Report Cards

As a kid, through most of middle and high school, I got good grades. I stayed comfortably near the top of the class without working too hard, and more importantly, without explicitly aiming to be there. I got good grades not because I “studied” conscientiously, but because I enjoyed most subjects enough that chaotic nerd energy was more than enough to coast near the top. That easy ride ended in college where that kind of marginal focus on grades was only enough to put me somewhere in the middle of the more gifted peer group. I didn’t work any harder, but I didn’t get as unreasonably rewarded for it.

But my lazy, easy ride through grade school had already made me relatively immune to validation from grades. I had become incapable of working with any sort of discipline towards good grades. I had neither contempt nor respect for good grades. I was just indifferent to them, and addicted to the less legible fruits of nerding out. I was only motivated to do well enough that grades would never get in the way of things I wanted to do (now you know where my philosophy of mediocrity comes from). I neither tried to get straight-As, nor chafed against expectations of getting good grades. I neither disappointed my parents, nor made them exceptionally proud. Possibly because I was neither the sort of straight-A’s talent who is actually in the running for racks of prizes, nor the sort of maverick intelligence that schools are particularly good at detecting and destroying with extreme prejudice. I was the sort of kid who is not just indifferent to schooling, but the sort of kid schools are indifferent to. We’re neither good enough, nor bad enough, to be worth exceptional attention. I passed through the educational system like an unexceptional neutrino, all the way through to a respectable PhD.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t work hard at my learning at all. I just worked hard in the sense of nerding out over topics that I actually enjoyed, mostly by reading far beyond and outside of the syllabus on topics I got nerdsniped by, so that I learned what was in the syllabus almost in passing. I almost never encountered a subject I couldn’t get nerdsniped by. In college and grad school, this pattern mostly continued, though I of course discovered more subjects I had very little aptitude for and didn’t get nerdsniped by. I eventually got promoted to the level of my academic mediocrity, never having learned to work hard for grades along the way. This feels a bit tragic to me now.

Solving for a good report card is very different from surrendering to a nerdy impulse. When you get nerdsniped by an idea, you double down on things that come naturally to you and ignore everything else. When you solve for a good report card, you strive to do well even on things that don’t come naturally to you, and learn to resist the temptation to spend all your time on things you get nerdy pleasure from. This is an important life skill I regret never acquiring.

It has been decades since I truly studied anything, either conscientiously for grades, or with the kind of easy nerd-absorption that’s possible in a typical laissez-faire schooling environment. The constraints of adult life make uninterrupted study in either conscientious or nerdsniped mode difficult. Both require absorption and non-interruption from practicalities.

But in the last three years, I’ve tried hard to get back into study mode, in part because there’s a bunch of fascinating subjects popping up that genuinely demand study to master, and in part because it feels like a missing element in my life. Some are technical — AI, crypto, and a new kind of robotics. Others are deep in a more general way. Like the social sciences of protocols, which I’m just getting into, or the politics of climate change.

I’m mostly trying to rediscover my old capacity for nearly unlimited nerd energy but I’m also thinking again about report cards, and reconsidering my youthful indifference to them.

Report cards are good things and should be designed so nobody can ever coast to good outcomes on them as I did. Good report cards should force you to adapt to a received view of the world that cannot be entirely captured by your nerdy aptitudes, but doesn’t entirely waste nerd energy either.

Good report cards force you to deal with the existence and importance of domains of mastery that you may not be suited for. To acquire the discipline to get to “good enough” on subjects you may not have a natural aptitude for, but need to master to minimal levels in order to get complex things done. After all, you’ll never have natural aptitude for every aspect of something worth doing.

Many things we think of as full-stack abilities are in fact report-card-like things. At best, if you’re lucky, you’ll find you have a natural aptitude for a couple of layers of the stack, and derive enough spiritual nourishment from those to grind through what it takes to conquer the other layers. The grade-school report card is the first full-stack thing you master. It is the stack of the basic literacies of modernity. And it’s not particularly well-designed because it lets people like me slip through the cracks as false positives without actually ever learning how to study.

