It’s Lonely Over Here

Looking at everything through numbers and equations just makes more sense than trying to wade your way through some overly complicated man made emotional veil of confusion… However, I’m certain I’m not alone when I say I’ve made some bad decisions that were terribly enjoyable, and some very good decisions that were unbearable. I know dedicating myself to understanding math and science is a good thing… It satisfies me and fulfills my rational mind. But when I find myself back in reality again, I often just feel alone. I find it difficult to enjoy things that most people do. It’s rare that I can have a conversation where I completely relate with someone else and connect on an intellectual level. I know these “nerdy people” who do math and science are perceived to see the world in a different way than most, and though that may be true in some situations, I for one would still like to feel a sense of belonging.

So I’m curious how the many scholarly people in the mathematics/computer science world perceive their world around them. How do you see your role in society? Do you feel like you belong where you are?

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25 Responses to It’s Lonely Over Here

  1. Anon says:

    I’m doing my PhD in comp sci, the trick is to make sure to be involved in student group and to have active interests outside of programming. You’ll meet a ton of people just like yourself and have a lot of fun doing it. Most of the people who frequent the groups have been in your position and are usually glad to have new members.

    Nobody ever said learning math meant being alone.

  2. Turdul says:

    Hi there!
    I’ve found this blog entry though reddit. So I don’t regularly read your blog, and might have gotten the wrong impression. Before you read the rest of my message, just know that not too long ago I had similar problems and that I am a fellow nerd (I’m in Computer Science/Bioinformatics graduate school now, FWIW).

    Anyhow, my message to you is (I don’t mean to be offensive, but someone clearly needs to tell you this): don’t be a wuss!
    Being a geek doesn’t mean you can’t have a life. Not by a long shot. I’m sure there are other people at your lab or at uni who are as nerdy as you are.

    Also – and it took me 25 years to learn this – even if a person doesn’t know what an ODE is, or, heck, doesn’t even know how to use MS Word, you might still be able to have genuinely good conversations with them. I even managed to find common ground with girls that were… less than capable around a PC (and any equation with more than 1 unknown variable). But it turns out, you can have an (intellectual) connection with someone even if you don’t share the same interests. There’s things like live, the universe and all the rest to talk about.

  3. trapd00r says:

    Since I’m alone as well, we can be alone together. Does that makes us more or less alone?

    I’m having a really hard time feeling joy in any social stuff as well. I’d be great having some ‘real person’ that one could actually have interesting conversations with, but so far, I’ve found none.

    But I’ll continue to do what I do enjoy, hacking and learning stuff. I suggest you do the same, it’s nothing wrong with that, really. Just remember that you are not alone!

  4. The notion that math or science is lonely is only contemplated amongst those who don’t exclusively work with other math or science professionals. I end up having the opposite problem, where after spending day after day with mathematicians, economists, and engineers, I enjoy the occasional conversation with family over “what new movies came out?” or “how are those Chilean miners doing?”

    If you’re seeking more intellectually stimulating conversation, and on a more regular basis, I would suggest finding a job where you’re surrounded by similar minds.

  5. jazzit says:

    Congratulations, this was posted on reddit !

    I made an answer HERE

  6. Sclytrack says:

    When learning math (which I actually suck at), I noticed people responded to it in a negative way while language learners got praise immediately.

    Why would you want to connect to other people on “intellectual level”? Just connect to books on intellectual level and keep the connections with people on the “silly, fun, do idiot stuff” level.

    /me bookmarks this website.

  7. Chris Weed says:

    Hey my name’s Chris I found this on Reddit.

    I can’t say I meet your requirements, but I’m willing to bet they were rhetorical, and I feel like I could at least illuminate the problem better. I’m not in the mathematic or computer science world. I have friends who are, and I enjoy hearing them explain it to me though – even if I have to ask a bunch of questions.

    Anyway, I go through similar moods of feeling really distant from other people. I think the difference is that mine are a lot shorter in duration. Um. “My moods have a shorter wavelength,” I think would be a way to say it. I have these quiet moods where I feel like I can’t communicate a single thought. Like all of my thoughts would take half an hour to explain… to get the people I’m with to the page I’m on. And that’s ridiculous. Right? How can I expect them to put in all that effort so I can have a conversation about something I don’t even really want to have a conversation about… I just want the conversation!

