Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Secret to Being a Nerd

Certain activities belonged to “nerds” – and wanna-be-cool high schoolers avoided them like the plague.

I was in the Marching Band – nerd heaven. Plus, I was skinny, wore braces, earned excellent grades, was hopeless at sports, and refused to break rules. Card-carrying nerd, for sure.

But, as an insider nerd, I knew a secret. We were not all the same type of nerds. Even within marching band, people were not all one variety. Louise was a hard-core determined flute/piccolo player who wanted to gain a spot in a professional symphony. Smart and determined, she simply seemed focused. Our trumpet player was also a jazz aficionado. Brian wanted to look and sound like Chuck Mangione, so he was often seen sporting a fedora and carrying his flugel horn.

At Thornwood High School, the theatre people were on the verge of nerd-dom, but some managed to be deemed socially acceptable. Certainly the Mathletes or Dungeons & Dragons Club were card-carrying members.

The word “nerd” was not used until the 1950s. The first use, of all places, was in a Dr. Seuss book. Although, the concept of a person who didn’t quite fit into the mainstream has always been present. For years, that one person who stood out has been called an “oddball,” a “geek,” “square,” or “drip.”

Like Marty McFly in the movie Back to the Future, nerds are often portrayed as extremely intelligent, socially awkward, and oddly dressed. The stereotype developed of a nerd with taped, horn-rimmed glasses, too-short pants, and pocket protectors. In the 1980s movie, Revenge of the Nerds, these stereotypical nerds decided they’d had enough and took on the popular crowd.

For most of us, high school was a highly-pressurized time to fit in. From what my daughter says, it still is today. That is why stores like Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister are incredibly successful. “Blend. Blend. Blend,” they seductively whisper. “Wear our perfume. Flash our label. Maybe then you can avoid nerd-dom.” Anyone who avoids sports – a nerd. The girls who don’t want to be cheerleaders – nerds. The labels can be oppressive.

But, as Whil Wheaton (newly-crowned King of the Nerds) said to a crowd at Comic-con. Being a nerd just means following what you are interested in. 

Actually, we are all (even those sporting a jersey or cheerleading skirt) unique. Some of us just keep it more under wraps. We may want to know everything there is to know about [fill in the blank]. For me, it was vintage fashion and books. I loved reading and authors and traveling and times of the past. Nerdy? Probably.

Even at age 16, I knew I would rather wear a 1940s gabardine jacket, than anything I can buy at the mall. Unusual? Certainly. But, as I grew older and moved on from high school to college to graduate school, I realized that the nerd label gradually disappeared. Suddenly, I was smart, determined, one-of-a-kind.

At the end of an episode from the animated series Freakazoid, they explain that nerds have huge potential:

..most nerds are shy ordinary-looking types with no interest in physical activity. But, what they lack in physical prowess they make up in brains. Tell me, who writes all the best selling books? Nerds. Who makes all the top grossing movies? Nerds. Who designs computer programs so complex that only they can use them? Nerds. And who is running for high public office? No one but nerds. ... Without nerds to lead the way, the governments of the world will stumble, they'll be forced to seek guidance from good-looking, but vapid airheads.

If you still have any doubt, look what nerds have achieved. Ivy League colleges are filled with card-carrying nerds. They have revolutionized, invented, dreamed, and succeeded. Bill Gates – the world’s most accomplished nerd – changed the world with his inventions. John Greene – whose novels fly off the shelves and movie made millions – is a self-proclaimed nerd.

When you get older, I can assure you that the nerd label slips gradually away. As you earn your degrees, leave behind lockers and backpacks, you find out that you are delightfully quirky, unusual, determined, focused, and (gasp!) often, extraordinarily gifted and smart.

My daughter is at a convention this weekend filled with teenagers who are slightly, well – okay – hugely, obsessed with anime and comics. To an outsider, to other high schoolers, they may all seem like nerds. But I know their secret. Beneath the crazy costumes (that took hours and hours of dedicated work to create), this hotel is filled with interesting, quirky, young people who aren’t afraid to swim against the stream.

That takes guts and courage. These “nerds” will go far.

Long live the wonderful, unique people who are labeled as “nerds” in school. May they fly their freak flag proudly, refuse to conform, and ever shine.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

In junior high, my daughter was given career aptitude tests. They declared she would make a great pharmacist, an idea that repelled her. She wanted to be a fashion designer, an artist, not someone who studied medicine for years and then worked behind a counter distributing pills.

At the Bible college where I teach, students are pushed to declare a major. They enroll as a Sports Ministry major or a Pastoral Studies major with an Intercultural Studies emphasis. Their career choices are interwoven with their Christian calling which adds even more pressure to the choice. Some students arrive their freshmen year with career goals oddly defined: I am called to work with orphans in Romania.

