Originally posted at The Huffington Post
When I first “went viral,” I was as skeptical about “why this Arthur Chu guy is even a thing” as much as anyone else, believe me. The weirdest thing about this year was seeing an explosion of media discussion of some random guy and not being able to blog about how weird and misplaced it was because for the first time I was that guy.
And the weirdest thing about that is seeing other people doing the obnoxious thing I used to do, blogging about complete strangers confidently making assessments about what they’re “about” based on the tiny slice of their life that made them YouTube famous.
Fox News briefly adopted me as a kind of mascot — they were by far the most aggressive about getting me in for interviews on pretty much every show they had — even though just looking for, like, anything I’d ever written on the Internet before would’ve told them that I was, as Gene Weingarten once said about himself, “so liberal I should be shot for treason.”
Tech bloggers wrote stuff about how my “disruptive” strategy on a game show was everything the Silicon Valley New Economy stood for, apparently unaware that as a liberal arts major working at a 9-to-5 office job in the Rust Belt, I’m pretty much one of the disrupted, not the disruptors.
To this day, the Motley Fool still continually retweets their article “You Should Invest Like Arthur Chu Plays Jeopardy!“, using my Jeopardy! strategy as an argument for the kind of ballsy stock-picking based on strong opinions about various industries that the Fool deals in, ignoring that if you were to “invest like Arthur Chu invests” you’d be terrified of ever picking any stock and you’d dump all your money in an index fund and forget about it, like I told the guys on CNBC to their apparent disbelief.
I got the weird sense that the “Arthur Chu” in people’s heads was very different from who I thought I was. They saw me as a cutthroat asshole running roughshod over other people in order to get his — a Wall Street guy, a Silicon Valley guy, a “self-made man,” albeit in a new geeky guise.
I understand that. I like that story too. I was getting off on the idea of being a “villain” and trolling Jeopardy! “purists” and being a “game theory swag lord,” even as I was patiently explaining to people that I was just doing stuff people on the show had been doing since 1985, and outright saying that the most “villainous” thing I was doing was playing to the outrage instead of just ignoring it.
Because I might as well admit it — that persona of some genius who always has a perfectly crafted strategy for how to cruise through life, exploiting inefficiencies, maximizing profit and ignoring the haters, is not me. It’s not even close to me.
I was the weird daydreaming kid muttering snatches of movies under my breath and constructing elaborate fantasy worlds in my head while adults were trying to talk to me. In college I was the eccentric contrarian who never wore long pants and was way too invested in various pop culture fandoms to actually go to class. Trust me, there was never a time when people were voting me “Most Likely to Succeed.”
If I really had a strategic, profit-maximizing kind of mind I’d be in Silicon Valley, or on Wall Street, or in law school, or at least had made some better attempt at earning a living than graduating with a bachelor’s in history and a half-baked plan — as an overweight Chinese guy with a monotone voice — to try to make it big as an actor.
If I were some kind of “haters gonna hate” smug emotionless robot I wouldn’t stay up till two a.m. yelling at wrong people on the Internet on a regular basis. If I were a cold-blooded professional I wouldn’t have ended up almost destroying my life two, three, four times now due to some kind of unwise bridge-burning meltdown. I wouldn’t have taken six years to get a four-year bachelor’s degree. I wouldn’t have been sitting on the sidewalk surrounded by luggage after being evicted from a dorm in 2007 knowing I had literally nowhere to go.
You know who I really am?
I’m a loser. There’s a tiny handful of things in life I’ve tried that I haven’t failed at. The one success that really matters to me is that my wife somehow still hasn’t left me after eight years of being with a chronically unemployed and unemployable social misfit. Winning on Jeopardy! comes as a distant second.
The stereotype of nerds as emotionless computers is in many ways the opposite of the truth. Nerds maybe come off that way just because our emotions aren’t in sync with the people around us, but we’re hyper-emotional.
We’re not, in fact, good at “winning,” or the nerd identity wouldn’t be so closely linked to that of the underdog. Nerds are people who not only feel intense passion but feel intense passion about unpopular, impractical, inconsequential things. Who would rather plow through The Silmarillion than study for the bar exam, who would rather hang out with a dozen other losers playing D&D than network with future business leaders. Who are still spinning their wheels in Cleveland on their 30th birthday puttering around with a dozen random hobbies because they, themselves, don’t know who they are yet.
Sure, some of us are lucky enough and talented enough and have enough inner control over our own nerdiness to go from hacking the Harvard photo database to make an immature “Hot or Not” rating site to becoming a billionaire CEO. That’s a far cry from the universal “revenge of the nerds” that the media sometimes makes it out to be. Most of the nerds I know are as poor, as frustrated and as stressed as everyone else, plus they have to put up with people being wrong on the Internet.
But, sometimes, even if you’re not Mark Zuckerberg you have some dumb luck fall into your lap, like getting an audition to be on a 30-year-old game show that’s one of the only places in the American economic landscape where you can directly translate a passion for knowing utterly useless trivia into both money and fame.
And you get to be, at least for eleven episodes of Jeopardy!, a winner, for all the reasons you’ve been a loser in the past — for being weird and unlikable and obsessive and for knowing what the “Hindu Kush” is. You get to be on Good Morning America and people ask for your autograph and everyone in your hometown wants to shake your hand.
And then you ask what comes next.