    And I assume it’s similar for you. I think it’s actually true for most people. Like, I bet its true of anyone that has really immersed themselves in a field. Computer science, yeah, but also history, or dance or even something like carpentry. If you spend a good portion of your life dedicated to it, it will be important to you. You’ll have a need to connect with people who share that interest. And honestly, you and I probably have an easier time finding other people to talk to than a carpenter does. Unless I’m just oblivious to the many carpentry conventions.

    But you’re not talking about the people in your field. You’re talking about the people who dont share that knowledge. How do you connect with them.

    Well. I can’t really say more than you have to spend energy trying to get to the same page as them. Because whatever page they’re on is, generally, a lot closer to the mean than your page. And even if that’s not true, you’re the one writing a blog post about feeling disconnected. So you need to spend more energy trying to connect with them, or learn to suck that up.

    It’s harsh. But please trust that I didn’t write this reply to mess with you. No. I’m just trying to explain the viewpoint that other people have about this. It’s on your shoulders to meet them. That might not seem fair, but people aren’t cruel. They can recognize that you’re trying, and a lot of them will meet that, and try and make it as easy for you as they can. Some wont. And you can hate them or not (but it’s not worth your time to hate). All that matters in the end is that you find the people that appreciate the energy you give. And if you can’t find enough people to escape that lonely feeling – that means you need to spend more energy.

    I’m sure there’s a math analogy that could capture that, but I don’t know enough about math. Sorry dude.

  8. Jesse says:

    Well Nathan,
    Honestly, you’re lonely because you don’t blend in with others. Loneliness is a familiar situation to me. It really depends on whether you want to embrace your difference and loneliness or you really want to feel that you belong somewhere. If you feel lonely, then you want the latter. You want to enjoy what others enjoy.

    Since you don’t enjoy what others enjoy. A few of them “may” enjoy what you enjoy. But, it doesn’t matter at all. What you enjoy may not be important at all to anyone happiness.

    One man pay attention to things that others do not pay attention to, and this man neglect things that others paid attention to. So if you really want to feel that you belong somewhere you have to pay attention to what others paid attention to. It’s hard if you don’t care about what they care about, but unfortunately thats the only way for you *not* to feel lonely.

  9. Robin says:

    Hi Nathan,

    I see what you’re getting at. I also studied computer science (at the Eindhoven University (the Netherlands)) and more or less figured out the same thing. On a professional / intellectual level it can be hard for us “uber-techies” to relate to the non-technical crowd.

    So I had a choice: either spend my life amongst people with more or less similar backgrounds or become a more generic person. I chose the last: I stayed in technology, but said goodbye to the world of computer science.

    Now, 4 years later, I’m glad with the choice I made back then. I still profit from my background as a computer scientist, both in a technical and a non-technical sense. I’m working as both an integrator (writing decent glue code you might say), information analyst and manager. The first two I can do because of my background as a scientist, the latter I can do because I have proven to be more or less intelligent ;-) and I’ve developed myself from nerdy to a bit of a peoples person.

    Life as a developer / computer scientist can be lonely indeed (I know quite a few who are lonely), but it doesn’t have to be. I guess it depends on the future you want and what you’d put your money at. Of course, letting go of what you’ve studied for is kind of risky, but when done wisely, it might turn out just fine. It did for me!

    Hope this helps a little :-) .

  10. Demosthenes says:

    I feel the same way and glad to know I am not the only one who feels that way. I have been a computer programmer for the last nine years and have intense interest in maths and physics. I have noticed that over the last nine years I have drifted more and more into logical world and farther away from the real world (real world is far from logical!). There have been moments when I felt I have more in common with computers than with humans. This is a feeling that sends chills down my spine and makes me wonder if I am losing my mind. I often find that I cannot relate to anybody. The kind of intellectual thought I put into anything simply doesn’t work in day to day life. Most people do not want to take things seriously, they just want to goof off and act stupid and I don’t do that very often. I feel happy when I am programming but otherwise I feel quite lonely too even though I have a girlfriend.

