Saturday, October 1, 2011

You have no talent! You aren't a natural!

A lot of software engineers have a desire to be great craftsman. I am no different. I work ticket by ticket. Each time I do a ticket there is a product {release notes, software changes, a new install of the software, and documentation placed in the ticket}. I want my tickets and code to be logical, concise, and correct. I want to be able to do this very quickly and use the latest technology and the best technique. I want to communicate between groups of people inside of my organization as well as the clients we serve so well that the finished product makes the client and the user happy and content. I want to spread happiness and cooperation through the entire experience. I want the software to be bug free even of edge cases. This is the life quest of a software engineer.

I don't feel I am a beginner at this, but if you look at it from a different angle, we are all beginning a new journey each day. Today, I am at the beginning of trying to be better than I was yesterday. Believe me, I have failed at all of the above many times.

I sometimes feel that my desire to be better technically is a sign of weakness. This is more true about technical skills than soft skills or sports. If I say I want to be a better soccer player, I often get pointers right away and I get a few things to practice that change my playing. If I say I want to be learn to be less brash in my communication style I'm often offered some advice, like take a walk before a heavy phone call. However, if I admit where I would like to improve technically then a sort of atmosphere is created where my natural abilities and talent seem to be up for discussion or a matter of question.

The worst thing, is that all this judgement hits my self-doubt and becomes a Molotov cocktail of paralysis. It can then be disastrous for both me and for the profession. Who knows how many people have dropped out of math, science, and technical fields because they lacked talent and weren't naturals?

I tutor mathematics to kids and I can't tell you how many times I hear the words "I'm not good at math". This is from very intelligent kids who aren't out of high school. Honestly, I want to say, you don't even know what math is yet. You don't know the first thing about it or your ability to do it or not do it. I want to tell them that no one is good at math who doesn't work at it.

I think that what separates math people from non-math people in our culture is that math people continue doing math and don't spend anytime thinking they aren't math people. They just keep going on the journey. The older I get, the more it is obvious that a lot of really capable people quit the journey. I admit, this journey isn't for everyone. Its hard work. It takes focus. You have to want to do it. The financial rewards aren't really there in proportion to the work. But what really hurts me is that there are people who want to do it and quit. They change majors, go home, seek other work all because they have it in their heads that they lack talent and aren't naturals. The profession looses when this happens.

Does it really matter how long it took Ernest Hemingway or Jack Kerouac to become great writers? Not to me. What matters is that they got there. They inspired and they lived and they created. How inspirational.

As a software engineer and a math tutor, my life's work will most likely not be worshiped by large audiences like great American novels but all the same, the people around me will notice a difference. My clients, the people I tutor, coworkers, managers and most importantly of course is myself. I will know that I did my best. I will know that I became as "talented" as I could. After years of hard work and refinement, I'll be called talented.

From Ira Glass . . .
“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”



Marta Smith said...

Great post! Thank you Alex for inspiring us all!

Alex McFerron said...

You are a writer, for better or worse, if you spend your life writing. Donald Hall

Mimi said...

And the way the math teachers respond to kids who make mistakes has everything to do with whether that kid becomes (self-labels as) a "non-math person" or "math person". Too often teachers make kids feel bad for making mistakes, instead of normalizing the finding-and-fixing-mistake process.

Anonymous said...

Right on Alex! You are awesome and this is all fully true. Related:

Nobody knows ahead of time how long it takes anyone to learn anything. - Dr. Tae

Alex McFerron said...

Great clip Ben! woooww!

Mimi - I agree and I think I run into people labeling all the time. We should let people label themselves :)