Who Should Get A Life?

A common complaint about nerds is that they should “get a life.” For example, parents, teachers, etc. feel quite justifying in tsk-tsking hackers who spend most of their hours in front of a computer screen. Interestingly, we don’t feel much inclined to complain about athletes who are similarly focused. Alex quotes Wallace ’95:

It’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. … The actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them. … Note the way “up close and personal” profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life — outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce.

This seems to me yet another example of people picking on nerds more because nerds are widely disliked.

Added 11a: Many suggest that “get a life” means “get popular, high status.”  OK, I can buy that.

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  • Nerds are widely disliked? Is this an example of “my cookie is broken?” Nerds are less well rewarded socially, though Bill Gates and some of his nerdy friends have plenty of monetary compensation. My suspicion is that nerds aren’t all that entertaining except to other nerds. The interests they have are not widely distributed in the population, so it’s easy for nerds to become isolated and “picked upon.”

    We, each of us are who we are. Each individual’s gifts and interests can drive him in directions that don’t get a lot of reward. But if a person is lucky, he gets enough encouragement to become the “person God intends him to be,” and will find a great deal of happiness following his own path.

    Thanks be for the i-net. Nerds can find a few like minds and it’s easier to ignore the folks who don’t see the value of nerdiness.

    • “my cookie is broken?”

    • bigbadbuddha

      nerds can and should develop their social skills just like any other skill. You learn how to read, ride a bike, and piss by yourself all by doing, not by sitting around wondering why you cant do something. If you want to get good, it takes practice, and the right role-models to help you along. If you want something, you have to take it. dont be lazy, even nerds look “cool” if they’re good at picking up women. Practice practice practice. end of story


      ANd btw, many of the “cool kids” do a lot of the same things, but are better at covering it up because they have reputations to uphold. Stupid

  • Phil

    Um… this put-down usually refers to a social life, which athletes do not lack.

  • Phi, if nerds lack a social life, it is not for lack of time but for lack of popularity. Athletes have little free time, but in that short free time they are socially popular.

  • “Get a life” is an exhortation to do things that are rewarded with social status (having hobbies that raise status, acquire more friends and allies, demonstrate fitness via being selected as a sexual partner). Under different circumstances, different folks will be targeted by “get a life”. Note that social tolerance of hacking has increased after people see software companies get rich; in the past even a recreational interest in computers was ridiculed, while now hacking is fairly respectable as long as it one doesn’t sacrifice one’s other status-seeking activities.

    As you note, “get a life” does not function an objective condemnation of the whole-ness of a person (otherwise athletes would also be condemned), though it may be presented as such by those who want their condemnations to carry more weight.

  • Andy McKenzie

    Robin, agree nerds get picked on and good contrast here.

    But I think the reason nerds get picked on is because people know that nerds aren’t socially savvy enough to retaliate. Think about primate hierarchies–lower ones are picked on in large part because they can’t fight back.

    Other groups (e.g. women) that couldn’t fight back effectively also have been picked on historically, until they banded together. But nerds probably won’t band together, as the population is full of “non-joiners” who rebel against groups with “our beliefs.”

  • This is a little different, but I’ve always loathed how sports fans are more socially acceptable than fans of nerdy things like games.

    I’ve seen people wearing a hat, jacket and shirt with the same Red Sox logo. Sometimes they deck out their infant children in the same expensive merchandise. Yet if someone wears a few items about StarCraft or Magic: The Gathering at the same time, it’s socially unacceptable – or at least seen as a bigger sign of obsession or wasted money.

  • Robert Koslover

    In a free and modern society, many nerds actually tend to be well rewarded. E.g., Bill Gates.

  • traveling boho

    Here’s an interesting exception that I think proves your rule. A few weeks ago the Times did a profile on Ben Roethlisberger, looking for an explanation of his recklessness and proclivity for date rape. The article places the blame, at least in part, on his being “a person who was intensely driven to succeed in athletics but who was allowed little time to develop socially.”

    Perhaps Roethlisberger gets this criticism where other athletes would get only praise for their work ethic, because merely being accused of rape places a man outside the pale of modern polite society.

    • twicker

      Quick note that the “proves the rule” saying comes from earlier usage of the term “proves” — as in “tests.” Much like a “proving ground” (i.e., testing ground) for, well, whatever you’re trying to do a proof (test) of concept for.

      Exceptions test the rule — and may find it wanting (or at least in need of some mediators/moderators). I’m not aware of any circumstance in which an exception would actually strengthen a rule.

      • Pavitra

        I always understood the phrase to refer to the case where the exception was notable primarily for being an exception.

