The Curse of The Gifted

Curium | 16 May 2014 | News | Deliver Change

There is an email exchange between Linus Torvalds and Eric S. Raymond that does the rounds in tech circles every couple of years or so. It’s official subject line is “Re: [PATCH] Re: Move of input drivers, some word needed from you” but it usually posted with the much more interesting title of “The Curse of the Gifted”


There is a link to the full email at the end but the paragraphs that I found most interesting are:


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 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.


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.


It struck a chord because I have experienced this “curse”, albeit at a much lower level. I’m far from “gifted” but I had enough ability to do reasonably well through high school with very little effort. My enduring memory of my GCSEs is not 2 weeks of intense studying, but of sunbathing and playing Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64. I continued this approach throughout A-levels (Tony Hawk Skating – PlayStation) and made it into my first choice university without too much trouble. Here, not feeling the need to change a winning formula, I proceeded as normal (Grand Theft Auto III – PlayStation 2).  It only took until the end of the first term to hit the wall, failing a full half of the modules I was taking. It was a wake up call. ip owner . I realised that if I want to succeed I would have to show some discipline, put the effort in and basically learn how to learn.


My experience proves that you don’t actually have to be that bright to fall foul to the “curse.”  I regularly see similar situations in the Project domain. With the constant pressure of deadlines, it is all too tempting to lean on natural ability and just get on with it.  At first it works. The project progresses rapidly without all the overhead of discipline and rigour, the stakeholders are pleased and it’s less work so it makes sense to continue. However, projects rarely get simpler through their lifecycle and eventually the complexity outstrips the natural ability and it all comes crashing down!


Natural ability is no good to you if you don’t use it. However, just because you can “just do it” doesn’t mean you should. Its usually worth reflecting and understanding the compromises you are making, because eventually, they’ll come back to bite you.



Link to full email –

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