This is being particularly driven home for me now by the most important kind of report card I get these days, which is my annual physical health report card. The body, after all, is necessarily a full-stack domain. You might not be interested in your cholesterol, but your cholesterol is interested in you, and can make its presence felt.

I have no natural aptitude for healthy living. Health and fitness topics do not nerdsnipe me. I do not instinctively view my body as either a sacred temple or an exciting optimization project. I view it mostly as few disjoint pleasures set amidst a sea of annoying chores. My natural eating and exercise habits are bad, designed to maximize reverie and writing time, not health. And I’ve been getting barely passing grades for years now on things like cholesterol and sugar. I’m strictly middle of the pack when it comes to health. And for the first time in my life I’ve actually been forced to work hard to get even passing grades. I can’t just play my way to good grades.

Here’s my current report card for things I am approaching in “study” mode.

  1. Cholesterol: C (with remedial medication)
  2. Sugar/A1c: D (pre-diabetic range), creeping towards an F (diabetes)
  3. Sleep: C+
  4. Strength: D
  5. Cardio: C
  6. Mobility B-
  7. Diet: C
  8. Robotics: D-
  9. Crytpo: C
  10. Machine Learning: C
  11. Fermi estimation: D
  12. Dyson design: D
  13. Maker skills: C
  14. Storytelling theory and practice: B-

It’s interesting that half the list is related to physical health, and the other half to inter-related contemporary technology topics. This is basically two stacks: the mid-life body stack and the contemporary technology stack. Storytelling is a bit of an outlier (and unsurprisingly my best grade, since it’s a natural extension of a thing I’m already decent enough to make money at).

In school, physical education was a pass/fail class that was basically ignored and treated as a free period. Those who wanted to play a sport did so. Those like me who didn’t just hung around chatting about science fiction or whatever.

Now, before my annual physical, I joke that I’m “studying for my glucose test.” The A1c test measures average blood sugar levels over the previous 3 months, so it’s not exactly a joke. If you want a better result, you have to fix your diet for at least 3 months ahead of the test, which takes an approach close to “studying” for a test. And you have to study for the whole stack at once because it’s all interconnected and needs to be approached holistically. Otherwise you end up managing one middle-aged ailment at the expense of another.

Similarly the tech-stack half of the report card is engineering approached in an interconnected, holistic way. A way I never learned to approach it in school. To make your robot run, it’s not enough to ace the math and physics tests. You also have to be good enough at soldering, troubleshooting linux problems, getting AI packages to run, finding weird parts on eBay, solving sticky 3d printing problems, and so on. There is no prize for being good at one piece of it.

I’m getting bad grades at everything for the first time in my life, and for the first time in my life, I also care enough to want to get better grades. Nerd energy is not good enough anymore. Partly because I do not have access to the kind of uninterrupted time that nerding-out requires, but partly also because many of these subjects are integrated stacks of things that include things I have no aptitude for. The health stack is the worst: I mostly have zero natural aptitude for every aspect. Health and fitness are not learning areas where I have ever gotten nerdsniped. I don’t struggle unduly, but also do not coast effortlessly. This is something excited health and fitness nuts don’t get — others can’t be sermonized or bullied into sharing their religious fervor.

I once saw aptitude defined as “the time it takes you to learn something.” Given enough time, anyone can learn anything, but if it takes you 1000 years, you effectively can’t learn it. But aptitude is not an absolute. Sometimes a change in perspective (worth 80 IQ points according to Alan Kay) can suddenly unlock nerd energy for a topic. I think being nerdsniped is in fact such a perspective change.

But sometimes, try as you might, you can’t find a perspective that unlocks a subject for you. Many kids learn this at age 8. I’m learning it at age 48. You just have to grind through or give up. And unlike with kids, good teachers make much less difference in middle age. You’re more set in your ways, more constrained, and have more unique issues going on. Mostly you have to take ownership of your own learning.

