“Am I smart enough for programming?”

by Jason Swett,

Sometimes on programming forums someone asks a question along the lines of, “Am I smart enough for programming?”

The bad answer

Typically the answers to this question are some variation of “Yes! Keep going! You can do it!”

These answers are well-intentioned but not honest. The answerer has no idea who the asker is or how smart they are. That’s like someone asking, “Am I tall enough to ride a rollercoaster?” and people answering, “Yes! You can do it! Just believe in yourself!” It’s not necessarily true, obviously. And it’s not helpful.

The good answer

When someone asks if they’re smart enough for programming, what they’re probably experiencing is that they’re spending a lot of time and effort trying to learn programming and not feeling like their progress is proportionate to their expenditure. They figure that a likely explanation for their difficulty is that they’re not smart enough.

These people are probably reasoning that you have to have some minimum level of smartness in order to be able to learn programming, and that not everyone meets that minimum level of smartness, and if they aren’t smart enough then they shouldn’t waste their time on trying to achieve the unachievable.

For anyone wondering asking this question of themselves, I would point out that “Am I smart enough for programming?” is a really vague question. It’s like asking, “Am I tall enough for basketball?” Being tall obviously helps in basketball but it’s not like there’s a hard line at six feet and you should just give up if you’re less than six feet tall.

If you want to be a programmer, being smart helps, just like being tall helps you in basketball. But it’s not the only factor. It’s not as though the minimum IQ for programming is 120 and if your IQ is below 120 you should give up.

Everyone who wants to become a competent programmer has to learn a million little details. It’s easy to mistake “I’m having a hard time learning all these details” for “I’m not smart enough to grasp the material”. When I first started learning to speak Chinese, I was amazed at how inept I was and how long it took me to learn anything. When I would try to speak Chinese with my Chinese friend who was helping me, I would understand such a comically tiny amount of what she said that the whole exercise felt like a waste of time to me. But the reason for the difficulty wasn’t because I’m stupid, it’s just that Chinese is very different from English and there’s a lot of stuff to learn.

I’ll add yet one more point. You don’t actually have to be that smart to be a successful programmer. I’ve met plenty of programmers who are pretty dull and can’t code their way out of a paper bag. Yet, somehow, they maintain programming jobs. (Some of these dummies have even been my past bosses!) So if you’re worried that you don’t meet the minimum, you might not need to worry. The bar isn’t that high.

Takeaways

  • Asking if you’re smart enough for programming is like asking if you’re tall enough for basketball. It’s not really a question that makes sense.
  • No one is going to tell you that you’re too dumb for programming and you should quit. There’s no test you can take to find out if you’re smart enough. It’s just not really knowable.
  • Learning programming involves learning a million little details. Don’t confuse the the labor of learning with a lack of intelligence.
  • The minimum necessary level of intelligence in order to become a successful programmer is actually pretty low.

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