions, nationalist/political propaganda (in either direction), and I trust it as much as I trust talk of "positive energy".

There are a bunch of stories (books, movies, games...) set in a fictional past, and they are often made understandable by projecting modern stereotypes there (because nobody has a good idea what life was millennia ago, and more importantly people don't care, they prefer modern issues with an exotic backdrop). It seems that you're seeing the resemblance of modern social stereotypes with "shamans" or "warriors" in popular culture, and acting as if it revealed some kind of profound truth about mankind.

(note that I don't know that much history or anthropology myself)

Well, it is true that I think that I think to post effectively on LW is to translate my rather diverse life experience to Americanese and it is leaky.

And some of us then have to translate that again into their own cultural concepts. "Jock" is not a word or a concept here in the UK, and "geek", if it means anything here, just means someone into computers and sci-fi. Judging from Google, "jock" even in its home culture doesn't mean what you're using it to mean either. All that leaves is a pair of character sketches that don't seem to correspond to any real categories.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Yes, because the UK is very special and excellent at it. Even Tolkien, the textbook example of the room-temperature scholar wrote to his son he was a "fierce" rugby player and "got his colours" in a year which I am not sure what it means but probably something good. Or Kate Middleton played hockey. So the UK is absolutely excellent and unique at not letting people bifurcate into body people / lower-class and mind-people / upper-class but also pushing high-class / mind-people to also be body people.

But in this article I was focusing on a different aspect, practicality, and again this is something that works very well in the UK, when I worked in Birmingham I constantly got the impression that people are more interested in tinkering / invention than overly abstract high-browery.

This is my point. If your culture is already on the balance, you don't notice the problem at all but then OK because for you it is already solved.

An obvious close counter-example is France. Intellectuals of the Sartre type were never properly practical.