        Before one thinks of any exceptions, there remains the doubt that one has overlooked something grossly obvious. But when one thinks of a high-profile exception, and realizes that the mere fact alone of being an exception to this particular rule made the exception noteworthy, one becomes much more confident in the general applicability of the rule.

        A good example would be the moon landings; because the fact of walking on the moon is highly newsworthy, we may infer that people generally do not walk on the moon.

        A rule without exception may be similarly ‘proved’ by prominent failed attempts or near-misses; for example, in order to establish that human cloning has not yet been achieved, one may cite high-profile clones of other animal species, and failed attempts and fraudulent claims at human cloning.

  • I encountered something similar this just this week. My newspaper published a special section on local high-school football players, and we asked each player personal questions about favorite TV show, movie, food, etc. At least one player said his favorite movie was “Any Given Sunday” (a football movie) and his favorite TV show was “Friday Night Lights” (a football TV show). I admit, my first thought when I read that was “get a life.” (And I am an admitted geek.)

  • The social awkwardness of “nerds” just holds back the extent to which nerds can build their social networks, where the popular individuals have no problem there. If we’re talking HS here, then it’s been my experience that nerds from HS, generally, don’t have a problem creating these social circles later in life. So, while Johnny Hotshot and Sally Sanders are enjoying in their HS popularity and all the social value that provides, Bixley Poindexter is preparing his intellect for the future – he’ll find his niche and come out of his shell at some point. Until then, we all (even Bixley) have to accept that nerds will be nerds.

    We’re all nerds at some level tho, right? If you’re not, then I think you’ve got some soul searching to do – and I’d argue your value in modern society.

    I grew up saturated in athletics, and never knew what it was like for school to get out and simply go home, or whatever it is you’re supposed to do instead of sports. From that perspective, the team side of things is a sort of default social group that I can’t conceive a parallel in the case of “nerds”, cept for possibly starting a company or something of that sort. Maybe, you might consider club activities to be close to this, but I still don’t think that achieves the social bonds that team-driven physical activity does… especially for males. Not to mention the sort of emotion you can let loose on release in training or games.

    Do nerds have similar outlets for such, socially acceptable, overt expression? In soccer, I can just go up for a header harder, or lay my daily frustrations into a shot on goal, reveling in the pain the defender is experiencing because he decided to get in its way. My perspective here is pretty narrow, but maybe there is a corollary for nerds.

    I’m a data analyst now, and I know that the work I do and the thoughts I have nowadays are very nerdy… Book Content + Statistics + Economics = my job; and by transitivity = I’m a nerd.

    The term, “nerd,” always felt like a lazy term to use in describing someone. I don’t like the word so much. I can’t give an alternative though; I just don’t use it.

  • Hyena

    Are we sure about this?

    I would wager that your commenters are all self-identified nerds and so you are inviting people to speak their biases.

    I didn’t experience this issue at all growing up. Our school was divided pretty neatly along socioeconomic lines.

    I knew lots of jocks and nerds, I knew football players who played AD&D but I knew maybe three people who lacked a parent making over $100k per year.

  • “Get a life” doesn’t mean “become more well-rounded.” It means “stop insulating yourself so much from the real world.” It’s a warning that such over-insulation enfeebles the body, mind, and soul, and an exhortation to change for the better.

    Someone who rarely “gets out” — all manner of social interactions, physical activity both light and occasionally intense, exposure to the elements, etc. — is not sending their genes the signal that there’s a tough world out there, so it’s time to start making ourselves robust in order to deal with that. Their genes get the opposite signal — don’t bother making us robust, since there isn’t anything worth toughening up for.

    Then what happens when this person has to do any walking, running, jumping, lifting, shoving, fighting, schmoozing, charming, joking, good-listening, and so on? Or when they have to face the sun’s rays after remaining shielded for the entire year instead of building up a tan as defense? They go bust.

    The athlete already has a good level of exposure to the real world and therefore is stronger regarding future sources of stress. The cloistered nerd is not. That’s why we try to shame the nerd into getting a life — it’s for his own good. If we ever fell into such a state of extreme insulation, we’d want others to shock us out of it, lest our vitality atrophy.

    • ThePenileFamily

      “That’s why we try to shame the nerd into getting a life — it’s for his own good.”

      You say “we” but I’m curious if you shame nerds. Do you?

    • loqi

      Sending signals to our genes?

      • anon

        Yes. For instance, “getting a nice tan” involves exposure to high-energy UV radiation, which signals to our genes to increase their mutation rates. This in turns leads to awesome superpowers such as telepathy, weather manipulation, shape-shifting, teleportation and what not.

