As any other techie, I was highly excited when supposedly geeky and nerdy characters became popular hero figures in TV series and movies. Until then the predominantly image was of the Steve-Urkel-kind: smart but clumsy, a little helpless in social situations – something to laugh about. With new series like The Big Bang Theory, Sherlock and the American pendant Elementary but also, to some degree, House M.D. featuring brilliant (almost always male) main characters this has changed. I always felt a certain discomfort with them, though, I just couldn’t really put my finger on it until a conversation about workplace communication I had with a friend recently.
We discussed “communication practices and processes” (aka Agile Development) and agreed what it ultimately boils down to is mutual respect and decent communication skills within the teams. As any interesting effort nowadays requires a vast variety of skills to succeed, that even the smartest person can’t excel in all of, it requires communication with others. Even if you are the most brilliant person on earth, without decent communication and social skills and the ability to work in a team with others, you won’t be able to pull it off. Since the 1950s we’ve known that in todays workplace, the bottle neck isn’t the actual work – with our level of education most of that isn’t that hard – it’s the communication and coordination between the people. That’s what distinguishes a successful team from a crappy one and the lack of it the reason why people quit. The importance of communication and basic social skills is bound to increase in the foreseeable future. The age in which the solo-flying hero will rescue us all is over.
While in those new series – especially in the more popular ones, the brilliant people are kind of jerks, if not full-blown assholes. The way media portraits the smart geek, let it be a Sherlock Holmes, Sheldon Cooper or Gregory House is by being brilliant above expectation but overall having really poor social, human and communication skills. But it goes beyond that. These characters are not just a little awkward, they are full-stretch harmful: although they know better out of egoism they do act as they do – and that’s where you have to draw the line between socially awkward and asshole (as so well explained on the subject of dating by Dr. Nerdlove in his blog post “Social awkward isn’t an excuse”).
And though you can explain the social awkwardness as a reflection of a tendency towards that in certain fields (for e.g. Tech and Science), these series go way beyond that in their portraits. Just take a look around these supposed brilliant people and you’ll find at least a few characters suffering through their abusive behaviors on more than a regular basis (Lennard and Howard or Dr. Joan Watson). To an extend you start wondering whether they suffer from the Stockholm syndrome towards their abuser – No matter how much of an asshole he might be, they never quit. And even beyond these broken relationships, we see characters suffer through the hero’s abusive behavior, but coming around every damn time. Creating the picture of suffering through abuse would be a reasonable trade-off when working with brilliant people. Or from the opposite point of view: it’s fine to be an asshole as long as you are brilliant.
As pointed out earlier, nothing could be farther from the truth. Sure, caused by the shortage of skilled labor in our field, people are barely fired even if they are a certified asshole but in the rest of the world, if anyone would act like Sheldon Cooper or Sherlock Holmes at the workplace, they would be shown the door. In a world where social and communication skills are more important than ever, should we really “heroify” the abusive brilliant asshole as the go-to definition for a geek or nerd? And with that foster the opposite behavior that is actually required to get forward in life?