  11. David Portela says:

    Hi Nathan -

    I was in much the same place a few years ago. I started my studies in the field of Applied Math and Computer Science and ended up migrating to Philosophy. Trust me when I say the sciences are not the only place where you can lose yourself in your work and come up lonely when you return to the “real world”. It’s quite likely, in fact, that you have people all around you in the same situation, and all that really needs to happen is for one of you to take the initiative and try to bridge the chasm.

    Having said that, it takes a tremendous amount of initiative and courage to be the first one to do so. Especially when you get used to viewing the world in terms of numbers and equations (or symbolic logic), it can be frustrating to go back to dealing with people and situations who cannot be easily quantified and solved, but who display irrational and seemingly random behavior at times.

    I have not gotten to a place where I feel like I belong, in the conventional meaning of the terms. But I question whether that’s the right place to be at. So much of the world has pulled a collective fleece over its own eyes and developed accoutrements of acceptance, ways and means of being that provide a feeling of belonging as long as one follows this or that social convention, whether it be dress, speech, fitness, etc. It’s hard to be someone of intellect, who challenges and critiques the world around them, and still feel a sense of belonging. If there’s a direct connection between ignorance and bliss, are we prepared to take the former along with the latter?

    A more developed and, in my opinion, realistic sense of belonging comes from realizing that there are many, many of us out there who for some reason or other have not bought into the collective self-deception that “everything’s all right as long as I wear my jeans just so” (to use an unfair and overly broad generalization). These are people from all walks of life and fields of study: artists, sociologists, psychologists, philosophers and yes, scientists and mathematicians too. This is the community you belong to, and I believe it is a better one to be in.

    To answer your final questions, my perception of the world, of my role in society, and the gauge for whether I really “belong” where I am (i.e. whether I am who I should be and whether I am doing what I should be doing) are heavily determined and sustained by my faith and my relationship with God, so the answers for me do go beyond simply being part of a community of non-conformists.

    I truly hope you can connect with others like you as you continue your studies. The area you’re in (Computer Vision) is an exciting field on the forefront of technology, and it should yield many challenges and breakthroughs in the years to come. I wish you the best as you seek to improve our world through your work.

    Kind regards,

    – David

  12. Josh Stone says:

    Anon’s comment above (the guy getting the Ph.D.) intrigued me. His (Her? What are the odds?) solution only works if you stay out of industry. Around a university environment, it’s easy to find other cultural nerds. I’m guessing that the Ph.D. route takes him to academia life-long or some research park somewhere. In either case, unless your path is the same, your solution won’t be the same.

    I found on graduation that I was the nerdiest person on my team — and it was the nerdiest team in the company. I did have a job as staff for a university for awhile, and found no difficulty finding nerds. But if you work for a normal company in a normal city, you just won’t find very many.

    I’ve experimented with finding Linux User Groups (or similar), but even there I found that my technical depth puts me in a very weird category. I’m a security analyst (read: penetration tester), and the only places where I’ve ever found myself surrounded by similar people are at conferences and my current job (surrounded by other pen testers). *sigh*.

    I’ve given up on the idea of finding some random friend somewhere who is similar in many respects. I can get along great with mathematicians, physicists, chemists, etc. — but never found a geek like me.

  13. Ray says:

    (response originally posted on reddit)

    I don’t know. I think a few good examples of intelligent scientists being great world citizens doesn’t make them good any more than a few examples of bad world citizens makes them evil.

    Kurt Godel – starved to death because he refused to let anyone else prepare his food, convinced it was poisoned

    J. Robert Oppenheimer – poisoned his professor for giving him a bad test paper result

    John Forbes Nash – Paranoid, wrote letters to other members of the faculty at Princeton addressed to “Jew Boy”

    Werner Heisenberg – Worked on the Nazi project to build the atom bomb, later claimed he was sabotaging it from the inside

    James Watson – “[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.”

