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Looking smart

Maybe I'm just being paranoid, but I'd like to get your opinion. This is a conversation I had the other day with "Fred." My program had to use his program.

Me: Fred, I need your help. I'm trying to use your program MysteryModule and it isn't working. Maybe I'm just not smart enough.

Fred: Don't worry. It requires only minimal intelligence to use MysteryModule.

Me: Oh, I guess I don't even have that.

Fred: That's ok, the documentation is really simple to understand.

I consider myself a highly educated and intelligent person, and when I started this job 2 years ago I had 7 years of programming exerpeince. I was missing certain skills needed for the job, but was able to learn them easily enough, and I got very good grades on the formal evaluation.
I'm afraid that somehow I have given some people the idea that I'm stupid (as illustrated by the conversation with Fred), and I wonder if there's any way I can change that impression.
I do not act very confident and that could be the problem. And I tend to ask a lot of questions rather than spending a lot of time trying to figure things out for myself.

Dodo Head
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

"Maybe I'm just not smart enough."

"Oh, I guess I don't even have [minimal intelligence]."

"I'm afraid that somehow I have given some people the idea that I'm stupid"...not to be sarcastic, but I might have some idea how that could have happened.  (=  I could tell you to spend more time trying to figure things out for yourself, or not try to put yourself down so much, but that sort of advice tends to be worth what you pay for it.

So pay for it already.  Go to and buy yourself buttons and stickers that say "I am a f***ing genius" and wear them proudly.  And while you're waiting for them to be shipped to you, ask around (discreetly) for referrals to a good counselor/therapist.  Sounds like it'd be worthwhile.

Even if MysteryModule *is* densely written, poorly documented, or just plain requires a lot of domain-specific knowledge, most people know how to deal with that -- sit down, puzzle it out with Fred's help, and help him understand how to write better documentation so he doesn't have to spend so much time explaining himself.  But that wasn't your question: you asked how you can feel more confident, and there isn't an easy answer for that.  Which is one of the first things a good counselor will tell you (and if they do tell you there's an easy, one size fits all solution, run screaming for the door).

Sam Gray
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

I think that precise question usually leads to precise ansver. So, instead asking "why does WhateverModule not work?" I would ask "Method X fails with error code Y and I compiled it with option A or whatever".

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

I dont think your comments will affect Fred's opinion of you.  He's already made up his mind.  Your tendency to ask questions before thinking might.  You shouldn't sit there clueless for an hour, but neither should you bother people at every unexpected occurance. 

Try making a list of questions so you can get them answered in batch mode.  And if there's something fundamental you dont understand, for god's sake keep asking questions till you get it or ask for a good place to read up on it.  There's nothing worse than somebody who says they get it when they dont.  That's stupid..

David Carlson
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

I think, in general, that worrying about whether people think you are dumb is NOT productive in the workplace -- it makes you wary of asking questions for fear of looking dumb, thus making you squander time trying to figure things out for yourself, thus slowing the rate at which you accumulate knowledge about the job, and also slowing your productivity.

Since you will learn more slowly, and be less productive, as a result of worrying about whether you look dumb, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, to formulate a general principle:


Tuesday, December 10, 2002

You should be having this discussion with Fred, not here.

By the way, before we go any further, you're not going to turn around after 20 responses and tell us you're female, are you? And then tell us we're all biassed.

Because ...
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

What is wrong with me having this discussion here??
And what in the world makes you suspect I'm female??

Dodo Head
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

1. If Fred thinks you are stupid and you are not, and it bugs you, go ask him why he thinks so. We don't think you are stupid, (well, I don't) so asking us is not helpful.

2. That was a joke. He was asking if that was a trap for those gender chauvinist pigs. Okay?

* * *

Compare your grades on "formal evaluation" with Fred. And when he finds out his are worse than yours, comfort him.

Or ask him some "a-ha questions," like how to swap two variables without a temp (of course you know the answer already) and if he cannot answer in 2 seconds, tell him the answer (and comfort him). I guess it can build up your image as a genius slowly. Good luck. :)

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Yo Dodo.

You really do sound a bit dodo, or possibly just have a chip on your shoulder ... aka inferiority complex.

"Because ... " did not say that you were female, but that since a lot of people here were not impressed with the way you handled the conversation with Fred, and seemed to be attacking you, you would not then turn around and say that you are being attacked because you are female.

Read the other threads. Since most people cannot agree on what intelligence is, we cannot even begin to have a discussion on how one looks smart.