I might as well shamefacedly admit it: I talked to publicists. I talked to “branding” people. I very straightforwardly asked, “Hey, as a random schlub from Ohio, I’ve never done this before, I want to know what you’d do if you were me.”
And the ideas weren’t bad ideas. But they were all trading on the idea of “Arthur Chu” as a winner. Piggybacking on the clickbait articles people were already profiting off of in my name — Arthur Chu tells you how to invest, Arthur Chu tells you how to do SEO, Arthur Chu tells you how to negotiate an awesome career.
It was when I got a pitch that started pushing me to become, essentially, a pickup artist — “Arthur Chu Uses ‘Game Theory’ on Women!” — that I realized how deeply uncomfortable I was with the narrative being pushed on me.
First, because it was an obvious lie — if I were such a winner, why wouldn’t I have gotten $300,000 the normal way instead of on a game show? — and second, because even though the people giving me these ideas were well-meaning they were appealing to something inside me I didn’t want to feed.
The worst winners in the world tend to be people who suddenly become winners after spending too long as losers. People who haven’t had practice thinking about how to treat others because they’ve been on the receiving end of bad treatment. People who are so used to being the victim they never think about who they’re victimizing.
I am a nerd, my friends are all nerds, I love nerds, but my God, nerds can be assholes. And certainly the points in my life when I’ve been struggling the most with being a loser have also been the times all that frustration and resentment has made me an asshole as well, which just compounds the loserhood.
It’s not everyone. There are some people who seem to have always been awesome people, and I wonder what their secret is. But like the welfare recipient who wins the lottery and immediately starts voting in favor of destroying welfare programs to cut taxes for millionaires, losers build up a lot of rage over losing over time and when you give them a platform where they’re the ones with the winning hand — ganking newbs in an online game, bullying people on Twitter, turning science fiction or comics into a gated community — that rage comes out as toxic entitlement.
For a while I thought maybe the best interpretation of what my story is “about” might be the idea that nerdy losers can, with a little luck and a little work and a lot of support, end up doing better. But I think what’s more important is the idea that nerdy losers can be better.
I made my nest egg and got my 15 minutes of fame by doing all the things you’re not supposed to do — caring more about Shakespeare plays and pop culture quotes than honest work, living in a hole staring at flashcards instead of living a normal life, being a sloppily-dressed monotone-talking weirdo asshole in my one chance to be on national TV instead of being presentable like a normal person would.
And I’m not saying it’s wrong that you’re not supposed to do them. These things are all bad ideas and I’d like to raise any kid I have to be less of a basket case than me. But they’re who I am, and I found, for once in my life, a time and place where I could make those things work for me rather than against me. That’s all any of life’s losers can hope for.
And my public image during my 15 minutes of fame? That also came from not doing the things you’re supposed to do. If I’d had a publicist they’d probably have advised me to keep my head down, be conciliatory, avoid controversy.
All of the things that make my “public persona” recognizable — the intemperate quick temper, the mean-spirited sense of humor, the obsession with pedantic debates — are things that anyone with common sense would tell a public figure to avoid. They are bad things.
But I wanted to be true to who I was while still being true to who I wanted to be. I started deciding to do exactly what I was told not to do — instead of finding ways to broadly appeal to fans who liked the “winner” narrative from Jeopardy! I started coming out swinging about things that bugged the hell out of me in ways almost calculated to tick off my nerdy male gamer “base.”
I talked about gender, I talked about race, I talked about the sickness in my own culture), I talked about the anger in myself.
I don’t want any future kid of mine to be filled with disquiet and frustration and rage either. But that angry jerk is also who I am, and while I have the opportunity I want to be an angry jerk in service of making the world a slightly better place rather than a worse one.
None of us losers is responsible for being happy and undamaged. That is too much to expect. But the one thing I do expect from life’s losers is that once we win we stay on the side of the losers, instead of switching teams.
To me that’s the story I want to tell every time someone has asked me, in an interview or on Reddit or on the street, “So what’s this been like for you?” But they never have ninety minutes for me to say it so I just say “It’s been… weird but great!” and leave it at that.
So this is my pitch to you. Scott Drucker, a film director from Chicago, has been extremely persistent in asking for my cooperation with an “Arthur Chu documentary.” He’s asked me to make one last push to get the Kickstarter funded with a week and a half to go and less than 10 percent of the goal reached.
I’m doing everything you’re not supposed to do. I’m not talking about cool behind-the-scenes access to Jeopardy! or awesome backer rewards or any of those things. I’m writing an incredibly long, confessional blog post about myself.
It seems unlikely at this point the Kickstarter will be funded. (You’re definitely not supposed to say that but what the hell.) I won’t cry that many tears if it fails. Some people I respect have told me privately they think that anything that makes the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions “about me” might be in poor taste, and I’m not going to tell them they’re wrong.
But I’m doing this because I told Scott I didn’t want the focus of the movie to be Jeopardy! even if that’s the obvious selling point. And it’s not about me being a “genius” or me sharing words of wisdom or advice that I don’t have.
Who is Arthur Chu? Arthur Chu is nobody special. Just another loser. A loser who’s had a run of good luck and is trying to leverage that into doing better. And being better.
I think, getting past all the self-indulgence and self-promotion, that movie might be worth watching, and worth being part of. If you disagree, that’s completely cool. If you agree, then here’s the link.
Either way, and no matter what happens, thank you — all of you, fans, critics, haters, and bemused observers — for the past six months and change. It’s been weird, but great.
Now back to studying.