The curse of the gifted.

In college, I studied comp-sci
in class, so damned bored I could die.
convinced to be best
showed up for the test
Turns out all my skills were a lie.

At this venture, I am almost done with my university education. No matter where you stand on higher education, I personally found that the experience was worth all the cost, time, and effort in one revelation.

I am not awesome, I am ungrateful.

I want to avoid self-deprecation here. What I mean by that is that I have changed my perspective on my abilities and more importantly the way that I have to approach problems in my life. Up to the last few years of college, I believed that things should be a meritocracy. I only wanted to be judged by the abilities I had. Nothing else should be taken into account for one’s ability to progress in life. And although I still feel that in an idealized world this might be something that is worth implementing, I am finding that I would most likely end up in a position that I would not enjoy. Moreover, I think that most people would find themselves unhappy, uneducated and unfulfilled.

These conclusions mostly stem from recent conversations that I regret looking back on. The times when someone would tell me, in the most sincere and kind way possible, that I needed to stop treating others like they don’t have anything to offer me. Nothing cuts you down quite as much as being told you’re an asshole by someone you know and trust, especially when you know that they have nothing but your best interest at heart.

The Social Network (despite its portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg at the end of the film) explains this elegantly in the opening scene.

"…You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole."

The truth of the matter is that for the first time in my life I am beginning to realize that I have been that asshole. There have been countless times that I have lied about things I don’t fully understand to people that were not trying to prove anything. There have been even more times when I have assumed that because someone does not know as much as me, or since they don’t understand something quite as quickly as I do, that they should study more, work harder, or that they are trying to subvert actually learning by leaching what I felt I had learned.

Did you catch that? I felt that I had done something. Feelings are often deceptive.

I like to think that I am some hard-working Henry Reardon, but in reality, I’ve really only ever been a B student. I’ve never truly known what it was like to try hard because the effort that I would have to exert to get an A would be more than I am honestly willing to spend. I don’t know what it’s like to try hard at something because most things tend to click early enough for me that I don’t really worry about doing well, it tends to just happen.

The limerick at the top of this post I wrote after I got my first calculus 2 test. I had gotten a 54%. Despite never really trying in the course and getting a B as a final grade, I still think about that. I failed at something. What surprised me more than my grade, however, was that people I knew around me had done much better than I. As I put my red ink soaked paper in the back of my notebook, I remember responding to a classmate that "I did fine" after he had asked. A few days later I found a wonderful article by Eric S. Raymond, wherein some of the problems I had hit were being discussed from an outside perspective. ESR called it "the curse of the gifted" and defines it as

"A tendency to lean on your native ability too much, because you’ve always been rewarded for doing that and self-discipline would take actual work."

I don’t know if I am at this point, and to be honest the uncharted territory of being poor at something makes me hope that I never do. In the same breath, however, I know that I am not as nearly as amazing as most of the brilliant people I work with, study with, and spend time with, I am sure that a fair bit of them might feel the same way.

One of the most influential people in my life was a high school English teacher that tried to instill in me the process of "paying it forward." Reciprocating the gifts others had given me that I didn’t really deserve. Real people, that write answers to others in forums, make how to guides, write books and take the time to share their insights to the world without seeking social adulation or fame.

Thus far I have really only abused the system. I have a bookshelf overflowing with technical books that I have sought out and purchased because their insights have moved me. In them, I have gained knowledge that I deceptively tout to be my own, while the real authors deserve far more praise than I. The countless articles and manuals that I have read on tools and processes written by people that didn’t even bother to pen their name to the content they were providing staggers me. People that took literal man hours to help foster knowledge in others whom they didn’t know. I am not an island, and all of my success in life can be directly attributed to those who paid it forward to me.

It’s easy to think that when someone does not get something immediately or struggles with something I find easy, that they should simply try harder. But if I was to sum up all the hours that I had wracked my brain on a problem I find easy now, I guarantee that I would think I was a complete imbecile. Therefore, it’s purely ego. I have no idea how many people I have unintentionally prevented from getting into technology because of my ego. And now that I see that in myself, I don’t want to propagate my harmful outlook in others.

If we as a group ever want computer science to be loved by others, we need to call out people like me for not paying it forward.