  • Peter Scott

    Agnostic: even someone who hikes in the mountains every day and gets plenty of sunshine can be a nerd who is told to “get a life”. I don’t think that physical activity is really what people mean when they talk about getting a life; they’re referring to having a normal social life.

    Furthermore, I doubt that “for your own good” is the real reason. It sounds like an after-the-fact rationalization to me. I would bet that 80-90% of people who say “get a life!” are just applying pattern recognition, and not giving a whole lot of thought to the reasons, if indeed they ever gave it any serious thought.

  • blink

    I see two at least three relevant differences between “jocks” and “nerds” even though both groups invest considerable time in their respective activities. First, popularity comes from success in competition. With clear winners, sports is an ideal setting for acquiring status and popularity and it becomes focal. Second, sports serves as a training ground for status competition, so time invested in sports builds skills relevant to acquiring popularity. Third, participation in sport is more social than intellectual pursuits, hence success is more likely to translate into popularity within the relevant group.

    As a consequence, I predict participation in team sports to yield greater popularity/higher status than individual sports.

    • luzhin

      popularity comes from giving others experiences they value. winning competitions is correlated with attributes and skills that give others enjoyable experiences and thus serves as a convenient proxy, but success alone does not confer unimpeachable status: ugly and boring high school jocks stop being popular as soon as everyone realizes they`re boring.

    • Nate

      I was going to say that I thought you were wrong on the first two counts based on competitive video game playing, but then I realized that there was an exception in the form of Korea’s Starcraft players. I doubt that they would be told to “get a life”.

      It seems to me that this criticism is used for people that don’t interact socially, but that enough fame can offset the criticism. On that basis, I have to agree with some of the above posters that this criticism seems to be leveled against people that don’t participate in status seeking behaviors.

  • luzhin

    A common complaint about nerds is that they should “get a life.”

    “get a life“ means “adopt values and acquire skills that increase the likelihood of creating and sustaining a fun vibe when in the company of a random peer“.

    when popular kids get together they want to have fun. that means vibing (follow the link). nerds are bad at vibing because they pay attention to features of social interactions either irrelevant to or directly in conflict with what is required to vibe. it`s really that simple.

    athletes are more likely than nerds to be naturally attuned to the non-verbal cues most people use to make social judgments. they therefore require far less practice to master the art of empty conversation.

    • Didn’t click the link, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of trance states recently. I think nerds can fail to enter the trance state that builds social cohesion, and can fail to cover (Goffman term) that they aren’t in that trance state. It’s a failure to have either a brain that kluges in the direction of the central tendency, or a brain that can model that central tendency so as to avoid being socially unaesthetic towards it.

  • twicker

    Methinks Hyena has the right of it.

    I’m one of “those guys” — you know, the ones who, in the early ’80s, was programming a computer, and who was in Boy Scouts (for which I was classified by one middle school classmate as, “Superduper Geek”).

    Later, I discovered that, to my shock, I was seen as one of the most popular people in the upper school (it was a private school, and my middle school flowed directly into the upper school). Where I saw myself as something of a misfit, but within a group that had few, if any, cliques, other people saw strong cliques — and me as a social butterfly talking with all of them.

    When someone says, “Get a life,” they mean, “You’re not of my social group, and I don’t understand how you can function socially.” You might be able to function spectacularly well in some other group (e.g., in grad school, surrounded by other nerds); you’re just not functioning in the way the speaker expects/values. If you reallyhave no social skills, then maybe (maybe), if it’s valuable to you, you might acquire some. However, I don’t think that this is a major problem today. Even Lewis Skolnick got the girl — way back in 1984.

    • Hyena

      This was my high school experience as well.

      The other thing I would point out about jock/nerd is the nature of the activities. Most sports are team sports; even sports which are solitary, like swimming, are organized into teams because it makes teaching/supervision more efficient. That structure puts jocks at an advantage in making social contacts: their hobbies involve groups of immediately available like-interested people.

      That really has nothing to do with how society views activities; it’s driven largely by the need to meet a demand for physical activity and supervise minors engaged in it. It also naturally biases in favor of jocks.

      I suspect that nerds who, for example, joined the debate team, had access to a full spectrum of honors/AP courses and participated in various extracurricular “nerd sports” will report less jock/nerd division overall. We had all these things, so I suspect that is why we also lacked this division to a large degree.

  • Phil

    Robin, yes, nerds stereotypically lack popularity, that is why the exhortation to get a life is essentially a command to be more popular, not to be more “well rounded.”