    I think the Feynmans are particularly rare and subcultures like XKCD fans seem to revel in being socially awkward and unacceptable. In my opinion (and this is strictly opinion, I have no empirical basis) it might be because of the methods of thinking that allow people to excel in specific academic and technological fields are a handicap when it comes to the entirely irrational and counter-intuitive nature of the social world. It’s nothing inherent, and I know plenty of extremely intelligent scientists and programmers who are also extremely skilled at socializing, but it’s rare that the two ride together.

    I think another part of the problem may be the cultural stereotype of highly intelligent people being outsiders. People tend to live up to the labels we give them.

    Whatever the cause, I agree that interaction and communication are essential for increasing the impact of science and empirical methods, and many of the failures in public understanding are due to poor communication or unwillingness/inability to engage with non-experts, this is a problem that faces science and needs to be addressed.

    As a further note, I think it’s an extremely important trait to be able to socialize among non-scientists or non-mathematicians and be able to understand the mindset of “outsiders” to the field from a point of non-superiority, even if just to enrich your life by embracing or at least understanding other peoples perspective on the world. I learn more from people than I do from books, especially in subject areas I don’t especially understand (literature, art, music), and outsiders to my own field in physics often have unique and interesting ideas due to not being influenced by the unfortunate dogma that is inevitable with the way science is taught socially.

    Ultimately, I think we all have to learn to relate to other people on a level below the intellectual, it’s just how humans bond. Generally the only people I am unable to relate to are those who have no passions or interests at all, and I don’t think many people would find that unusual. People may not share your world-view or thinking methodology, but often they will share your drive to understand and create, it’s inherently human. I can never really talk to anyone I know about the beauty of a piece of code I’ve written, but if I can find a way to make a visualization of what’s going on so they can see it visually and understand it intuitively it’s very rare that they don’t see why I enjoy what I do.

    A concrete example would be recent work I’ve done as a hobby in artificial intelligence, specifically genetic algorithms and genetic programming. I can talk to people about the code, or I can show them the karl simms “creatures” video here and point out that the computational power used to create it in 1994 was slower than most peoples desktop machines. Afterwards their imagination takes over.

    If you want people to understand your world, you’re going to have to try and understand theirs. Otherwise it ends up being two people with similar passions talking to each other in the languages of two entirely different cultures.

  14. Maxim Khailo says:

    I feel my role in society as a computer scientist, to make the world a better place. Computers are in an interesting position to do that.

  15. Steve Riley says:

    This is a very common problem with smart people of all disciplines. Each case is different but still there is a bell curve for intelligent people. The litmus test to see if you fit into this category is whether you have a cat, dog or other animal you connect strongly with while your interactions with actual people are estranged and lonely. If you do then (as weird as this may sound) you are holding people to a higher emotional standard than your pet quite probably and this is in a word….. wrong.

    If you can get along with animals that you value and respect; not control, but genuinely share a reciprocal emotional arrangement with; then you are probably guilty of writing people off for not being able to connect with you on ‘issues you feel are important’. This statement would be one that may require no guilt if you cannot have an emotional attachment with any mammals at all. In that case other factors may be involved. But so many lonely people can connect with animals quite easily and often have pets – this often times means there expectations are too high for the people they would like in their life. Why can’t XYZ people share my interest so I can emotionally connect with them. Believe it or not you are probably looking to satisfy your inner mammal more than your inner intellectual.

    Pet owners who can’t connect with people cover what seems like 2/3 slice of the intellectual lonely pie. Schrodinger had his cat (although he thought about killing it in the name of science), Schroeder had his blanket (this also qualifies) and many a coder has had a pet……. Loneliness is an emotional construct and requires an emotional solution. Everyone knows someone charismatic and everyone loves who they like who share NONE of their interests.

    Politicians, preachers and con-men have known the tricks for years. Smile; believe people like you and convince yourself you are genuinely interested in others. It may seem complicated but it’s that easy. It’s what you did with your pet. He/she didn’t razzle dazzle you with feats of matching intellectual prowess. You didn’t worry and fret over how your pet would receive you. You just decide to like an animal. People should deserve the same respect.

    Now if you have never owned a pet you should try it – and see what happens;)

    I’m speaking here as the guy who has been all things geek since his first Vic-20 in 1982 and has a cat now to prove it. But I have no problem enjoying people whoever they may be. Invariably we are all alive and feel – and sometimes that understanding is all it takes.

