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Common Folk: Me Too

Jamie takes issue with my off-the-cuff entry about the differences between "common folk" (I'm going to continue to put those words in quotes) and "computer folk" (those too).

I disagree with a bit of what she's said, and given that she and I had discussed the entry in person, am a bit surprised she's so drastically misunderstood the tone and overall nature of the post. As such, here are some clarifying remarks and a bit more on my opinion of "nature vs. nurture" as it regards "talent" and "gifts."

First, a bit of levity courtesy of Billy Joel:

I am, as I've said, merely competent. But in an age of incompetence, that makes me extraordinary.

Next, to quickly dismiss Jamie's grossest misinterpretation:

Before you mount a high horse and deem "common folk" stupid at first glance, step back.

I am not on a high horse (and were I, I imagine it would be difficult to step back before my first glance, but that's neither here nor there). I did step back, re-categorizing other people as "different." Besides, the entry was as much about reminding myself of my own humility, because I feel so "common" myself - but different as I say - sometimes that it's almost depressing. A friend of mine had lunch with Ed Catmull and Steve Jobs the other day. I had lunch… alone. Commonality, thy name is Erik.

I am, however, a programmer. I write well. I think that, in general, programmers - especially those comfortable enough to converse on mailing lists - write "better" than most "common folk" (i.e. non-programmers). These "common folk" are not less intelligent - they're different, as my original entry states. They may not express themselves with a keyboard as well, but they may express themselves with a paintbrush at a level far exceeding my wildest dreams. Or they may be more skilled parents, or more skilled lovers, teachers, basketball players, executives, accountants, etc.

Programmers "can" be lazy and they "can" have bad grammer. Yes, I know that, and sliding aside the fact that "laziness is a virtue" in programming, it's also possible for someone who's a dancer to have a bad sense of rhythm. But, in general, programmers care about language and are more skilled with it (in my observations). The ones that don't care typically don't make for very good programmers.

That hardly makes my generalization "outlandish." Is it outlandish to say that most professional athletes are in good shape? No. It's a pretty damn good generalization. The point I'm making here is that "in general" and "generalization" explicitly leave room for the odd few who don't mix. So does the word "stereotype." Nobody fits a stereotype or a generalization perfectly, and I certainly don't need to be reminded of that.

Mostly, Jamie's entry got me thinking about the difference between "gifted" and "talented" people. She seems to use the words interchangeably, but I define them quite differently. Talent is something you can work to improve, or gain, but a gift is something that is to me, by definition, "god given." The very word "gift" in a general context means "something you didn't have to work for." Otherwise it would be a "reward," right?

I've met all of two people in my life that I'd consider to be geniuses, absolute fucking geniuses. People who are so gifted, so on top of things, and thus so good at what they do that it's tough for us "common folk" (i.e. everyone who's not an 'absolute fucking genius') to even comprehend being that incredibly capable. To borrow Jamie's example, Einstein was a genius. Had he lived in a slum in Harlem, it's debatable whether he would have accomplished as much. However, I don't think anyone will convince me that Einstein wasn't "gifted." He thought on a high level very few humans have ever achieved. His upbringing was successful in that it didn't do anything to hinder his utilization of his gift, but I can't say it contributed much beyond that.

Could I be an Einstein? While I admit that I've got a bit of a knack for physics, hell no! I had far more opportunities (calculators and his own work being two of them!) to redefine our understanding of the world of physics than Einstein had, but I don't have his gift. Almost nobody does. Perhaps the only man alive as gifted at physics as Einstein is Stephen Hawking. Individuals with that gift are but a droplet in the sea of humanity.

There's a case to be made for the biology of the brain here too. The brain is perhaps humankind's biggest mystery right now, all things spiritual excluded. How does memory work? We haven't really got a clue. We do know that genetics determines hair color, build (muscle tone, torso or nose length), and other physical traits. We also know that certain regions of the brain seem responsible for certain kinds of sensory perception, emotions, or thoughts. I don't think it's wrong believe that, yes, some people's brains are literally "born different" than others. Different brains excel at different things, and are predisposed to intelligence in different areas.

Avoiding biology altogether, for me it's like this: suppose "genius" level is a 100. Suppose "absolutely no fucking clue" is a 0. People like Einstein? They start life at 95 in certain things. This is where talent and being gifted differ, for me. I could, through a lot of work, play catch up and reach Einstein's level of understanding (maybe). I could hit 95 (maybe). I may start life at 40, but I could get there (maybe). That'd be talent. Starting life at 95, though, that's a gift.