  • jsalvatier

    I was talking to my friend and he noted that you seem to focus on this a lot; which I think is true. Why is that? This topic does not seem especially important or general. Sure in some schooling nerds are picked on, but certainly not all. In my generic urban catholic high school, nerds were not especially were unpopular; everyone ran in their own crowd (meaning cliquey) and status was more important in that group than globally. I think perhaps you are generalizing too much from your own observations.

    • jsalvatier

      I should add that I am very much a nerd and was so in grade school/high school.

  • ThePenileFamily

    So how do we reconcile a situation where sports and video games (for example) mix?

    There are some highly skilled computer game players that play professionally and in so doing, they deal with many of the factors present in a popular sports. For example:The game Starcraft which is a professional sport in Korea.

    • ThePenileFamily

      Generally speaking my above comment could be read as:

      So how do we reconcile a situation where sports and nerds (for example) mix?

  • mjgeddes

    At last the justification everyone needs to make constant fun of nerds:


    Seems to me that this nerd idea of ‘saving the world’ (Singularity, Cryonics and so forth) is thankless. All we get for our troubles is a lot of jocks making fun of us and calling us cranks. So why bother?

    Better to become PUAs and use all that optimization power to get hot chicks. The PUAs seem to be having much more fun than the Singularitarians.

    • I don’t know, there actually are many Singularitarians with hot chicks (myself included). Especially if you look at the Singularitarians who actually are doing and achieving something.

      I’m tempted to give more explicit evidence by linking to information showing what’s the romantic situation of various high-profile Singularitarians, but sadly, I would actually consider it bad taste to start explicitly commenting on the comparative level of hotness of the SOs of said individuals. But feel free to scour the web for the relevant information yourself, it can be found.

      • mjgeddes

        I can believe this is true for a few nerds at the upper echelons of nerdom yes, but I’d wager the romantic success of top-level Singularitarians was accidental, there was no real pro-active choice involved: yes, if you achieve unusually high status in some particular area you will have one or two women throwing themselves at you, this follows from the first principle of game: status is male currency. But this is accidental, a few lucky high-status nerds stumbled into good relationships, but the vast majority of lower status nerds are still highly disliked.

        By the way: Singularitarian nerds should be careful all the ‘jocks’ don’t barge in the last minute and steal all the credit for their ideas (historically, this seemed to have happened to nerds who achieved breakthroughs over and over – some business stole their ideas and the original inventors got shafted).

      • However, I strongly suspect that such success comes later in life when being a nerd starts to pay off in money and prestige.

        If you’re in HS then either accept that you won’t have much pulling power until you get older and concentrate on building skills which will bring money and prestige or become a PUA.

        Personally, I certainly noticed that being good at science/math was pretty unpopular with the girls in HS but by my mid twenties it was suddenly very desirable. Often the qualities that go with it weren’t so desired, e.g., making them seem dumb because you tended to win arguments, but that’s a different issue I have (eventually found someone who likes to argue almost as much as I and is smart enough to hold their own)

  • Other areas with comparable levels of male “nerdy” involvement which are often overlooked by a culture willing to turn the other cheek are sports and politics.

  • One major difference between athletes and nerds is that sports will increase looks so women will value that, and men will value it because it’s a way to get women.

    ‘This seems to me yet another example of people picking on nerds more because nerds are widely disliked.’
    This seems like circular reasoning. The interesting part is why nerds are widely disliked.

  • Nick Walker

    At times it seems like nerds don’t care about the existing social rules or are trying to co-opt it from the outside, such as Craigslist destroying the newspaper classified business rather than buying it and taking it over.

    “Get a life” is an exhortation to re-join the people in the system, which at one time enhances the value of the speaker (he’s in the system) and reduces the value of the people receiving the message (outside the system). It’s also reaffirmation that the behavior and practices of the speaker are socially sanctioned whereas nerdy behavior is not.

    Athletes are part of the system, the patriarchy, and in many respects (pay, stature, physical size) sit at the top of the system whether or not their self sacrifice is off-putting.

    It’s better the sit at the top of a pyramid of 100 people than it is to reign over 10, so all else equal, bringing more people into the main should enhance the status of the people at the top, and should reduce the number of threats from the outside.

  • Aron

    You guys have too much time on your hands. lololol.

    ‘Get a life’ would translate for me into ‘the activities you spend time on are unlikely to help me in any expected difficulty I might have in the future to which you might assist, and so I am less inclined to build allegiances with you’. It’s a pretty useful and honest signal.

    I wonder: If your principle interaction with someone is via activity X, such that activity X is the only way they can help you personally, do you ever tell that person to stop practicing activity X, in order to improve their overall social positioning? This seems relevant to the narrowness of most internet-only friendships.

