April 2016

The Wisdom of Bob Ross

Perhaps the most soothing videos you can see on YouTube are the full-length episodes of The Joy of Painting available on the official Bob Ross channel. Last night, I was watching Bob paint a wonderful scene of a forest at night, lit by a camp fire, and Bob told a story with a message that really resonates with me and how I feel about learning to program.

The story is Bob's explanation of why he doesn't do any portraits on the show, even though many viewers have asked him to do so. He says that for two years he studied portraiture, until one day his instructor took him aside and told him to stick to painting bushes and trees, because that's where his heart was. Then he goes back to talking about the camp fire painting he is working on, before adding the following:

We talk about that sometime--about talent. What is talent? Talent is nothing more than a pursued interest. In other words, things that you're interested in, you'll spend a lot more time working at than something you're not interested in. So that's all talent is. It's if you're willing to spend the time to perfect something.

Video here, if you want to hear this in Bob's own ultra-soothing voice. Story starts at the 20:00 mark, if this doesn't start at the right spot when you play it:

The older and more experienced I get with learning and teaching, both when I am the teacher and when I am the learner, the more I realize the simple but profound truth of this statement. It definitely holds for programming, and indeed, for pretty much all skills that require diligence to learn.

It's important to note that the message cuts both ways. If you have real interest in programming, time and effort will make you a programmer. By real interest, I mean that programing, on some level, has to be enjoyable. It won't necessarily be fun, but you have to get a psychic reward from the task. Many programmers share stories of when they first wrote a simple program and the joy they felt knowing that they were making the computer do what they wanted. If you get this feeling, you should eventually succeed in making yourself a good programmer, even if at some times you are so frustrated, you feel like throwing your computer in the trash.

But if you don't have a real interest in programming, it doesn't matter how smart you are; you're going to be in trouble. You might think so someone without a real interest in programming wouldn't persist in trying to program, but it happens quite a bit. People are being bombarded every day with pitches that suggest that programming is the golden ladder to success in the 21st century. Politicians and others that should know better absurdly suggest that all of us should learn programming. And so on. All of this leads people to think that if they enjoy working with computers, or even if they don't but still want a good job, they need to learn to program, and pronto. What's worse, when people with no real interest in programming fail in the attempt to learn, they think of themselves as deficient--because if we're all supposed to learn programming then anyone who can't do it must be less than fully intelligent, right?--when the problem is nothing more than people pursuing a goal that lies out side their talents...outside their interests.

I encourage anyone who believes he or she has an interest in programming to try it out, and there's no harm in trying it out to see if the interest is there. Just remember that Bob Ross stunk at painting portraits, no matter how long he studied.

But he painted the happiest bushes and trees anyone ever saw.

Share this