What's freaky is that even though Einstein may be a 95 in physics, he may have been a 98 as a composer or poet. We'll never know. I could be a 92 in something and not even know it. When a gifted individual recognizes their gift, the world changes. Einstein changed the world. Martha Graham changed the world.

I keep thinking of Apple's original "Think Different" ad and even as I type that and recall the imagery and the message I get goosebumps. I'm not sure someone can consider themself a spiritual person if they don't believe in the miracle of pure genius. In what that ad showed us. In the simple fact that some people, some very very small number of people, are simply so gifted that almost nobody else can comprehend their genius.

You can talk about IQ tests all you want. A person's IQ means little or nothing, and generalizing intelligence based on a broad test is a silly pursuit. You can be intelligent in one area and completely silly in others. "Book smart, street stupid" is a phrase I've heard several times, and I'm sure the opposite exists as well. Are we all equal? No. Some of us are more intelligent than others. Some of us are also pretty good at things an IQ test doesn't identify. Mother Theresa may have not been very intelligent (I have no data here, I'm just saying maybe), but she sure as hell wasn't a "bad" example of humankind. Quite the opposite. Bill Clinton is a Rhodes scholar. Who's the "better" individual?

I've run out of things to say. I'm no genius, and I'm the last person to put myself on a pedestal. I write better than most people and I'm a programmer - I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. Other people excel at other things, beating the pants off me at a near-infinite number of things. All told, almost all of us are but mere "common folk," muddling through, waiting to have our world changed by the next gifted person.

5 Responses to "Common Folk: Me Too"

  1. In your rant about how programmers are better writers, you misconstrued your original point and upset people because you came across as condescending and on a high horse. You may use proper grammar and punctuation, but obviously haven't mastered subtle social interaction.

    Better writer? Nah, you and programmers like you have just been scarred in the past by using improperly formatted text. 🙂

    Give me a moment to explain. Most programmers I know do write in full sentences, and they usually do write well. I think this has little to do with their intelligence, their algorithmic thinking, or their appreciation for language. On the surface, it may have to do with the need to convey information clearly, howver, I think a more Pavlovian explanation is more accurate.

    Every programmer knows the frustration of compiling code and seeing "Syntax Error! Missing ; on Line 5412 of Blah.cpp". Most programmers that I've seen start off with tons of syntax errors. Type theVar as thevar and you get an error. You forget a space in "int i;" and you get an error. You leave off a close bracket or parenthesis... you guessed it, error.

    I believe that as we program more, we slowly get zapped into shape by compiler warnings, as a dog can be zapped when he doesn't obey or when he tries to leave the property . The more we get zapped, the fewer times we do it. Years later, I rarely have syntax errors in my programming, the errors and warnings I get are usually about mismatched types or calling functions that I haven't yet added to my header file, or worse, haven't yet implemented.

    At the same time, I have found that all of my e-mails and IMs use proper grammar and spelling, even when I am trying to type as fast as possible. I could say "no u?" but I say "Not really, what about you?" So, with that, I definitely think programmers are conditioned to not use 'sloppy' english 🙂

    Now, on the other hand, I am not a better writer than I was 5 years ago. When I need to write an essay for school, I am expected to use proper grammar and spelling. I attempted to do so in the past, and I attempt to do so today.

    So, I may not be a better writer, but I definitely think I have been conditioned to not be a sloppy writer 🙂

  2. Maybe you shouldn't limit it to simply programmers. I'd call myself a geek, but not a programmer. I don't really see the connection with programming. I'd draw more of a connection with actually writing.

  3. My previous two entries have touched off a little discussion. However, the piece I found most interesting was this one from Michael Hanscom: Intelligent people...

  4. Yeah, this isn't just programming, though for your bit I can see that's probably all you have experience with. While I program, and have professionally, I do not do so much these days and find myself in the company of a different class of talented folk, the majority of which can write at a so-called "college level" (which I was doing in the 9th grade, but I digress) and who generally get the intricacies of live, the universe, and everything. These are not, as you term it, common people (and as I term it, "fucking 'tards"), though we all have a bottle of Tums nearby for dealing with said people ...

    "Why won't this repair be covered? I mean, I didn't break it!"

    "You ... dropped ... the ... computer. Nay, you left the computer ON ... YOUR ... CAR ... and then drove off. That is NOT a warranty repair."

    "But I didn't MEAN to do that!"


  5. Stupid

    After my 9 out of 10 post, Erik let me know that (a) I misread him and (b) utterly...