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People are already telling you that eighteen is not too old to learn programming. And they are correct. People start at forty and fifty.

I have a different point to make.

There will always be someone smarter than you. Someone who started younger, learned faster, accomplished more. They're smarter than you are now, and they'll probably always be smarter than you.

Just get used to that as quickly as possible and move on with your life.

Now, in fact it is easy to be the world-champion of something if you qualify it enough. (I probably still hold the world record for building an efficient triangular planar semiconductor ring laser, for example. Nobody cares. Least of all me.) If you insist on occupying the top of some hill on this earth, you can always find a way to build that hill. The easiest way is to build it in your own mind. Don't laugh: People find genuine, lifetime happiness by doing that.

And it is true that genius is ill-defined, and that if you define it by a specific criterion, and then win that criterion, many people still won't accept that you're the biggest genius, because, hey, it's only chess. Or Jeopardy. Or music. Or literature. Or astrophysics.

And it is probably true that, even if you could become the biggest genius in history, no contest, you've won, you're the proverbial Einstein… you'd find it to be a big letdown. You'd feel just as confused as ever. You'd just be confused about harder problems. And meanwhile you'd find yourself surrounded by people who do not understand the most basic and obvious things.

But, no, these weak forms of my argument will not make you strong enough. I want to make you very strong, so I want you to visualize the person who is better than you in every way, and also twelve years old. And then I want you to get used to the existence of this person. And get on with your life.

Because other people's genius is not a problem. (Indeed, it's often really handy: Geniuses and prodigies can be good people to know. They do strange and wonderful things. It is fun to be their fan. It can be really fun to be on their team. This is a big reason why I live near MIT.)

If someone else's genius is a problem, it is probably not your problem.

---

When I was eighteen I was a fairly good math student. I enjoyed high-school math competitions, like the AHSME. I did pretty well. One year, based on my statewide ranking on the AHSME, I got invited to join a team of the top math students from my state to compete against an all-state team from another state.

This was one of the most valuable experiences of my life and I heartily endorse it. Because here's what happened: I got my ass handed to me. My teammates were freakishly smart. It turns out that the distribution of math-contest talent is not at all normal, and that being in the top 1% of contest-takers doesn't mean that you're within hailing distance of the top 0.5%. Oh, no.

As I remember it, one of the people on the trip wasn't an official member of our team. He was too young to compete, but was tagging along for fun. I think he might have been twelve. He was a better contest-problem mathematician at twelve than I've ever been in my life, that's for sure.

So what happened? As I remember, I had fun at the competition. I spent the time doing what amounted to janitorial work for the power-solvers at the head of our team: Filling in obvious missing steps, sharpening pencils, whatever. I don't remember. What I remember is that I got to hang around people who really liked math. And then I went home and kept on liking math, but stopped worrying about whether or not I was going to be the second coming of Galois, because I obviously was not.

I have found this attitude helpful, because if I were all hung up on the fact that I'm older, slower, and stupider than many of the folks I hang around with, my ego wouldn't last five minutes around here:

http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=35079

(HN veterans will have figured out, ten paragraphs ago, that this whole essay is basically an excuse to revisit that link from the old days. ;)




Plus, even if you do become the best who ever lived, someday you'll get old and you won't be as good as you once were (just ask Michael Jordan).

If you define your self-worth in comparison to other people, you're building your house on sand.


That story is interesting because it highlights what is often an enormous gap between people who are "pretty good" and people who truly excel. At times it feels like an impassable chasm.

As a similar example, when I was younger I used to cycle a lot. I would go out 4-5 times a week and would cycle as far as I could and as hard as I could. I got to the point where it became frustrating to cycle with any of the people I knew because I was so much faster that I could not get a reasonable workout if I went at their speed.

So I figured it was time to take the next step, so I signed up for the youth category of a regional cycle race to see how I would fare there. I remember seeing my competition, who were kids about my age but they had turned up with dedicated vans (embossed with sponsorship logos), support crews, carbon fibre bikes and personal trainers, the works. Many of them were actually the sons of pro cyclists.

