Lisp is a brilliant failure, and it draws similar people to it

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

I love this. It is scary how close it come to describing parts of me.

No I want to look at the brilliant failures. Because brilliance amd failure are so often mixed together and our initial reaction is it shouldn’t be. But it happens and it happens a lot. Why?

Well, to understand that, we have to go back before university. Let’s go back to high school and look at a brilliant failure in the making. Those of you who have seen the film “Donnie Darko” will know exactly the kind of student I’m talking about. But if you haven’t, don’t worry, because you’ll soon recognise the kind of person I’m talking about. Almost every high school has one every other year or so.

Generally what we’re talking about here is a student of outstanding brilliance. Someone who is used to acing most of his assignments; of doing things at the last minute but still doing pretty well at them. At some level he doesn’t take the whole shebang all that seriously; because, when you get down to it, a lot of the rules at school are pretty damned stupid. In fact a lot of the things in our world don’t make a lot of sense, if you really look at them with a fresh mind.

So we have two aspects to this guy; intellectual acuteness and not taking things seriously. The not taking things seriously goes with finding it all pretty easy and a bit dull. But also it goes with realising that a lot of human activity is really pretty pointless, and when you realise that and internalise it then you become cynical and also a bit sad – because you yourself are caught up in this machine and you have to play along if you want to get on. Teenagers are really good at spotting this kind of phony nonsense. Its also the seed of an illness; a melancholia that can deepen in later life into full blown depression.

Another feature about this guy is his low threshold of boredom. He’ll pick up on a task and work frantically at it, accomplishing wonders in a short time and then get bored and drop it before its properly finished. He’ll do nothing but strum his guitar and lie around in bed for several days after. That’s also part of the pattern too; periods of frenetic activity followed by periods of melancholia, withdrawal and inactivity. This is a bipolar personality.

Alright so far? OK, well lets graduate this guy and see him go to university. What happens to him then?

Here we have two stories; a light story and a dark one.

The light story is that he’s really turned on by what he chooses and he goes on to graduate summa cum laude, vindicating his natural brilliance.

But that’s not the story I want to look at. I want to look at the dark story. The one where brilliance and failure get mixed together.

This is where this student begins by recognising that university, like school, is also fairly phony in many ways. What saves university is generally the beauty of the subject as built by great minds. But if you just look at the professors and don’t see past their narrow obsession with their pointless and largely unread (and unreadable) publications to the great invisible university of the mind, you will probably conclude its as phony as anything else. Which it is.

But lets stick to this guy’s story.

Now the big difference between school and university for the fresher is FREEDOM. Freedom from mom and dad, freedom to do your own thing. Freedom in fact to screw up in a major way. So our hero begins a new life and finds he can do all he wants. Get drunk, stumble in at 3.00 AM. So he goes to town and he relies on his natural brilliance to carry him through because, hey, it worked at school. And it does work for a time.

But brilliance is not enough. You need application too, because the material is harder at university. So pretty soon our man is getting B+, then Bs and then Cs for his assignments. He experiences alternating feelings of failure cutting through his usual self assurance. He can still stay up to 5.00AM and hand in his assignment before the 9.00AM deadline, but what he hands in is not so great. Or perhaps he doesn’t get into beer, but into some mental digression from his official studies that takes him too far away from the main syllabus.

This sort of student used to pass my way every now and then, riding on the bottom of the class. One of them had Bored> as his UNIX prompt. If I spotted one I used to connect well with them. (In fact I rescued one and now he’s a professor and miserable because he’s surrounded by phonies – but hey, what can you do?). Generally he would come alive in the final year project when he could do his own thing and hand in something really really good. Something that would show (shock, horror) originality. And a lot of professors wouldn’t give it a fair mark for that very reason – and because the student was known to be scraping along the bottom.

Often this kind of student never makes it to the end. He flunks himself by dropping out. He ends on a soda fountain or doing yard work, but all the time reading and studying because a good mind is always hungry.

Now one of the things about Lisp, and I’ve seen it before, is that Lisp is a real magnet for this kind of mind. Once you understand that, and see that it is this kind of mind that has contributed a lot to the culture of Lisp, you begin to see why Lisp is, like many of its proponents, a brilliant failure. It shares the peculiar strengths and weaknesses of the brilliant bipolar mind (BBM).