    • Well almost. It’s really more “Your obsessive concern/interest/behaviors annoy me and I wish to denigrate them as not being valuable to the group.”

      This can be an honest signal as in, “Stop collecting snot statues it’s a waste of resources that could be put to better use.” However, more frequently it’s issued to stop someone more skilled in those areas gaining more status than you.

      A big reason non-nerds tell nerds to get a life is that they realize ability at science/math/etc may translate into future status/resources and feel threatened by their lack of ability. Telling the nerd to get a life is an attempt to block the nerd from using his expected future earnings potential to pick up chicks by rendering their activities low status.

  • IMO athletics is a poor choice for an example because so often natural talent overwhelms works by so much that many of the best athletes are quite lazy and thus have plenty of time for other things.

  • Leibniz

    There are different angles that people come from when saying “get a life”, and the comments here reinforce that. But there is one universal here that connects all of them, at least for adults: if someone is getting laid (and it’s public knowledge), nobody would tell him/her to
    get a life.

    At it’s core, “get a life” means “get laid”, or do the sorts of things that would lead to you getting laid. For athletes (or even sports fans), this is generally not a problem. For the typical nerd, it is. Most people simply can’t imagine how a nerd could possibly have sex. Especially with a beautiful person.

    Nothing signals high status as potently as having sexual partners. Even rich nerds are often considered losers of sorts. They could be told to “get a life” if they are celibate, while poor athletes, or artists, or whatever, who have sexual partners would immune to criticism in the vast majority of cases.

    If nerds want to take the quick route to social acceptance, getting laid is the surest way. And the more beautiful the people involved, the better.

    • mjgeddes

      Yes. In fact the seduction community (PUA material) has a strong nerdy element, so it appears that nerds are now starting to find the way to hack the entire ‘status allocation’ system. This is the revenge of the nerds.

      The PUA stuff is very powerful and has much broader applicability than just picking up chicks. In fact Tyler Durden and others are starting to generalize the ideas into the whole sphere of social intelligence. See Durden’s ‘The Blueprint Decoded’ (Durden has been called ‘a social intelligence bot’ – he’s a genius who’s done nothing his whole life but examine social intelligence in exhaustive detail):

      The Blueprint Decoded

      I encourage all transhumanists to ruthlessly exploit and generalize the PUA materials in order to start hijacking the entire human ‘status allocation’ system. Have no qualms about doing so, because many aspects of human nature are just based on mindless evolution and are quite unpleasant, the system is defintely rigged against us. Remember Goertzel’s analogy of life as a video game – ‘Reality – Worst Game Ever’ – we’ve found a big ‘exploit’ (the PUA materials), time to start hacking the game.

      • really? You’re a transhumanist? I don’t recall getting that vibe before.

  • Don

    Are you serious? Hacking is either intrusive or destructive. Compare it to something like tagging or boosting cars. Do you see similar responses then?

    • Panu Horsmalahti

      I bet he meant the old definition of hacking, i.e. building cool software programs or hardware projects etc.

  • Penn Jillette has some interesting thoughts on the phrase.

  • Saya

    It amuses that most of the people who replied to this post still believe the old 70s – 80s stereotype of nerds and jocks. Really, that’s so out of funk and old fashioned. I know plenty of hot nerdy guys who “have a life”, and plenty of hot jock guys who also “have a life”. If by life you mean partying, then sure. If you mean life by some other definition, then that’s up to you to decide who does and who does not “have a life”.

  • erik

    There are different angles that people come from when saying “get a life”, and the comments here reinforce that. But there is one universal here that connects all of them, at least for adults: if someone is getting laid (and it’s public knowledge), nobody would tell him/her to
    get a life.

    At it’s core, “get a life” means “get laid”, or do the sorts of things that would lead to you getting laid. For athletes (or even sports fans), this is generally not a problem. For the typical nerd, it is. Most people simply can’t imagine how a nerd could possibly have sex. Especially with a beautiful person.

    Nothing signals high status as potently as having sexual partners. Even rich nerds are often considered losers of sorts. They could be told to “get a life” if they are celibate, while poor athletes, or artists, or whatever, who have sexual partners would immune to criticism in the vast majority of cases.

    If nerds want to take the quick route to social acceptance, getting laid is the surest way. And the more beautiful the people involved, the better.

    • Florida123

      LOL, A common sense person wouldn’t take to the point where he/she would get paranoid. Obviously the person who is saying gaf has no sense, and shouldn’t be worried about another person, and what’s he or she is doing. Sex is Universal, A Strong-Minded Person shouldn’t be worried about some pathetic loser telling them to get a life when that person has a life of their own. Try Again.