I couldn’t fucking stop researching blue whales. I was 12 and my teacher had just explained to the class that blue whales are the largest mammals on planet Earth.
In hindsight, this reaction was my first confirmed sighting of what in The Nerd Handbook I call the “annoying efficient relevancy engine”. Something in the phase “largest mammal on earth” started the relevancy engine and once it starts, it’s not going to stop until the relevancy is understood.
The relevancy engine is the nerd’s ability to instantly and with little conscious effort parse all incoming information into one of two buckets: relevant or irrelevant. It’s a defensive information management strategy built as a reaction to the nerd’s innate passion for information — for understanding. See, a nerd can and will find out everything about anything, and left to their own devices, they’ll do this… endlessly.
Items placed in the irrelevant bucket are aggressively ignored, whereas the items in the relevant bucket are flagged as compelling and are, if possible, immediately investigated.
The reason for this often-unavoidable research compulsion varies by topic. There is something tucked inside of the idea — a puzzle, a game, a system to be discerned — that triggers the nerd’s pleasure centers, and, once triggered, the only course of action is understanding. This is why, when you’ve piqued my interest, I keep asking questions, incessantly, while staring you in the face… never blinking.
The Value of Relevance
The real value comes when we’ve vetted the relevant. The act of obsessively researching yields even more relevant data that allows the nerd to fully index the idea. A mental notepad is created that reads “Blue Whales” and on this notepad is written the three most relevant and interesting facts that make blue whales intriguing. This card is then carefully filed away.
This collection of esoteric indexed data is why a nerd’s knowledge feels five miles wide and three inches deep and why we’re randomly great at games like Trivial Pursuit. See, four years ago, someone mentioned the largest organism on the planet was a Quaking Aspen tree. We heard that one relevant fact and then spent two hours investigating the various methods by which a largest organism might be measured, we read about the largest known fully connected Quaking Aspen grove in Utah, and ended up reading about the world’s largest single stem tree, a Giant Sequoia named General Sherman.
It sounds like a lot of work until you understand the payout.
Nerds are fucking funny. It’s another point from The Nerd Handbook that I suggest is related to the relevancy engine, but I never explain. Let’s try now.
The processing of relevancy has three steps and it’s the third where the magic happens:
- Collect the Relevant
- Research and Index if necessary
- Connect the Relevant in Efficient and Entertaining Ways
So, how is The Funny created in this flow? It’s a big question: what is funny? I’d say there are two big classifications of funny. There are jokes and there’s wit. Jokes are memorized comedy retold with moxy. Wit is original comedy created in real-time and delivered with precise timing. Nerds are fucking witty because they connect the relevant to the present quickly and in clever ways.
Have you ever sat in a meeting full of engineers? What’s the game? The game is “Who can say the funniest and/or snarkiest thing and get the biggest laugh?” and to play you need to kick the relevancy engine into high gear. You need to hear everything being said, parse it, compare it to everything you know, and then find the most relevant connection possible. In nanoseconds.
Laughter is often the by-product of these observations, but an equal amount can be the hard silence found amongst the discovery of an uncomfortable truth. It’s at that moment you realize the primary goal is not laughter, but the art of the impressive connection.
Connecting the Relevant
The art of the connection is the end result of a nerd’s highly obsessive due diligence performed on anything that falls into the relevant bucket.
Laughter is sometimes the end result of connections — the recognition of the Clever between two dissimilar items or the absurd lack of any connection at all — but the result in the nerd’s brain is far more satisfying. A successful connection brings efficient order to the two heretofore-unrelated objects, and you know what that means: we’ve discovered structure. This is related to that. I know more than I did a moment ago.
Discovery of structure in a chaotic world means less chaos, and while we’re happy to make you laugh, the idea of a more orderly, structured, and knowable world is what drives us and keeps us warm in bed at night.