There’s also a subtle aspect I’m just starting to recognize. Being nerdsniped and doubling down on a natural aptitude is an integrative experience. It makes you cohere more strongly, and develop a more clearly defined identity and personality. With each nerdy fugue, you become a truer version of who you were meant to be. This feels exhilarating. Eventually you might even ignite into a sun.

Studying for a good report card on the other hand is fundamentally a disintegrative experience. It tears you down the way a drill sergeant tears new basic training cadets down. It force fits you into the Procrustean bed of an external set of priorities, rather than letting you cohere into your natural shape and size according to an inner logic of aptitudes.

And this is not a bad thing. It’s not a pleasant thing, but it’s not a bad thing.

Of course, it’s also a potentially dangerous thing. If you solve entirely for an optimal report card comprising subjects you have little to no aptitude for, you could get torn apart and never built back up. So it is important to balance that out with energy and attention devoted to nerd-out integrative things.

In middle age, this balancing act starts getting really hard. You’ve probably already discovered and gotten pretty good at the things you are going to be good at. Chances are, you’re also on a terminal plateau and making money at a couple of those things, and they’re almost on autopilot for you. They’re no longer the source of dopamine and satisfaction. Management thinking is now a mellow, mature pleasure for me, not the heady nerd-addiction it was 15 years ago. The same goes for “classic” ribbonfarm-style longform, which I now do mostly on the newsletter, and if I’m being honest, at least partly for the money rather than purely for the satisfaction.

So opportunities for nerding out like an adolescent are few and far between. But on the other hand, the things you’re not particularly good at, such as managing middle-aged health in my case, start piling up. Disintegration forces start to slowly overwhelm integration forces. I suspect the characteristic unraveling of mid-life crises has to do with the former prevailing to the point it leads to a crisis. And then you overcompensate with embarrassing indulgence in hobbies, sports cars, and infidelity. The self-integration impulse is powerful, and it exercises a strong influence even when the disintegration processes are necessary for survival.

But perhaps the thing to do is yield to the disintegration impulses for a while, armed with a report card to contain the fallout, instead of trying too hard to find new sources of nerd-energy. That will show up if and when it chooses to (and perhaps it never will again, past middle-age, perhaps it is one of the pleasures of youth that only a privileged few can continue tapping into past 40). But the report card — that you can grind away at regardless.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Same. Though have discovered the nerds have hacked health as well. See the work of Slime Mold Time Mold, Bill Mei, and Julian Shapiro. Personally finding the Potato Hack an easy way to coast to health.

  2. At almost double your 48, a friend has yet tofind a way of slowing down his impulses to paint and write. About 15 years behind him, I continue to encourage him by publishing his work. My own impulses – for writing, teaching, building things, and enabling groups of seniors to enjoy their declining years – remain strong.
    In reading your very engaging piece, I fall back to my predilection for the overhead view of the systems at play:
    – Language can be considered a form of sentient being, as different from a human’s understanding of things as would be a squid’s; so, when a human uses language to describe and explain concepts, how much of a contribution does that other sentience inside us play in the outcomes of our pronouncements? This question is similar to that posed by medical researchers who have found “parasites” that can strongly influence their host’s overt actions as well as their moods.
    – The balance between cerebral processes in various parts of the human brain; not simply the gross divisions of the two hemispheres, but also the myriad interconnections, such as for the levels of memory (each of which, I suspect, has their own evolutionaryly derived functions), and for the hormone-regulated actions that influence energy levels, attention, autonomic actions…
    – The fascinating dance of neurons across the cerebral cortex that deal with prioritizing degrees of cascading signals…
    One of the topics I teach in college (online since 2020) is blockchain technology. When I combine that AI, I see the rudest beginnings of a thing that could become almost as intellectual as an amoeba. This, then raises the question, what is the definition of life?
    Anyway, I have forced all thede ideas, and more, into a series of novels that centre on the space colony, L5. Being a sponge for ideas, Venkatesh, is one reason I so enjoy reading your blog.

