Spycraft for Nerds: Brainy Tips for Winning at Life

Illustration: David Galletly

Nerds, you’re not going to learn anything from movie spies. Those first-class-traveling, black-turtleneck-wearing hotties with their cocktails made to Six Sigma specs have nothing to offer except entertainment. You can’t be them, because even they aren’t them. Pro tip: It’s just a movie.

But real spies? That’s different. Spy tradecraft offers some useful lessons, if we’re willing to listen. Actual intelligence operatives hone the same kind of skills that can, if properly deployed, help keep geeks on top of the world—or at least soften some of our, shall we say, well-characterized edges.

The typically outré behavior of the nerd won’t get us killed, but it puts us at a tactical disadvantage. We don’t have to fly a geek flag just for the sake of pride (or habit). We can, in fact, be stealthier, fly casually, and be more successful at—well, at whatever. Listen: Everybody sees James Bond coming, but it’s John le Carré’s understated spymaster, George Smiley, who you really have to watch out for.

You have goals. You want to excel socially or at work. You want to break out of your rut. You are a geek in a still-straight world. So you might as well learn the lessons of espionage. “Your goal is to be the gray man,” says Clinton Emerson, a former Navy SEAL and trainer for the CIA and NSA who now works at the special-ops site SOFREP. “Pull up your pants. Get a Timex and penny loafers. Changing the design of what you carry changes the design of who you are. Don’t give observers any information.”

Yes, I know, the Soylent Corporation T-shirt and Lego Yoda on your keychain are all signifiers of your chosen group status. But they also give a tactical advantage to an observer who will pigeonhole you as a nerd. Why let them? Take the social high ground by preserving a little mystery.

Let yourself become a superspy—use your brain. Remember that scene in The Bourne Identity when OG Bourne (not Renner-Bourne) sizes up the guy at the restaurant counter? He gets that Terminator-style head-up display, assessing his potential opponent’s size and skills. You know what? We can do that. Nerds can out-observe and out-paranoia any spook.

Pretend you’re Sherlock Holmes. Or Data. Analyze your environment. Scan for threats. I don’t mean that you have to be on the lookout for a heavyset dude with a cheap haircut, Nike SFB Chukkas, and a limited-edition timepiece owned only by pilots who have deployed a Martin-Baker ejection seat (because that man is an assassin). But you can deploy the same powers of observation and deduction in bars and work meetings. You think Tyrion Lannister is awesome? How do you think the Imp plays the game of thrones so well? He gathers intel and keeps his cards close to his (wee little) vest.

Oh, one more heads-up: The fastest way to forget all these spy lessons is booze. Despite 007?s penchant for inventing cocktails while undercover, drinks are better served to the other guy. Sure, it’ll make you feel like a million rubles and give you the confidence to chat with a romantic target, but it’s also a reliable way to lose a prototype iPhone.

It’s been years since the world started being nice to geeks—right about the time the IP we generate became valuable. Now everyone wants what geeks have got. We have to stay ahead of that curve, and it’ll mean acquiring some new skills. Move in silence. Evaluate information and recalibrate. Adapt to the standards of your environment and the ever-evolving microculture. The true revenge of the nerds? Being clever enough to never lose.

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Article source: http://www.wired.com/underwire/2012/07/pl_column_spies/


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