Do You Have to Be Smart to Be Successful?
“You have to be really smart to be successful. If you’re only average or dumb, you’re screwed.”
I’ve heard this excuse many times over the past 25 years. Is it true?
I’m of higher intelligence myself (though I’m not very smart; most IQ tests I’ve taken place me at the very low end of genius), and I’m “successful” in that my income is higher than average, and my happiness is way higher than the average, so I’m indeed one of those people you could point to and say, “See? You’re smart, that’s why you’re successful.”
But is that a universal, predictable maxim? There are a few angles to this, and I’ll cover all of them.
I have met hundreds of successful people over the course of my life. My career as a business consultant has put me in front of many business owners, most of whom were self-made. I can tell you for fact that I have met some of the dumbest millionaires you can imagine. I have met several completely self-made men who were absolute idiots, and most of them would agree with me regarding their assessment of how smart they are, or should I say, aren’t. I was honestly shocked when I met these people. I have even met a self-made millionaire who didn’t know how to read.
So if you’re saying that if you’re dumb or of average intelligence that you can’t be successful, you are wrong.
The one trait these dumb-but-successful people shared is that they worked hard. They took several years of their lives and busted their asses and did enough right things that they eventually became successful.
Okay, those are the exceptions to the rule, you say. Weren’t most of the successful people I’ve met really smart?
I thought long and hard about that question, going back over my notes of past work I’ve done and people I’ve met. My answer is no, most of these people were not particularly smart. A lot of them were, but most of them were about average in terms of intelligence. Again, they were motivated people who were hard workers, but most of them weren’t any smarter than the typical person.
Don’t get me wrong; many of these successful people were indeed smart, but I’d say it was only about 30-40%. The rest were about average.
Well, that’s just anecdotal experience, you say. If you look at the stats, dumber people make less money than smarter people.
That’s true. If you look at masses of people, dumber people generally make less money than average people or smart people. According to the statistics that I’ve read, smarter people generally make a little more money than average people, but smarter people don’t really have any higher chances of being truly successful than average people.
In other words, if you look at a big corporation, the employees who are smarter will likely be making higher salaries than the average or dumb employees, but the entrepreneur founder/owner of that corporation who is sitting on millions of dollars is just as likely to be of average intelligence as he is to be smart.
This exactly matches my anecdotal experience. Most really smart people I know and I’ve met (and there have been many) aren’t rich or successful at all. They’re not losers either, but they’re not what I would consider successful people. Really smart eggheads tend to be thinkers, not doers. Successful people are doers. The smart egghead will become a college professor and make a decent income, but his brother who is average in intelligence and a strong doer will go on to start a business, be successful, and live a great life.
Years ago I was told by very successful people that being really smart actually harms your ability to become really successful. I don’t know if that’s true, but I certainly have seen evidence of this. Really smart people tend to sit around, think, analyze, make excuses, philosophize, debate, argue, process, and all of that fun stuff, rather than getting out into the real world and take action to improve their condition.
So I think the scale looks something like this:
Dumb people – harder to be successful, but still very possible if you’re action oriented.
Average people – Can be successful if you’re action oriented.
Somewhat smart people – Will probably make a little more money than the typical average person, but aren’t any more likely to be successful, but can be if you’re action oriented.
Very smart people – Will probably make a little more money than the typical average person, but are less likely to be successful.
I’m only speculating here and I could be wrong, but that’s what both the data and my anecdotal experience seem to indicate.
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