Curse of the Gifted

Generalization in the workplace, and a personal anecdote from a forum.

Folksonomies: education intelligence gifted

The Curse of the Gifted

When you were in college, did you ever meet bright kids who graduated top of their class in high-school and then floundered freshman year in college because they had never learned how to study? It's a common trap. A friend of mine calls it "the curse of the gifted" -- 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.

You are a brilliant implementor, more able than me and possibly (I say this after consideration, and in all seriousness) the best one in the Unix tradition since Ken Thompson himself. As a consequence, you suffer the curse of the gifted programmer -- you lean on your ability so much that you've never learned to value certain kinds of coding self-discipline and design craftsmanship that lesser mortals *must* develop in order to handle the kind of problem complexity you eat for breakfast.

Your tendency to undervalue modularization and code-sharing is one symptom. Another is your refusal to use systematic version-control or release-engineering practices. To you, these things seem mostly like overhead and a way of needlessly complicating your life. And so far, your strategy has worked; your natural if relatively undisciplined ability has proved more than equal to the problems you have set it. That success predisposes you to relatively sloppy tactics like splitting drivers before you ought to and using your inbox as a patch queue.

But you make some of your more senior colleagues nervous. See, we've seen the curse of the gifted before. Some of us were those kids in college. We learned the hard way that the bill always comes due -- the scale of the problems always increases to a point where your native talent alone doesn't cut it any more. The smarter you are, the longer it takes to hit that crunch point -- and the harder the adjustment when you finally do. And we can see that *you*, poor damn genius that you are, are cruising for a serious bruising.


Because some people grew on their own talent, they never learned to appreciate the reasons for overhead.

Eric S. Raymond writing to Linus Torvalds.

Folksonomies: education talent gifted


Curse of the Gifted: Personal Account

I am miles away from Eric or Linus, but the "curse of the gifted" is very real.

Thankfully I wasn't smart or gifted enough that I could ride it for long, but when it comes to math and problem-solving I rode it well into my high school years. I never learned to do algebra "by the book," because I didn't need to. Or maybe because I wasn't smart enough to.

The math teacher would teach "3x 6 = 9." Basic algebraic problem-solving says you subtract the 6 from both sides, then divide by 3. So "3x = 3" then "x = 1." Easy. But I learned pretty early on that I could do it in my head. It was a little bit challenging, but then I wouldn't have to waste the time of writing it out, and I wasn't handicapped like all of those suckers who had to go through the motions no matter how simple the problem was. If the teacher wrote "x 1 = 6" I didn't have to subtract 1 from each side, I just thought about it logically and knew the answer. Of course, the math got more complex, but I was good enough at doing it in my head that, at least for a long time, it never really mattered.

I thought it was because I just "got" math, and the other kids were on a lower level. But as the math grew in complexity, I fell behind. By the time we reached Calculus I was still doing most of it in my head, as I had never really learned to write it out on paper. And the complexity of the math outgrew my capacity to visualize. I showed up to my AP calculus test without a calculator, partially because I was forgetful and partly for fun, and it wasn't until I got my score back (a failing 2 of 5) that it finally hit me: I was actually behind. In school. I was cocky enough that this was a slap in the face.

I had to start from scratch, and I'm still not sure if I've made up for a lot of that. I ended up in more creative fields, mostly because I felt inferior to those who had learned the rules and not been cocky douchebags like I had been in the beginning.

This really sucks to write. I frequently wonder what could have been.


A reply to the article, personal anecdote.

Folksonomies: education intelligence gifted