Hey… You forgot to tell us how to get the most out of this guy!

First… this guy we’re talking about. He is NOT a genius. That was totally the wrong choice of words. He may have a high IQ, he may be considered to be “gifted”, he may pretend to play the part of the disheveled nutty professor… but he’s really just an average guy that likes to tackle hard problems. He often gets out of his depth– in fact he’s not happy unless he *is* out of his depth! But he loves the inherent struggle to get control of such a situation.

I’m not the first person to write about this personality type, but I may be providing some new insight into how this guys brain actually functions– I may be describing how this person thinks… literally from the inside. Some of what I say may be generic to your typically “male” approach to things (ie, “man-cleaning), some may be more applicable to the creative (“right brained”) process in general. In any case, this person tends to make sweeping generalizations for the express purpose of jump starting his analytical juices so he can begin to tackle other aspects of a problem. “Normal” people often get hung up on picking over where the generalization breaks down, and cannot seem to grasp the overall picture he’s sketching out. A good collaborator would instead put in his two cents in by taking part of the idea and running with it, but some people prefer to snipe at him instead of being “a real team player.”  (Just kidding… I really would like some hard data on the ADD vs non-ADD, Autism vs non-Autism, male vs female, creative vs non-creative axes… but we have no Jean Piaget to develop and execute the experiments at the moment.)

Another thing he’ll do is take a set of premises and see where they lead regardless of his personal opinions and hunches. He’ll present a perspective as if it were his own so he can stand back and judge how that thread fits into the big picture. Regular people fail to notice the smile in the corner of his lips when he rapidly summarizes a set of talking points as if they were his own– he may actually be lampooning a perspective, but his “method acting” skills are so good people really think he actually holds those obnoxious opinions!

At any rate, most people failed to read between the lines of the last post– mainly because I stopped in the middle and dressed up what I had. (I was thinking… “yeah, you think you can identify with that first post… but there’s *no* way any of you will be able to relate to *this*! Before I go any further, let’s see how this one goes over….”) So… here’s the missing tips completely spelled out for you:

To get the most out of your nutty self-obsessed right-brained wanna-be mega-geek: let him solve problems his own way. Let him develop tools/abstractions that help him hide the sort of details and menial tasks that sap his strength. Force him to get up and go exercise or relax. Don’t hold a nebulous unfinishable to-do list over his head to guilt trip him– he will come down off of his creative high and beat himself up for being irresponsible and may even shut down emotionally. Allow him to relate to people one at a time– a hike with only *one* of the children, dates and activities without a big crowd. Don’t take it personally when he absolutely dreads doing activities you think are “fun”. Occasionally go stand by his desk until he gets that nagging little task done. Tell him things like, “if you don’t get anything else done today, please look into x; it’s really important to me.” Alternately, you can go with something like, “we have a critical secret mission and only someone like you can save us; we will hold down the fort and cover for you, but it is urgent that you work on this today.”  And no, he doesn’t need all of a June Cleaver, a secretary, and a personal accountant– he does need someone to play the part of a “coach”, though. And someone that can organize some of the pesky details into something he can act on can be critical to this guy getting anything done. You more than likely have some valid complaints about his performance, but anything that smacks of character assassination will destroy him and cause him to withdraw and shut down.  A little bit of sympathy can go a long way with this person– he criticises himself more than anybody else anyway.  He is capable of minimizing the negative consequences of his traits, but he cannot accompish anything useful for you if you refuse to give him the slightest feeling of acceptance.

For a lot of people this guy is just not worth the trouble… but again, he can be an amazing part of the right team.  Of course, the “right team” can change as he continues to grow in different directions, so be prepared to reassess his role and how he fits into things every six months or so.  Having him around means he will solve some things that are important, but that nonetheless fail to show up on anyone else’s radar.  He can be surprisingly child-like despite his nuanced positions and “deep” thinking.  If you lack the empathy to provide this guy with any sort of “nurture” or encouragement, then he will burn out very rapidly and you will waste whatever you’ve invested in him.

