Other People's Talents

I hate people who are more talented than me. Well, hate probably isn’t the right word. The way I should put this is that in my life I am constantly confronted by people who are more talented than me and this brings out the darker side of my personality. For example, if you watched Apple’s launch event for the iPad, you will notice that about 42 minutes in, they bring up a guy named Steve Sprang to demo an application called Brushes. Brushes lets you paint pictures on your iPhone, and has been used to create, among other things, covers for the New Yorker. I used to work with Steve, and he’s always been smarter than me.

When Steve released Brushes, I told him flat out that a fatal flaw in his plan was that the application would be no good to anyone who can’t draw. He chuckled and kept working. But for me, this fatal flaw persists. I can’t use the thing because I can’t draw. No matter what sophisticated software I might be using, all I ever end up with is a mess.

Clearly Steve can draw. I mean, he developed the drawing program. He must be pretty good at using it. Steve can also ride bike faster than me. And he’s in better shape. And he’s probably a better photographer too. All this, and he’s always been better at writing code than me too.

A lot of people I work with are like this. In our humble Pittsburgh office, we have people who write code and play music, sing and act in plays, make films, fix cars, and write interesting things on the Internet. What gives them the right to be better than me at so many things? How does this happen?

So here is my thinking. I’ve worked hard all my life to be a reasonably talented dork. On a professional basis I can say that I’m probably one guy on the planet who is above average at creating, and, more importantly, fixing the code that computers run to do things for us. I have done this mostly on the strength of one, maybe two aspects of my personal makeup that you might call “talents”:

1. I have good memory for code I write, and I have a knack for “visualizing” how code is organized. This makes it easier to debug things, because I generally don’t have to ask my past self what the hell I was thinking.

2. I am good at not being clever. In large scale software engineering, clever code is the enemy of shipping. But that’s another article.

I’ve always found it astounding that these two humble abilities can provide a paycheck over the long term, but there you go.

Aside from this, everything I’m good at is mostly a matter of practice and experience. When you see as many bugs as I have, you get good at recognizing patterns and guessing what is going on.

I tend to think that everything I’m good at is mostly a matter of practice. People say I take good photographs. I retort that if you shoot as many frames as I do during (say) a birthday party, four or five of them better be good. Some people think that I am a reasonable cook. Again, this is a ruse. When you come to my house, I inevitably cook something that I’ve made dozens of times before. So again, I’ve had a lot of practice. I don’t think there is anything else I’m really that good at. Maybe shopping for bags on the Internet.

So this is what makes me feel bad. I see all these great people in the world who just have a seemingly magic ability to perform tasks that I have no hope of ever managing. And that’s not even what they do professionally. What they do professionally is exactly what I’m also good at professionally. How is that fair?

In the end, I make myself feel better by reasoning that maybe I’m giving them too much credit. Maybe, as I’ve indicated above, it’s not really possible to find the fuzzy line between talent and accumulated experience. This cheers me up for a while, but in my heart I know it’s not true. But ultimately I’m OK with that. I long ago realized that life is too short to worry about being the absolute best at everything you do. I’m happy to muddle through life in my slightly-above-averageness. It gives me time to get out once in a while and shoot some pictures. Or put together that nice beef stir fry for dinner. All in all, a good tradeoff.