  3. BuJiaoNing says

    I just had a conversation with my wife in a similar vein regarding awards. Basically, I got them regularly, and some of them of low-level notoriety (things like a county-wide art contest, getting a part in a community theater play, or distinguished delegate in National High School Model United Nations). Because of a steady stream of fairly mediocre prizes, I lived my life to be so indifferent to these things that I was almost your age before I could even emotionally register an award from a professional or academic organization as anything meaningful at all. This extended to publications and other “plums and feathers,” even degrees to a large degree. Yeah, I have an MS and an ME, but you know how that goes.

    That’s kind of bad and causes problems.

    The way I have gotten around a lot of this is with Chips on my Shoulder. I’m about to publish a paper as First Author and PI in a subject I don’t have any letters after my name in, focused on Bayesian Analysis. All this because I started hanging out with a couple of professors, one as a business partner (who is the second author, and frankly I owe a lot to him in making it publishable in a good journal) and one I started dating. I couldn’t have anyone lording anything over me in a near social circle, and I simply won’t defer to someone because of their laurels (50% because it’s hardly legible to me and 50% overcompensating for the bit that is legible (INFP’s Se blindspot if you’re into that thing)).

    The chips on the shoulder were what got my ass in gear so that I finished the study and wrote the thing up.

  4. Ravi Daithankar says

    You’ve touched upon a bunch of different aspects of your situation here, Venkat. And I can relate to almost all of them even though I am a few years behind you, trying to deal with the fact that I won’t be in my 30s very soon. Also, a lot of the challenges you’ve talked about are actually closely tied to what I do as my day job, so I have an annoying practitioner’s take on them as well. :D

    To begin, a physical health report card and an emerging tech report card are two vastly different quantities. There are tons of people getting A+s on physical health, but I doubt anyone rates themselves an A+ on contemporary tech, just based on how emergent it is. Even the folks that you might rate an A+ on that front will likely rate themselves lower. Making this distinction is important because it is within the realm of possibility to grade up on the physical health report card in a tangible kind of way.

    Without getting all nerdy (hah!) about how adults learn, break out of, instill and sustain new behavioral patterns, and basically hack report cards that contain subjects they have no interest in actually learning, I will say that a perspective change is pretty much your only hope. And I have to differ with you there, in that I think a perspective change is almost always possible. But it usually takes a lot of muddling around. To the point where it ultimately feels serendipitous when you stumble across the “right” perspective. You can engineer your way into a target rich environment, but you have to try a few (or several) perspectives on for size to find one that has the right contours to match your specific personality and predilections. A good way to approach it is like dating. It is just as exasperating and seemingly futile, but ultimately it is a matter of perseverance and staying power. Once you do manage to frame your situation in a particular way that works for you, there are some solid Bs to be picked up there.

    If you really think about it, even being nerdsniped by a subject or an idea has a certain serendipitous aspect to it. So in that sense, the game doesn’t really change, you just move to the next level.

    And of course, you’re likely never going to score As on this kind of a report card. B- to B+ is a usually a good aspirational score, so mediocrity FTW lol!

  5. This post has been a great resource for me. It’s well-written and covers the topic comprehensively. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and expertise!

  6. Some experiential insight on ‘education’/report cards.
    1. US public education is a selection tool — pushing the top 5-10% to the next level, until they fail.
    1a. Selection is not just academic. At all levels and areas it allows you to ‘excel’ even if only to become a convict, mercenary or service worker. You self-selected for yor situation in life via you penchant for ‘interest’/OCD in you particular field.
    2. US public education is a socialization tool — ensuring good citizens, hoping to avoid active shooters.
    3. US public education is a babysitter, at seemingly all levels — graduate students I have known, ‘nerdswiped’ as you say, is the point; harmless drudges, perhaps creating value for the funding agency. Essentially, put the best person in the best position. …Not everyone should be an intellectual — some yes, some killers (hopfully usefully institutionalized in any of a variety of occupations -military to police to prison), some suicides.
    4. US public education is not a instruction tool — teachers don’t have time for that. — any more than the internet, or Facebook is.