This guy is not a good fit for just any place.  In spite of the thinly veiled romanticism in the previous posts, do not fail to account for the warnings I’ve listed!  Things can go very very wrong with this guy if you humiliate him to the point where he shuts down.  (And yes… this dude needs to wake up and figure how to cope with his own personality if he wants accomplish anything.  He is totally driven to help people and do useful original work, though.  If he can get ahold of himself and/or get the right kind of support, there’s no telling what he’ll do.  [At least, he has to tell that to himself just to keep going.] Beating himself up all the time because he’s not “normal” is a complete waste of his energy, but he needs to pay special attention to when he says yes to anything.  If he can’t say “no” or can’t recognize when he’s not a good fit for something, there’s plenty of disappointment for everyone on the way!)

Edit: Getting lots of negative feedback now.  I think I’ve pinned down the exact thing of what causes this person to get depressed… and why certain things are so debilitating to him.  This is very valuable information for me… and I’m not sure how many counsellors/psychiatrists/whatevers could have helped determine this.  And yes, I had to write this, put it on the line, and fool myself into thinking it was relevant in order to see this.  (That’s the point of these posts!  This is the thinking process in action!)  The concepts hang well enough together to be useful to me, but are in a medium where they gain a large audience in spite of their rough form.  Oh well.  Carry on.  Nothing to see here.

17 Responses to “Hey… You forgot to tell us how to get the most out of this guy!”

  1. James Says:

    I think you should stick to writing code.

  2. lispy Says:

    I’ve completed the train of thought. I think I can move on now. Sorry.

  3. Peter Says:

    Don’t apologize. There’s folks that’ll call you arrogant or self-centered anytime you write the slightest good thing about your accomplishments. Maybe because it’s a blog and they’ll only see that one post, or maybe because the Internet helps jerks find people to bully across the entire world. But it’s been a real nice series to read for those of us in similar situations.

  4. James Says:

    Ok, to be fair I will elaborate.

    This entry, while perhaps being cathartic, seems like astrology in that it’s vague enough to apply to someone who wants to think of themselves as an absent-minded genius. Apply the context of programming and you’ve got a sure blogosphere hit.

    It doesn’t, however, do much to help people understand how to get the most out of these people. It does explain how they think, but simply being a coach or leaving these people to work on whatever tickles their fancy is most likely unrealistic. If someone has one of these people on their team, like my boss does, they often get frustrated when this person can be so great at times and then not care at others. Most managers will accept a consistently mediocre person over a once-in-a-while hot-shot who’s generally not interested in the work they’re *being paid to do*.

    A little encouragement helps. Being sensitive around this person helps. Accepting their boosts of enthusiasm OR complete shut-downs helps.

    My issue with this post is that I fail to see how any of the advice here applies uniquely to what resembles the bi-polar lisp programmer.


    I’ve exposed myself as having only ever worked around bi-polar lisp programmers.

  5. pixpop Says:

    Let me guess: You begin to feel nauseated whenever someone utters the words “Team building exercise”.

  6. Daniel Tenner Says:

    Lesson to a fellow programmer-genius (well, I still prefer hyperbrain as a term): occasionally, comments on the web are incredibly harsh and completely unwarranted. I haven’t quite explained it. There’s always the GIDT ( http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19/ ), but I think that’s not enough, and there must be a dose of meanness in it too.

    Take this article I wrote for Sitepoint: http://www.sitepoint.com/article/nine-deadly-startup-diseases … Not a bad article (quite a good one I reckon)… yet check out the very first comment in the forums: http://www.sitepoint.com/forums/showthread.php?t=565593 (seriously, check the first comment)

    See? Some people just seem to have nothing in their lives and so they take it out of others.

    Keep writing, it’s interesting. And ignore people who post asinine, over-harsh comments on your blog. They’re only making themselves look bad!

  7. What Says:

    What on earth are you talking about?

  8. Jer Says:

    Gotta go with Daniel here, lispy: the inarnets, they be full of asshats. I saw the thread on reddit and couldn’t quite understand the vitrolic response either…

    For what it’s worth, I thought your essay was extremely thought provoking, although I may be a bit biased since I’m one of the other 90% of your commenters that identify with your subject matter. 🙂

  9. anonymous Says:

    I think all of the people who wrote (on this and your other posts) variants of “this is so vague it can apply to anybody” don’t realize how different people truly are. You’re victims of sample bias.

