Since beginning this blog, I’ve taken up reading more self improvement books and hell, just more reading in general (which is self improvement in itself). I’m sure my Kindle loves the attention after collecting dust for two years. The intention was to learn some things for myself but also to currate helpful recommendations for the blog’s readers. These posts won’t neccessarily be critiques of the books in question, but more like examinations and distillations. I’ll start it off with the second-most-recent book I read: The Nerdist Way, by comedian and founder of the nerd culture website Nerdist, Chris Hardwick.
The Nerdist Way
To pitch these self help books to publishers, an author needs to claim some kind of legitimacy (after all, how can a person who isn’t successful write about success?), and Hardwick makes the case for his authority. He achieved some success in the stand up comedy world and held a few gigs on MTV (insert your lack-of-music joke here) years ago, but more impressively, he overcame alcoholism, worked out to the best shape of his life, and founded a successful website and podcast. Very early in he establishes himself as ‘one of us’ (the nerdy references we expect are bountiful) but also a credible person to talk about self improvement and achieving success. Famous personalities who flaunt their nerd cred are rapidly becoming a less unique thing, but he manages to stand out from the Wil Wheatons and Felicia Days of the webosphere.
In some ways, Hardwick’s personality supports the entire book. His background as a comedian is apparent with every chapter, even as he dispenses serious and practical advice about turning one’s life around. Going in though, a potential reader must be warned: Sometimes his humor can get a little too crude and certain references and jokes feel forced. One could say it’s an occupational hazard when trying to make chapters about tracking finances and time management sound witty and entertaining. That being said, it could definitely turn off some readers.
The book presents itself as a wide-reaching guide for thorough self improvement, tailored specifically for the socially awkward and introverted nerd crowd. Recurring themes of the collected advice are detailed measurement of progress, cutting the excuses and just beginning, enjoying the process of progress, and self kindness to nurture yourself along the way. Several of these sections and chapters have enough material they could easily have been expanded into books unto themselves, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Hardwick did just that in the future. The Nerdist Way is divided into three sections: Mind (“trick your brain into working for you and not against you”), Body (“a fertile mind can only be properly harvested when the machine that runs it has sufficient energy”), and Time (“the first two are all but useless unless you can sufficiently connect the events”). Sometimes this can make the book feel like it lacks focus, but if you persevere through sections you may not need improvement or lack interest in, you can find wisdom nuggets for close to every area of your life.
Part 1: Mind
We of the nerdy type tend to life our lives in our head, where we think and overthink. Hardwick acknowledges our obsessive tendencies and encourages us to embrace them, rather than try dissipating our database animal tendencies to go do lame adult stuff. It’s a very empowering approach: Telling us to embrace our perceived weaknesses as strengths, just with some helpful tips on how to do so.
The tabletop gamers who read this book will certainly love the recurring theme of “RPG your life.” The concept involves analyzing one’s goals, life, and challenges to construct a ‘campaign’ to reach the end goals and conquer the dungeons and difficulties along the way. Readers are advised to create a ‘character sheet’ that details their skills, personal strengths, and personal weaknesses. The idea is that by quantifying skills and attributes, a person can more specifically target areas of improvement, and add the sweet, addictive incremental progress rewards of gaming into the self improvement process. Nerd Fitness founder Steve Kamb themed an entire book around this concept with Level Up Your Life, which will get its own shoutout in the near future.
And of course, what book aimed at self improvement for nerds and geeks would be complete without a section addressing (both social and general) anxiety? While nothing revolutionary, the book offers some simple tips for managing that metaphorical mosquito swam constantly pricking your skin; such as deep breathing, avoiding caffeine, logically examining fears, and avoiding self diagnosis for medical ailments online. It’s nothing that will change the landscape of anxiety management, but nice reminders for those who have heard them and good introductions for those who haven’t.
Part 2: Body
The Body section takes a more direct than the Mind chapters. The benefits of fitness and myths surrounding it are the main subject. After Hardwick’s description of his own fitness journey, he dedicates a chapter to wisdom from his exercise mentor known simply as “Trainer Tom.” Tom emphasizes finding skilled and qualified trainers (as well as quality information) to work smarter as well as harder. Additionally, incremental change and progress is advocated in both fitness and diet. This is necessary to avoid the burnout that can all too easily occur if a person jumps headfirst into a crazy workout or new diet plan. The final chapter of this section shares some basic exercise information and advice for planning a workout schedule. Again, nothing revolutionary, but certainly would help a reader who has yet to enter the wild world of fitness.
One additional side note, Hardwick addresses one of my most infuriating pet peeves with nerd and convention culture: self acceptance versus self improvement. He frames the dichotomy perfectly, so I’ll just let him speak for himself:
Also I take umbrage with the concept of “being content with oneself.” It’s bullshit. You should be HAPPY with yourself. Contentment is a sedentary state. Taking care of your body is the best way to express that, not filling your mitts with a wad of cupcakes and saying, “This is who I aaaaaam!” while spitting out crumbs and jimmies. It’s not who you am. You am a good person who deserves to feel good in the long term. Taking care of yourself will accomplish this.
Part 3: Time
The final section of the book expands into a collection of life pro tips and general adulting. My first reaction was that most of the stuff presented was common sense, but on second thought, I realized it is astounding how many people aren’t aware of the general tips presented. Smart financial actions, time management, keeping an organized work and life space, assembling a work portfolio, and the importance of being able to say no to requests. It’s a broad and general collection of tips, but even seasoned adults need a reminder from time to time on these topics.
Enjoy Your Burrito
For a nerd just beginning their journey of self improvement, this book is a great place to start. The advice presented is practical but also relatable, rather than the philosophical and pseudo-scientific platitudes the genre is characterized with. More seasoned self improvement junkies may not find as much to appreciate, but even after my recent binge of various inspirational and motivational books, I still found some helpful nuggets of wisdom I am currently integrating into my life. The metaphor of applying a video game-esque logic to progress in life and skills is perhaps the most important lesson to take away from the book. Even if you don’t go out and pick up The Nerdist Way, at least take away this quotation from the closing chapter of the book: “It’s not about reaching a goal, it’s about what you become in the process.”