Let me turn this on its head... Can a person's appearance tell you how smart they are. If we look at so called geniuses in history, we see that some were always impecably dressed, while others still were like hobos.

We could pick another metric. Full lock of hair vs baldness. Still that would take us nowhere.

Tall vs short. Still in the dark.

The old adage that "If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, looks like a duck and cooks like a duck, it's a duck", unfortunately does not apply.

I am one of those people who believes myself to be super intelligent. I am sure there are people out there though who think I am the biggest loser ever. Similarly, I have met educated men and women I would never entrust with a job that required (by my metric) some intellect.

Forget what anyone else thinks. Just be true to yourself.

My personal favourite?
  "Beauty is in the eye of the BEER holder"

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Okay, my interpretation of what Dodo Head really means is: Despite all my attempts to coax Fred, my grumpy co-worker, to help explain this to me, he won't.  Why is this, and how do I change it?

Why he won't: One answer is that explaining things is hard.  Another is that Fred doesn't *really* know either, and is also afraid of looking stupid.  (Often true if MysteryModule was inherited from someone else.)  The worst I ever experienced is where the developer of MysteryModule knew quite well it didn't do what it was supposed to, and didn't want me to figure it out!  Well, doesn't really matter.

Methods I've tried:
* Precondition: You are smart, Fred is smart enough to recognize when you have a good idea, MysteryModule is still under active development.  Method: Write a document explaining how you are supposed to use MysteryModule.  Granted, you have to think about it some and make some structural assumptions, but Fred (being smart) is likely to "borrow" some of your ideas, either now or later.  He also gets to come at it from the "he corrects you" direction, which is better for his ego.  Also, you have written docs you can go back to once you understand the MM, which can help point out what needs [better] documentation.  I tend to forget why exactly I didn't get it before, unless I write down my questions...if the MM is important, this could be pure gold you have here.
* Precondition: You are smart, Fred seems kinda clueless, MysteryModule is ancient history.  Method: Figure it out yourself - Fred's useless.
* Precondition: You are smart, Fred clueless, MM is current and Fred is responsible.  Method: Talk to your boss.  See if you can convince him that the join between your work and his should be Fred's job.  Fred can't document MM for you, you can document your work for Fred.  If your boss is aware of which one of you would be useful elsewhere, this can happen.  (This "worked" for me - in the sense of leading directly to Fred being fired and replaced with someone competent.)

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

When I read Fred's replies, my first thought was that he was just being a smart-ass.  Banter like that has been common at everyplace I've ever worked.  If so, you're just playing the straight man (or woman?) and need to learn to not be so sensitive and flick it back.

Also, if you ask a lot of questions about things that (with a little effort) you could figure out by yourself, then everyone will think you're an idiot.

Cognito ergo sum
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

I have strong accent and not too good english :-). Many people think I am stupid. Well, comparing the average 100 IQ, mine is 40 more :-) This is what counts for me and not what others think :-)

(Now guys,  you can say I am stupid :-)

Don't care
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Hmm, well I've once/twice had to build a wall of documentation and email around myself, when I've felt that someone was eating a huge amount of my time like candy.  Has he tried shunting you to email?  Or does it seem like he's become a little less accessible?

Of course, there's different kinds of dumbness.  The guy I'm thinking of (who I was trying to avoid) was probably pretty smart, but ohhh was he dense when trying to get points across to him.  Backbreaker 1-2 hr discussions.  I started coming to work right when everyone else left.

But who knows what's up in your case.  My first reaction is to say I'd need to see and listen to you for a while.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

I would suggest three things.

1. Don't worry about what other people think about you, unless you have done something wrong.  If you have done something wrong, apologize and/or fix it.

2. Instead of making comments about your own intelligence, simply ask what you want to know.  "Fred, why does Y happen when I do X?"

3. If Fred has a problem, let him tell you.  It sounds like he won't have any hesitation in doing so.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Fred is very smart, a genuis, and very young (I'm middle-aged). I'm intelligent in a different way. I have life experience, education in various subjects, philosophical knowledge, understanding of human nature, etc. Fred might not know there are other ways of being intelligent, and a good programmer, besides his way.
When I said I'm not smart enough to understand his program, it was meant as a joke, or a test. I did not expect him to answer the way he did. If someone said that to me, I would recognize it as a test and would reassure the person that of course they are smart enough, it's just a little confusing at first (which is true of almost anything in life).
It's possible that Fred was very busy that day and didn't want to be bothered, and maybe he wasn't really paying attention. However I think the evidence is pretty clear that he sees me as just another dummy.
It wouldn't matter so much, since Fred is not my boss. But he and my boss are both geniuses, and might have discussed me and decided I'm not on their exalted level.
Well, even if they did maybe it doesn't matter. Instead of feeling discouraged I could just try harder to prove they're wrong.

