I’m from a long line of geeks although I think we were really just social misfits in that few of us had any real technical expertise but we all thought we did. At my wedding many years ago, my wife was introduced to a table of my adult cousins, all balding, stout, nerdy, talkative characters. As we walked away, she whispered in my ear, “You didn’t tell me you were from a family of dorks.”
At a dot.com where I was an executive several years ago, the sales manager came dressed as me on Halloween. His “costume” was a curly wig and an open mouth. The entire staff took pictures of him in my office at my computer, his mouth hanging down so wide open that flies could easily have swarmed in it. It was a perfect Murray. And speaking of
Murray, my name was (and still is) Murray, for God’s sake. “Murray” is a name reserved for dumb cops and precocious dogs in bad sitcoms.
If you saw me on the street, you probably wouldn’t know that I was a geek. If I were a character in the greatest movie of the genre, “Revenge of the Nerds,” I’d be Lewis Skolnick. Super nerdy but doesn’t think he’s any different from anybody else. Full of confidence. Laughs a little too heartily and with way too many snorts.
For the most part I’ve learned to mask the geek qualities but I will always have the defining quality of geekhood: the ability (or curse) to become so deeply immersed in a machine or engrossed in a process that I lose all sense of time, other people and my own physical presence. The ability to transcend into another dimension. The blinders seem to magically appear, the jaw slackens, the upper palette drops cutting off breath through the nostrils creating sort of a snoring sound while awake (in my family known as the glottal gulp). I descend into the rabbit hole of a video game, a computer program, a web project. Hours pass without my knowing it. If I could easily rig up a catheter to avoid having to actually get up and go to the bathroom, I probably would. We who share this affliction know that it is, in reality, unmasked enthusiasm but to outsiders it’s just plain weird.
What makes me somewhat different from your run of the mill geek is that my geek-titude involves a strong desire to connect with people. I was always drawn to making friends, publicizing my endeavors, making a good impression. So I guess I could be called a social geek. The same weird qualities a computer geek might manifest while working on a complex server problem, I manifest with people. When I’m with people, I’m going a million miles an hour. I’m talking, asking questions, responding. I get in the groove, boundaries literally become unclear. I often find myself talking a little too enthusiastically, getting a little too close to people, sometimes even spraying a little saliva here and there in my pursuit of “connection.” Isn’t that the same feeling you might have when working on a problem, playing a video game, designing a bridge?
On the first day of 7TH grade, I realized the briefcase that my older brother had recommended and that I was then carrying, wouldn’t help me get elected student body president, which I wanted, and certainly wouldn’t attract girls – or at least the girls I was interested in. My brother told me it would make me look smart. Look smart?! What self-respecting 13 year old boy or girl wants to look smart?! A geek, that’s who. At least I knew that much! I also realized my briefcase carrying older geek brother was not such a good adviser after all.
But my understanding of all of this actually occurred to me several years earlier. The third grade, 1961, I was eight years old. I was reading an assignment in my Health textbook at the Dr. Jonas Salk Elementary School in Anaheim California when I spotted a small article, nestled between the story of the triangle of death and one about acne prevention, a sidebar called “How To Be A Good Conversationalist.” In essence it said that if you were to listen to people and ask questions, you didn’t really have to say much and people would think you were intelligent, interesting and funny. Intelligent, interesting and funny. The key was that you didn’t have to actually be intelligent, interesting and funny but if you just listened to people, if you asked questions, if you engaged people, they would think you were. You mean I don’t have to do all the work to become intelligent, interesting and funny, all I have to do is learn to engage people?!
Sign me up!
That this was my watershed moment. Instinctively, it made all kinds of sense in my young mind. I immediately began to test this incredible theory on my parents and their friends. It worked. All of a sudden, I was “smart Murray” rather than “fat Murray”. I was “funny Murray” rather than “make him do the ‘twist,’ mom. He’s so funny when he does the twist.” All I had to do was listen and be interested.
So, the second day of 7th grade, I retired the briefcase and put the old health textbook into play and I’ve spent the past 40 years studying how to approach people, to get them to open up, to like me, to want to do business with me. But as you might have spent hours solving a complicated problem simply because you loved doing it and loved the challenge, I genuinely enjoy meeting new people, talking with them, finding out their “story”, connecting them with others that I know with whom they might have mutual interests or goals. The “technique” is simple. In fact, it’s not even really a technique at all. Luckily, I’m going to teach it to you.
That’s why you might not see “geek” when you meet me. I’ve learned to tune-in to other people, to understand their wants and needs and to give them the feeling that I’m sympathetic, that I care about them (and believe it or not, I actually do care about them). It’s been the one reliable skill set that has benefited me throughout my career as a screenwriter, marketing consultant, TV and internet executive and now as a teacher.
Over the years, I’ve often used my interpersonal skills to help my nerd brethren, acting as a sort of unofficial geek mentor. I love the passion of people who’ve dedicated themselves to one particular thing, who know all about it, who love it. And usually those folks need a little coaching in the people skills department. Because I’m a cheerleader and a “connector”, I’ve always tried to help these folks whenever I can, to guide them through the travails of uncomfortable social situations, business presentations, conflicts with co-workers — to speak for them, to hold their hands along the sometimes torturous path of social interaction.
I have known and I have witnessed first-hand the pain of being ostracized, of not being accepted for who you are, of being different, and I know that it can be devastating. We may learn to adapt, to cope, to even build a thick shell so that we feel somewhat immune but the hurt is often still there.
I actually regret that I didn’t do what you did: master a marketable skill and spend your life perfecting it. But I did master another skill set and I’ve spent a lifetime developing and enhancing on that premise and now I want to share it with you.