Chris Hardwick has figured out a way to rewire his own brain. Think about that: He changed something about his brain using his brain. That’s like proving the Bible actually happened because the Bible says it did. Introspection alone requires at least a moderate level of intelligence, but to actively condition the human brain—the most complicated organ on the planet—using nothing but itself speaks to the genius of Chris Hardwick. Or maybe madness.
As Hardwick explains in the mostly excellent The Nerdist Way: How to Reach the Next Level (In Real Life), his brain served him well when it came to obsessively playing a video game for hours on end, or introducing doubt and negativity into career/personal risks. He’s a nerd after all, a term he defines as “someone who hones in on a topic to an almost quantum detail,” mostly because this provides “a tremendous and fulfilling sense of control.” Thus begins a vicious cycle: The more nerds attempt to venture outside their comfort zone, away from that area of voluminous expertise, the more they encounter chaos (bullies) that push them further into solitary pursuits. As a defense mechanism, anxiety isn’t far behind, the kind that muscles nerds around with pervasive, nonspecific dread.
This is heady stuff, but The Nerdist Way is a heady tome, a legitimate self-help guide to taming your own nerd brain, with Hardwick as the fascinating case study. The deeper the book probes into Hardwick’s mind—be it a section on bossing your own brain around, or tales of his many panty-dropping chess accolades—the more compelling and specific it becomes. Chapters on fitness and time-management routines are infinitely less enthralling; the “Mind” chapter alone, though, should be required reading, simply to marvel at how Hardwick became a prolific stand-up comic, podcaster, song writer and TV host by basically playing Jedi mind games on himself.
Hardwick decided to think of himself not as a nerd, but as a Nerdist, an “artful nerd” who excels at crafting jokes and running a Los Angeles theater space in the way he excelled at earning high scores playing Robotron: 2084 at his dad’s bowling center. It’s really just a matter of perception, he posits, and from this came the idea of brain control. Treat life like a role-playing game and gain experience points by accomplishing goals or learning new skills; eventually you’ll level up as a better person. He chronicles his achievements in his “character tome”—a journal that acts as a road map for his “character” (at one point he was a wizard named Blavidane)—and ruthlessly self-analyzes at every turn to ensure he’s on track. When untamed, he says, the mind acts like a “ghost ship,” floating along without control, the journey made even more harrowing by the nerd’s propensity towards neuroses and self-doubt. So he falls back on his character tome and, basically, a lot of talking to himself. He tells his mind to fuck off, he Photoshops mental images and thinks of his brain as a laser. I did say he’s probably a little mad.
Hardwick has constructed an augmented reality for himself from sheer force of will, instigated in 2003 by watching Jenny McCarthy, his former Singled Out cohost (Hardwick has a healthy sense of humor about that douchey series), on The Daily Show. When Stewart took a crack at Hardwick for having all but disappeared from the public consciousness, it gave Hardwick pause. He was doughy, unhealthy, unmotivated and drunk to the point of oblivion every single night. He’s a very different person now, and though this is just one person’s story, Hardwick ensures his ideas and tactics are effortlessly relatable. Anecdotes, cautionary tales and embarrassing revelations are always at the ready to break up long platitudes—though the book could stand to include a few more—and breezy pop-culture references abound, always as an in-joke and never pandering.
His ease with the audience carries him far into chapters two and three, “Body” and “Time” (a section about motivation is called “Become An Evil Genius”), despite numerous road blocks that spring up. While the logistics of his lifestyle rubric are fascinating on a psychological level, the logistics of his fitness regime are mundane in a “should have made these web-only” way. Same goes for descriptions of his tax software, or the list-within-a-list (seriously) about proper diet. These all may be parts of the true Nerdist way, but their run-of-the-mill nature distract from the genius of the “Mind” chapter. Much like comedy itself, it’s a celebration of the infinite complexities of the human experience, and The Nerdist Way is Hardwick’s captivating, pioneering tale of triumph. If life is indeed a video game, this would be the part where, like Link battling Dark Link in Ocarina Of Time, Hardwick battles the shadow version of himself…and wins.