So I line up at the start and when the gun goes off everyone plows forward, I manage to keep up for a while by working hard and feel pretty good about it. Though after a while it becomes obvious that they were really only just warming up and one by one they start to drop me until I'm stuck right at the back of the race.

This put me off cycling for quite a while, because it seemed like the choice was simply between dominating everyone or losing.

I sometimes think programming and computer stuff can be similar, everyone knows a kid who is a "computer genius" but in reality that can mean anything from knowing how to re-install Windows and fix basic computer problems to someone who hacks on the Linux kernel for fun.


I feel that there is a still stronger form of the argument out there. Or maybe it's closely related. It incorporates what you just said as well as the fact that intelligence != social status. If I could figure out how to properly word it, I would be quite a ways ahead of where I am now.


"I want you to visualize the person who is better than you in every way, and also twelve years old. And then I want you to get used to the existence of this person. And get on with your life."

Better yet: smile and be hopeful because of the existence of such a person.


Excellent post. I read every word.

I would go even further. Even though you state that for any person member of humans, there exists someone smarter than person, sometimes you slip into writing as if there is a linear ordering.

The geniuses and prodigies, sure if you project unto one dimension you can find a few people who dominate. Maybe you can find a few such dimensions. But there are vastly more dimensions where they would rank poorly than not. So instead of looking at it down the narrow lens of any one subject, it is best to focus on creating a uniquely useful combination of skills that you dominate on.

And then, why focus on intelligence or comparisons or domination at all? Focusing on things like that can be detrimental. Treadmill wise and also, especially to creating. Ranging from "I know I am super smart enough to do that so why bother?" to "I am not super smart so that is out of my league." Better to focus on results and ideas. You want to do something? Try it or don't. Sometimes being confused can be useful. Creatively speaking.

And then take a step back. It is possible that as you say, the distribution is no longer normal at tail but the range on humans is still a tiny pinpoint. We got things that are vastly dumber than us and it is very certainly possible for an intelligence to dominate us in orders of magnitude.

Why focus on such small change?

I have thought long on this in trying to combat feelings of worthlessness compared to how very much less I have accomplished than my father did at my age. He was one of those genius type people. =(


I agree that linear ordering is a fallacy. But the fact that I kept slipping into it is probably deliberate, if often subconscious.

Part of that is just to make it flow better: The art of explanation is to choose one clear line of pursuit and gloss over the complications. But I think there's a more important reason: The real world is multidimensional, but feelings of inadequacy are not. When I'm feeling good about myself I can recognize that there is no one true scale on which two people can be compared. But when I'm depressed and I think about smart people I just see a bunch of folks who are "more talented".

Depression messes with one's mind, to snap oneself out of it is not always possible (save your life, see a counselor) and when it's possible the mental trick that is required is different for everyone. The "by which arbitrary yardstick?" gambit is one such trick. My essay above is an expression of a different gambit.

(In other words, my rhetorical characterization of the various arguments as "weak" and "strong" versions of a single argument is also a false linear ordering. ;) Oh, the things we do for rhetoric.)


Great post, can't upvote enough. I didn't start at 12 either. I didn't start at 18 even. At 18 I did try my hand at some qbasic - I tried to reverse engineer that gorilla game with the bananas and the wind. I also wrote a couple scripts for MajorMud, so I could "play" even when I was asleep and at work.

That aside, I didn't even go to college until I was 26 and it was for Biochemistry. That was too hard for my weak little brain, so I switched to CS (which wasn't much easier tbh, but it was a bit, for me at least).

I graduated when I was nearing 31, and at that point had only been programming seriously (internship) for a year.

I'm not that great still, but only been out of college since early 2009, but at least posts like this give me hope that I can be more than passable.


Great post. Beyond accepting the existence of people smarter and more talented, I would recommend seeking opportunities to work with them on teams as much as possible. It will help you stay humble, yes, but it will also help you accomplish great things.

And--top secret--a lot of really great people secretly think that they are not as great as others. So you might have a spectacular team on which each person secretly thinks the rest are smarter or more naturally talented.




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