It’s Not Genius, It’s Cumulative Advantage

When I attended a lecture by Oliver Segovia, he talked about “cumulative advantage”, which meant that people who seem so talented in a certain field were not products of sheer magic, but of an advantage that they garnered because of early training.

He said that when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was young, Mr. Zuckerberg had a tutor who taught him code, so it was no wonder that by college, he already had the know-how to invent Facebook. When it comes to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Mr. Segovia said that the young Gates went to a school that had a computer, and back then it was the only school that gave students that kind of access to that technology. Both of them are branded as geniuses, but really their achievements are products of the knowledge that they’ve accumulated early in their lives.

This made me think about what was my cumulative advantage and cumulative disadvantage, so that I need not judge people who are worse than me, and, at the same time, not feel insecure about the people who are better than me. We all have our different journeys, and those contexts have taken us to where and who we are today, and thus we just have to take those paths and keep on walking toward our dreams. There is no need to belittle others or to let others make you feel incompetent.

My cumulative advantage stems from my diary writing. This helps me in my job as an art reporter. If you’ve read Confessions of a Diary Fanatic, you’ll know that I started writing in my diary pretty early in life.

Ever since I got that diary, I’d write regularly. Not everyday, but often enough. This helped me constantly practice how to create sentences that encapsulated my thoughts and emotions. I also got to practice describing my surroundings, the people I met, the experiences I had, the things I saw on TV, the things I read, etc. This continuous drill of translating experiences into words was a fun and light thing for me, but, without me knowing it, it trained me to write better.

In the past, I used to judge other writers if they couldn’t write like I could, but when I learned that they started writing later than I did, I realized that it’s unfair to compare. Same thing goes with the writers who are better than me. Maybe they had a more helpful early training, maybe they had other advantages, but one thing’s for sure, it’s unfair to compare.

Teachers and confidence

My diary writing was like getting extra writing practice, and since my classmates weren’t getting that kind of training, I began to stand out. Years later, when I look back at the things I used to write in grade school and high school, I’d find the sentences convoluted and full of thesaurus-mined words. They were really bad, so why did my teachers ever say that those crappy things were good? Well, it’s because for a kid, they were good. My sentences were different from my peers–they were inventive and honest, albeit terrible, now that I’m judging it by my current standards, but again, for a kid, it was brilliant.

Because of my diary-wrought advantage, which made me a notch better than my classmates, and which generated praise from teachers, I began to form a semblance of belief in my writing skills. By the time I entered Ateneo de Manila to take up Creative Writing, I was ready to accept and was not broken by criticisms.

Criticisms came because almost every class was formatted into workshops. Before a workshop, every writer in the group had to submit his or her written work, and then each person in the class reads the submissions. There will be a round of comments for your work, where each student, except the writer of the piece, will give positive and negative comments. Then, the teacher will give his or her feedback, and then the writer will have a chance to react to what was said.

My time in Creative Writing is another cumulative advantage. I had two years of going through those workshops, and these things happened not just in one class, but in all writing classes. At one point, I was so sick of those workshops, but now I realized that they did help me a lot.

My classmates and teachers gave me a ton of feedback, from pointing out typographical errors (which made me realize that I needed to spend more time proofreading my work, although typos are also inevitable as to err is human), to sentence construction and grammar, to clarity in explanation, to logical flow of ideas and plot, and more.

I also learned how to analyze my classmates works because I gave my two cents when it was their turn to be examined. I learned from their mistakes and from the constant practice of evaluating written works.

Incubation against critique

Another comparative advantage that I had was a period of incubation against criticisms. I’m not saying that criticisms are not valuable, but negative feedback can either help a writer grow or it can completely destroy her. Once you start to publish, you open yourself up to criticisms that come in many forms–the constructive kind, the harsh, the unhelpful, the personal attacks, and the needs-to-be-totally-ignored.

I feel sorry for young writers who get exposed too early to this barrage of criticism. If a writer doesn’t have a semblance of self-belief and internal validation gained through an early appreciation of his young craft, then the criticisms can shatter him, and make him believe in a false reality that he is not good enough.

I really think young writers should go through a period of incubation, a time when she is appreciated for her potential and is encouraged to believe in herself. Only after this period, can he move out of this protective bubble, and forge on to face criticisms.

The incubation period should not just happen at one period of one’s life, but at every level of one’s journey. Whenever we try something new, we must protect ourselves against undue criticisms. The incubation period is now something that we accord to ourselves, it is a period of kindness, where you can say to yourself, I’m starting a new path or a new level of this same path, and I’ll allow myself to make mistakes.

I was lucky that I experienced my incubation period when I was 10 years old, a time when authorities such as teachers were the kind who did not make me feel stupid for making mistakes that were natural for a 10 year old. Instead, they chose to focus on the strengths I had that weren’t “natural” for a 10 year old. Most importantly, they made me aware of these strengths by directly telling me, by scribbling praises on my essays, by putting a smiley beside my nice sentence, or by stamping an angel on top of my story.

When I started working, I did not give myself another incubation period, and my first boss was a perfectionist who never gave anybody a chance. Whenever I’d make a typographical error, she thought that it wasn’t a typo, but it was evidence that I was so stupid, I didn’t even know that grammatical rule.

Once, I mistakenly spelled “Angelina Jolie” as “Agelina Jolie”, and she was like “God, such a common name, and you don’t know how to spell it.” She would also periodically tell me “You should go back to grade school and learn grammar.” These were stinging comments that depressed me and made me lose confidence in my writing. I was so miserable in that job that I even thought about giving up on writing.

Now I realized that I did not give myself incubation time to adjust to that job. Before that job, I never had to write that fast. Since the writing pace was something I wasn’t accustomed to, it was inevitable that I’d make mistakes. I should have also called her out for her insensitive comments, but I didn’t know how to stand up to authorities back then.

Thankfully, I did not give up on writing, and until now I am always excited to learn more things about my craft.


My comparative disadvantage is reading. As a kid, I loved to read, but back then, I did not plan to be a writer, so I did not read the classics. I just read whatever I wanted. I was also very slow at reading. When I entered Creative Writing in Ateneo, the writers there had read more books than I did. I started to feel insecure. Their knowledge also boosted the quality of their writing, and again I felt insecure.

This new knowledge about cumulative advantage though puts that experience in perspective. It’s not that I wasn’t good enough to be in that circle, but these people had long planned to be writers. So they read more books, they joined writing groups, and those things helped them learn more things about the craft.

These days, I have already read a lot of classics, but I have more to go. Instead of feeling bad about it, I’m cutting myself some slack. It’s ok. It will take time. I’m patient enough. I trust in my journey.

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