If you peruse job listings for programmer or IT jobs, you will find that a great many of the ads — particularly those for positions in smaller, younger companies (or companies that want to imply an environment like smaller, younger companies) — involve a considerable degree of geek self-mythologizing. They ask, “are you a Java rock star?” or exclaim “Rails ninjas wanted!” Sometimes there are references to wizards or gurus, or to mighty feats of derring-do.
It’s not a secret that we nerds often suffer from considerable, deep-seated insecurity about ourselves, our place and our value in the world. Many, if not most, of us had childhoods full of teasing, bullying, and social exclusion. In the face of this kind of self-doubt, it’s hardly surprising that we often turn to the kinds of escapist fantasy we loved as children (and probably still do love) to provide a metaphorical narrative we can impose on the events of our real lives, a narrative in which we’re the heroes, the great, powerful, highly skilled warriors whose command of the secret arts can change the fate of the world. It makes us matter. And for nerds of my generation, in our twenties and thirties, it can easily feel like those narratives are true. Major multinational corporations live and die by their nerds! Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Valve, Blizzard! And many more! Our skills are needed, our talents are sought-after, our place in the world is clear. All the world’s wealth and all its data — if to mention them separately isn’t redundant — flow through our fingers; modern civilization would surely fall apart without us! Truly, we must now be the legendary heroes we’ve always dreamed of being! We must be the great, the wise and the mighty! It is the Age of the Nerd!
And, OK, it’s sort of, arguably, the Age of the Nerd. But we aren’t legendary heroes. The very fact that the world does value our skills, does need our talents, does trust us with the flow of its wealth and data, obviates the fantasy narrative. We should let it go: we don’t need it anymore. We don’t need to try to convince ourselves that we are, in some way, in real life equivalent to the characters we played (that some of us still play) in our weekend role-playing sessions with our friends. Those stories are not valueless; but we imposed them on the real world to make ourselves important when society seemed to say we weren’t. And society knows we’re important, now. We should know it too, and let the fantasies stay fantasy. To be what we are and do what we do, if perhaps less cinematically, gloriously heroic — entangled as it must always be with compromise and politics and teamwork — is far better, and far more important, because it’s real. We should embrace that, and stop trying to glorify something which needs no gilding, because what it is suffices.
My name is Scott Madin.
I am not a ninja. I am not a wizard, a warrior, a rock star, a guru, a hero, a knight, a cowboy, a samurai, or any other sort of fantasy character. If you want me to slay dragons, play a mean six-string, or assassinate rival nobles, you’re out of luck.
I am a software engineer, and I’m pretty good at what I do. What more glory should I seek?