Dodo Head
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

The best way not too look "stupid" is to show that you did actually "think" about it.  And now the question becomes, how does one show that they "thought" about something.

1) Well, the first step is to *actually* "think" about it.

2) Then organize your thoughts and figure out what's missing.

3) Finally, after you've organized your thoughts and discover what you *really* don't understand, then do you approach the person and say something like, "Hey, I understand that the module [works this way and does that when this happens.  But when I try to do this, it doesn't seem to work.  Do you know why it's doing that?]."  Insert your situation between the brackets.

And you should be all set to go :)  Good luck!

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

"Fred is very smart, a genuis, and very young (I'm middle-aged)."

He can't be that smart if he responds the way you describe.
So let go of the idea that he's a genius -- because even if he is, it shouldn't matter -- and ask relevant questions. If he doesn't give relevant answers, ask why, don't hide behind perception, either yours or his.

no dodo
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Dodo Head:

Seriously, Honestly, it sounds like you have self-esteem issues.  You think people won't like you /  think you are dumb.

So, you act with that pre-supposition.  As a result ... that's how people respond.

It's a wierd, self-fufilling prophecy.  I know - I'm dealing with it myself, though on a more subtle level.

I like the advice of the guys above to see a counsellor.  Also, I would -not- recommend those touchy-feely new-age self-help books.  The problem won't be solved by you repeating "I am smart" while looking in a mirror.

But acknoledging that your unconscious assumptions are making your life harder, and taking steps to correct that -- that's a real, real good thing.

good luck,

Matt H.
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

I like this forum because *everybody* have IQs the size of their egos.

(I *know* I have a big ego ;-)

Leonardo Herrera
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

If he was a genius he wouldn't be programming.
So if that punk gives you smart-ass answers, thinking he is the best thing since coca-cola, don't care about it, and ask him the exact questions you want answers to. You have of course to understand what you're talking about. Example:

Customer: hello, I'd like to check the new Canon 28-70.
Seller: this other lens here is much better because it has 28-300 zoom.
C: I would prefer a lens with bigger max aperture.
S: You can use fast film instead.
C: and with good bokeh.
S: Ok, so you want the new Canon 28-70L.

and so on.

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

<quote>Or ask him some "a-ha questions," like how to swap two variables without a temp (of course you know the answer already) and if he cannot answer in 2 seconds, tell him the answer (and comfort him). I guess it can build up your image as a genius slowly. Good luck. :) </quote>

Am I exposing myself with following question?

Is there a way to swap two variables without a temp?

I thought not!

Daren Thomas
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

I think this would work:

Say you got two variables, a and b. Make this:

a <- a XOR b  // now a contains the XORed combinetion
b <- a XOR b  // this XOR with b reveals a, so b now has
                      // the former a value
a <- a XOR b  // this XOR with a reveals b, so a now has
                      // the former b value

This Java code illustrates (^ is XOR, so you can test in your favorite environment):

  int a = 53;
  int b = 92;        
  a = a ^ b;
  b = a ^ b;
  a = a ^ b;    

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

[If he was a genius he wouldn't be programming.]

Why not?? We aren't ALL striving to be managers.

Dodo Head
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

I can't stand users who report "it isn't working". That's the most useless piece of information possible. Dodo is the dunder-head here.

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

I wouldn't worry what Fred thinks, you are probably jumping to conclusions based on a simple conversation. From the conversation you listed above it really doesn't even sound like he was being insulting to be honest. I might be wrong because I did not here the tone of the conversation, he might have implied it by rolling his eyes dramatically then point at you when he said "minimal intelligence". But more than likely it sounds like you just need a little confidence.

I think it's a common misconception that all programmers must posses genius intellect. If you look at most of the major accomplishments and major players in programming history you will see one common theme - a nit of curiousity mixed with a lot of diligence, not necessarily genius. By asking questions you are proving that you know your limits and are willing to learn. I don't see how anyone would look down on someone asking a question. Especially if it relates to code they have written! Maybe it wasn't clear enough, maybe the API was a friggin kludge and you needed a Rosetta stone to understand it.