Really!? How do you know?

My own life’s ambitions have rolled out like a tattered carpet littered with failed dreams. I wanted to be a Bible translator in the 7th grade. Yes, I know it is an odd career choice in junior high. But, I admired a missionary woman who had come to speak at our Baptist church. She was a bit bookish (like me) and loved Jesus (like me), so I figured I could quietly follow in her leather, sandal-clad footsteps. Years later, after claiming my first “C” in a phonetics class, I realized that dream would probably never come to fruition.

I was focused on news journalism throughout college, until I landed a part-time job at a daily paper in Normal, Illinois. I was thrilled by the bustling newsroom and grumpy editors. I proudly took my place at the copyediting station, typed in headlines, and corrected poor comma usage. My heart beat quickly when I earned my first actual assignment and took the paper’s car down to Springfield. As I bounded up the state capitol steps toward my first press meeting, I felt like a real reporter.

Certainly, I had grown up.

But my dream spiraled downward from there. After a few months at the paper, I realized I would never be a dedicated journalist. Rather than thrilling me, the atmosphere of the newspaper office exhausted me. I found the minute by minute news spewing from the AP wire more than a bit depressing. Every few seconds I was reminded that houses were burning, kids were missing, and people died. The cyclical nature of news and the crazed dedication of those true journalists who loved to live at the office quickly sealed my fate. I would never be a journalist – and that was my major.

Since then, my career has taken an odd and unexpected path. I became a teacher reluctantly. I entered public relations because of an unexpected job opportunity. I started fundraising writing because I found I was good at it. I wrote a book – something I had secretly dreamed – but never thought would come true. All of these odd parts have come together in a way I never expected. I can only conclude it was God-ordained. I never would have imagined it and it certainly never appeared in a career-finder chart.

To my daughter and to all of those feeling the pressure of deciding what to be, I offer this bit of advice:

1)      Hold your plans loosely. Know that any dreams or ideas of what you will be or should be may very well change. Life has a way of interrupting or even rerouting those dreams. When I became a mother, I switched to full-time teaching. It fit that lifestyle, and I enjoyed it. Since then, my job has shifted again. And, I expect it will in the future. I know very, very few people who are today what they thought they would be in college or especially high school. It is fine to plan, but know that your dreams may shift, doors may close, plans may change. You may find that what you end up with is better than what you expected.

2)      Expect rough patches. After I graduated, I was floundering. I took a job without benefits. It was a new position, and I didn’t have a desk. I carried my stack of papers and belongings from vacant desk to vacant desk. I was living at home because I couldn’t afford rent. I was depressed. As I made endless copies and sealed hundreds of envelopes, I felt like all my work and ambition had gone down the toilet. That happens. It is part of life. Keep going. Trust that this is the long haul, not a short sprint. Hang in there and keep your eyes open for the next opportunity.

3)      Know what you love. Rather than deciding on a job, consider what you love to do, what you are good at. I wanted to love journalism, but I finally realized that I never really liked being on the staff of a paper. I liked the idea of being a reporter more than the actual job. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my time or lifestyle to achieve that dream. My inclination toward journalism was not completely wrong. I did love writing. I like interviewing and telling stories. I like interpersonal interaction with others. Look at what you are drawn to and let that influence your choices.

4)      Don’t be surprised when some of your dreams fail. Failing dreams does not make you a failure. It may mean that they were never the right dreams in the first place. Our big grand vision is what gets us off the couch and sends us on a journey. But, we can also expect that our ambitions may change as we grow and mature. Very few boys grow up to be a race car driver or fireman. Very few girls are now ballerinas or princesses. We don’t realistically expect those childhood dreams to come true. But, dreaming in itself is not bad. It is shaping our vision.

5)      Be realistic. Think practically about the lifestyle associated with the careers you are considering. If you want to be a journalist (as I did), but you aren’t willing to work long hours or move to a new city to pursue your dream, it might not be the best choice for you. Trying to shoehorn your personality into a job that doesn’t match it will be a painful learning experience.

6)      Keep striving. If you really want something, don’t give up. This is especially true for artistic careers. It is not easy to become a writer or a musician. It takes time. It takes years of doing jobs, sometimes unpaid or on the side, before you can actually spend quality time pursuing your true calling. Your career dream may not be lucrative. That’s okay. You will do it anyway.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that a career builder test would never have predicted my path. Only God knew, and I am thankful for His hand that guided me in ways I never expected.
For years, Psalm 32:8 was my favorite verses: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go, I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.”

God knows you better than anyone else. He has His loving eye on you. His ways are not our ways. His path is best. Trust in that. Move ahead. Do what you love. Enjoy each stage of your life without focusing on what you never achieved.