It's the classic desire to believe that you have complete control over your life. By looking down on people who are having a rough time you can re-enforce the view that you are doing well because of decisions you made.
tkahn's profile mentions that programming since the age of 9. That sounds like some pretty intense natural affinity for a technical skill to me. It's pretty lucky to be blessed with a natural affinity for a skill that is rewarded well by the economy. Most people aren't.
(think about it, if enough people possess a natural affinity for any sort of skill, that skill won't be rewarded very well, because that skill will always be plentiful)
I'm not denying tkahn's hard work, or smart decisions. I'm sure there were both. But there's also a lot of luck involved in tkahn happening to have loved programming from a very early age. When I read the article in question, I see a lot of hard work and a smart decision, too. What I don't see is someone who naturally happens to be awesome at a very desirable skillset. That doesn't exactly seem to warrant mocking smug superiority.
That's something I find strange myself about the odd smug-superior vibe I get from some of the HN crowd (and silicon-valley types more generally), and I am a computer scientist with a good job. I didn't really pick computer science out of any sort of great foresight that CS would be in demand, or that this is the skillset I need to acquire to benefit society, or anything of that sort.
It's just what I was doing and good at since the days when I was 7 or 8 writing BASIC on my Apple //c. Other people at the same age, and up through high school (when I was still doing computer stuff in my spare time) happened to be really good at all sorts of other things, whether drawing or pottery or ancient history or learning foreign languages or carpentry, and at the time I certainly didn't see their skills as less important. Mine just turned out to be more commercially relevant, essentially through no skill or doing of my own. (If you had asked me as an 8-year-old to guess, I would've probably told you that carpentry and pottery were more practical skills than programming games on an Apple ][ was; I did the latter because it was fun.)
So I find the "screw other people, they should've picked a marketable skill" view weird, because I certainly didn't pick a marketable skill, and I think a lot of other techie types didn't either. I just got lucky that the thing I like turned out to be marketable. If it hadn't, I'd be struggling along doing something else I wasn't as good at, I guess, or trying to get one of the few meagre CS jobs. Or actually, it doesn't seem too unlikely that I'd be working as a waiter or coffee server or something as a day job to make ends meet, to support hacking in the evening. So the "struggling artist" types don't seem that foreign to me--- I just have the good fortune to have an art that pays.
I can only speak for myself, not others. But I know I've posted things here that if you read them too quickly might look like "Screw them, they should have gotten marketable skills." But that's not how I feel, and careful reading of at least what I have posted would reveal that I am angry at the number of people who told children to just follow their dreams and everything will be fine, and angry at the society that happily slapped them in debt to do it.
Yeah, I dodged that bullet (so far). But I'm surrounded by people who didn't.
And I've started raking people over the coals online who continue to propagate the "just follow your bliss" meme. I suggest everyone join me. This is one meme that needs to die.
(My counter-argument is that most people like more than one thing, there's more than one thing they can do for a living without wanting to die. Are none of them an actually useful skill? All the engineering fields, all the science fields, all the medical fields, all the trades, and you have to pick French Literature of the 1600s? Or in this story, political science? WTF do you do with a degree in political science and no pre-existing "connections"? And you know, look at that list I made, expand it out, you'll see that I'm not calling for everyone to be supergeniuses. Physicians assistant, decent plumber, a variety of technicians, we need them all and you don't have to be 130IQ to get there, just willing to work. (And not actively stupid, but honestly, that's not the problem most people have.))
I was more responding to the authors statement about how he thought that doing what you're told and getting good grades in school would lead to real-world success.
It's been my experience that getting good grades has very little to do with the quality or completeness of one's education.
I think that working hard is the path to success. And by 'working hard' I mean working with intellectual honesty -- doing work which makes you smarter and requires thought.
Adding fluff to an English paper to make it longer is intellectually dishonest. Copy+pasting selections from a Wikipedia page into a PowerPoint presentation and then spending an hour rearranging the words to make it look like you didn't copy verbatim is intellectually dishonest. These things are standard practice for 95% of all high school students and they are rewarded within the education system.
Yes I may get a good grade doing it the honest way, but it seems unfair to me that those being dishonest should get the same grade.
I'm not saying that intellectual dishonesty isn't possible in math or science, but it is certainly easier and in my experience, 'the norm', in the liberal arts.
I am happy to know that somewhere down the line this all comes back to bite you. This seems logical to me that striving to better oneself intellectually rather than striving to get good grades would make one a more desirable employee in the job market.