Starguy Speaks

On the Myth of the Talented Jerk


You see it all the time, particularly on TV – the computer programmer who is arrogant/politically incorrect/amoral enough to be a royal pain to work with, but is just so good at their job that everyone has to just deal with them anyway.

As outlined in an article recounting a PyCon 2015 talk by Jacob Kaplan-Moss, this is a real problem in the Computer Science community: There’s a perception that programming ability is downright bimodal, where some are REALLY REALLY good at it, some are REALLY REALLY bad at it, and there’s basically nothing in between. You either are or you’re not. And with it, there’s the idea that these mythical superhuman code-masters must be appeased, because, well, everyone else are just chumps not worth consideration. I can’t really improve on the eloquence of the article, so I’ll just quote it here. (Seriously, you should read the whole thing).

In our industry, we recast the talent myth as “the myth of the brilliant asshole”, he said. This is the “10x programmer” who is so good at his job that people have to work with him even though his behavior is toxic. In reality, given the normal distribution, it’s likely that these people aren’t actually exceptional, but even if you grant that they are, how many developers does a 10x programmer have to drive away before it is a wash?

I think science has more or less the same problem – we like to think of scientist as something you are, or you’re not. We like to believe (reinforced in the public imagination by magazines like Popular Science, who like to publish lists of “Brilliant 10” scientists, and the Nobel Prize, which is infamously split a maximum of three ways for any given prize-winning discovery) that there are the brilliant individuals who are head, shoulders, and probably full torso above the rest… but that’s not true. It hasn’t ever really been true. Edison loved the myth of the self-made man, but it’s widely known that he didn’t singlehandedly invent the things he’s famous for. And you might want to consider that one of the chief concepts of Einstein’s Special Relativity is called “Lorentz Invariance”.

Subscribing to this myth has real human costs. For one thing, believing that I had to either be the absolute best or I was totally inconsequential, sent me to a therapist. And it has real costs when a university decides to keep and defend a talented jerk of a scientist /who’s committed fireable offenses because he’s “just that good”.

The thing is, if only one person can do it, it’s not science. It may take longer (a lot longer, even) for us to do it, but if it exists, science will eventually find it. And it might not take longer, if we have the support of all the “lesser” (but not really) folks they would have driven away.