    For example, I had an ENTJ (“Fieldmarshal”) roommate in college. Despite also being an NT (“Rational”), he was as unlike the above description as could be. He absolutely loved being surrounded by people all the time — all different kinds of people. And doing things, always, but not in the sense of thinking over tough mental problems. He was always organizing and doing things that required a lot of people with a lot of different strengths. You could have 15 people sitting around, and he’d spontaneously organize some event that required 15 people each doing a specialized job that only that person could do, and you’d *want* to do it. It was the darnedest thing. I’m surprised he hasn’t started a company or football team or country by now. (He’s a social worker, which is probably better for us all.)

    If you stare at a computer screen too much, you start to forget how different people really are. I think it’s great how the internet causes people to ignore skin color and sexual orientation (and to a lesser extent, sex), but it’s also too bad that so many other traits are hidden. Our diversity is our greatest strength, yet we all look so alike here.

  10. Joshua Paine Says:

    Ignore the haters. They can write their own blog.

    > I think I’ve pinned down the exact thing of what causes this person to get depressed… and why certain things are so debilitating to him.

    If you can distill what you’ve learned from this series into something a bit tighter, it might help you know to see if it still sounds true when you make it precise–and it might be useful to me, too.

  11. Reg Braithwaite Says:

    “this guy we’re talking about. He is NOT a genius. That was totally the wrong choice of words. He may have a high IQ, he may be considered to be “gifted”, he may pretend to play the part of the disheveled nutty professor… but he’s really just an average guy that likes to tackle hard problems. He often gets out of his depth– in fact he’s not happy unless he *is* out of his depth! But he loves the inherent struggle to get control of such a situation.”

    I opened my talk at RubyFringe with the statement: “Being interested in the same things as smart peopel is not the same thing as being smart.” And then I went on to talk about Syntactic Metaprogramming. Which, IMO, really fits your statement. I absolutely am an average guy with “no fear of hard.” And I’m usually out of my depth.

    Thank you for sitting in front of WordPress and “opening a vein.” You have done a good thing.

  12. Tyler Says:

    Thank you for making me feel “normal”

  13. Ryan A. Says:

    I also think you should stick to writing code 🙂

  14. Horre Says:

    I think your original article (how to deal with these programmers) was really really good, and explained exactly how I feel every day. I have never read anything that was so clear and similar to me so congratulations !
    Don’t let the negative feedback get to you, you did a very nice job.

  15. giancarlo Says:

    I subscribed to your blog just because of these last posts, not necessarily interested in lisp. Anyway i think you accurately portrait the personality of many programmers including myself.

    One thing, MBTI personality models may not be accurate and in my opinion are too general. Check the criticism section in wikipedia. Supposedly I am an INTJ, but I can relate also to INTPs.

    Keep up the good work.

  16. perspective Says:

    I really do wish that you would really read, I mean read until you grok, some of the things the few (brave!) women who spoke up said. None of them were vitriolic (okay, the ‘screw you guys!’ kinda was..) or personally attacking, but they really did raise good points, and the only one to which you responded very much did come off as a brush-off. It may be true that you didn’t mean to offend, but you did. Maybe because of your personality traits, you don’t really know how to respond to this, but if you care about people, and learning, as much as you seem to suggest, then this is something you need to learn. You are in a position of privilege, truly, even if it doesn’t feel like it to you because all the ways in which mainstream society isn’t geared to you hurt acutely. But you are, and you demonstrate this by pretty flat out stating that other people should accommodate you, or rather, ‘people with these personality traits’. Responding to having this pointed out with “I feel horrible, but I beat myself up!” carries an implication of “so you shouldn’t beat me up, or in fact, criticize me in any way”, which doesn’t help anyone, especially not yourself. Or those relationships you elude to.

    I have two partners, both of them ‘this’ sort of personality type. There really are women who absolutely not only think “you’re worth it”, but actively prefer this type. Some of us are even that type too, and we enjoy having someone to narg with us. (Don’t ever listen to people like Miklov in the other thread tell you differently, playing to some over-wrought stereotype of the unsexy-Aspie who never gets even a single partner– pft, I could embarrass the entire internet with details of just how very untrue that is). But it would be enormously appreciated if you, you men with these traits, understood that 1) we’re like this too, 2) we’ve been pretty much socially engineered to be as accommodating as we can and 3) we could really use some accommodating and understanding and acceptance ourselves.

  17. Chui Tey Says:

    ha ha, I’m so unoriginal that someone else thought this sounds like Astrology.

    I’m going to defend Lispy here. I reckon the internet is big enough to find a small group of people whose personality characteristics intersect in the same way.

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