With all the problems in this industry you'd think that we could knock some of these chips off the shoulders and get some work done but we instead wax philisophical on "What is intelligence?", "How important is IQ?", and "Am I smart enough?". You'd think we were building the next wonder of the world and it required all of the greatest minds on the planet! Unfortunately we are not that important. Yes you need to use your brain. Yes it does require you to think. Keep asking questions and keep working hard and everything will be all good.

Ian Stallings
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

"I think it's a common misconception that all programmers must posses genius intellect."

I tend to agree. The "Microsoft Way" always seemed a bit weird. Certainly, you have to be good with decomposing problems to be a successful programmer. However, it seems that if you are really 90+ IQ points above the common man, you could probably succeed in a career doing something more worthwhile than adding visual basic macros to excel...

Thursday, December 12, 2002

"I have life experience, education in various subjects, philosophical knowledge, understanding of human nature, etc."

Please spare me, these will really help you be a salesmen, a manager and various other people-person type jobs.  I doubt they will be of much value learning how to code, or to figure out other peoples code.

I guess it could help you figure out how to interact in a team environment so you might get your work done, but since your post ended up here I dunno about that...

Friday, December 13, 2002

Dodo Head: it sounds like you're facing a cultural divide that isn't easily crossed.  You value your interpersonal skills above your technical ability, while Fred and your boss seem to value technical ability above their interpersonal skills.

You sound like you have a solid fundamental belief in your ability to understand things, which is vital to dealing with these kinds of people.  With this as your foundation, you can still value interpersonal skills above technical ability and "win" in both areas.  But if self-doubt starts to creep in, the "talent culture" people usually have the upper hand, at least in a work environment.

On a side note, I hear a possible hint of desperation in your story.  It sounds like you might be fishing for affirmation, and instead of playing that game with you, Fred turns it back on you, as in your example "Maybe I'm just not smart enough.  Fred: Don't worry, it requires only minimal intelligence."  Fred doesn't want to play the affirmation game, perhaps because you've over-used it, perhaps because he feels icky doing that, or perhaps this is his tough-love way of telling you that he doesn't believe you are a fundamentally weak person.  You may have inadvertently over-drawn on your emotional bank account with Fred, perhaps through asking too many questions, asking for too much affirmation, or other things you aren't even aware of.  Or Fred could just be an insensitive clod with unrealistic expectations of other people, which is a very real possibility, especially among those who consider themselves young geniuses.

To continue the "emotional bank account" analogy, you may need to cut back on your withdrawals while beefing up on deposits.  In addition to the withdrawals of asking too many questions or asking for affirmation, try to avoid unloading work or personal baggage, or presenting him with problems without demonstrating that you've put some effort into solving them.  Refrain from self-denigrating "tests" of Fred's character... he's probably sensitized to them right now.  When you're desperate for his help on something that is truly over your head, do your best to shield him from the emotions you're feeling (frustration, anger, despair, etc.) which would place an extra burden on him in solving your problem (the psychological one in addition to the technical).

Deposits include affirming Fred, being a good listener, and expressing an "I can understand this if it's explained" attitude, and helping him along by explicitly telling him the areas you're having difficulty in.  Instead of seeing yourselves on opposite sides of the table trying to come to agreement, visualize yourself on the same side of the table as Fred, actively working together with him to solve the problem of explaining things in a way that is satisfactory to you.

Just trying harder to prove that Fred and your boss are "wrong" is a dangerous response, and puts you in the "victim" category.  I know the desire, but it's self-defeating.  If you aren't able to resist this temptation, it's time to find an environment where you aren't around these kinds of people.  No amount of money is worth that kind of impact on your life as a whole.

Check out "The Talent Myth: Are smart people overrated?" for a great read on the downside of the talent culture:

Friday, December 13, 2002

Fred probably was joking.  However, he could just as easily have answered your question(s) or asked for clarification without being an asshole about it.  Unfortunately, programmers often think they are hot shit if they have rudimentary analytical ability and know how to code a little.

People, by nature, enjoy feeling superior to others, as shown by a few posts here.  In a room full of people a standard deviation or two beyond Fred's abilities (and they do exist), he would feel like the weak little retard he probably is.  A true genius doesn't need to put others down to feel good about himself.  He is probably a mediocre young simpleton who couldn't analyze his way
out of a portable toilet.  So fuck Freddy.

Friday, April 23, 2004

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