  16. Anon says:

    It sucks being a modern blacksmith. No one else is interested in how you do your job, just that they get their metal.

  17. dustin says:

    Computer Scientist here. Also ex frat guy, so heavy drinker partier type. I never find anyone like myself. Either people are fun and exciting or intelligent and interesting. I tend to just hang out in different circles and have different groups of people satisfy different aspects of my life.

    I don’t think I’ve ever had a best friend or someone I totally relate too.

  18. Nathan Crock says:

    Thanks for all of the feedback and advice everyone. Your opinions where very well thought out, I suppose with the internet we’re never alone! =]

  19. Gershon says:

    I suggest some practical advice, and some very rational explanations:

    The first step with connecting with someone is finding interesting things to talk about. Everyone has this imaginary list of things he would like to talk about.
    When you’re talking to someone, sometimes it’s hard to hold a conversation and the conversation dries up. That simply means you’ve both got your imaginary lists and you didn’t find anything in common in those lists. At this stage the conversation usually ends – since awkward silences are things only Buddhists like.

    The thing is that you’ve got just a few seconds to find the next topic before the conversation dries up and awkwardness begins. What can be done? How can you gain more time?

    The solution is doing things together. If you and me are both sitting at a cafe, and nobody can think of anything to say, we can just start putting the sugar in the coffee, look at the menu, just drink (it’s less awkward if you’re doing even a mundane thing at the same time). We can also talk about the coffee, the menu, the cafe – all of these just to buy more time while our minds think of something interesting to say.

    This is the main purpose cafes are for. Otherwise – why would you pay 5 times as much for something you can get from the grocery store?

    Another advantage it that the cafe itself brings on more topics – the coffee, the cafe, the waiter, the menu, other people there, the way there, the way back, etc.

    The main idea is that while you’re at the cafe, you ‘buy’ enough time to find our what items on your imaginary list are similar to the other person. Maybe you both like the same books, movies, sports, have similar interests in news, airplanes, gadgets, math.

    Of course a cafe is just an example. I actually suggest different things for you.
    I suggest a games night for example, where you can play chess, abalon, reversi or other types of games. This can be a good background for some light chatting, where silences are covered by game play. Another option is cooking together something – chopping veggies and making some Asian dish for example. Yet another option is doing some academic-oriented meeting where each time someone explains some topic to the other people. This would preferably be accompanied with food like pizza.

    Friendship is many times built on exchange. During these social events I just described, think of where you can give to others and where these others can give to you. For example, help in some study subject on your side and teaching you to cook something on his side. That way you can meet for a cook & study session with someone where you get an explanation on how to cook some dish and he\she gets some help in studies.

    Hope this gives you some practical solutions to your problems.
    Good luck and don’t worry!

  20. Claire C. says:

    All those who say it doesn’t matter…perhaps it doesn’t to you. But only once in my life have I met an “intellectual equal” (in the sense of talking math, physics and philosophy with enthusiasm) and no one else has made me feel like I was in good company. I didn’t have to hold back with what I had to say.
    Don’t get me wrong, I love joking around with my other friends, but after awhile I start drifting into thought and often think of something I want to share, but can’t, because it’s too sciency or whatever.
    My advice is keep on the lookout; make an effort to find like-minded people. Or do math constantly in your head like Paul Erdos if you’re getting bored, lol

  21. smile2200 says:

    Hey, my name is Jane and things you mentioned are rught up to me. It’s really difficult to find someone who could understand you. I feel so lonely sometimes, especially in big companies where all people talk about nothing. The only solution is just to do your best in studies and take up as much hobbies as possible in order not to feel this bitter loneliness. Unfortunately my English is bad and I don’t have an ability to express my feelings in a right way.

  22. maribeth tuazon says:

    alone or not as long as you feel satisfaction no good or bad is really in line for option….but never forget to consider that of all the moves you make consideration to many is a responsibility….

  23. Pingback: Hail Art » Blog Archive » Lonely People

  24. Zed says:

    Does this sound like as Asperger’s syndrome ?

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