“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.

13 thoughts on “Do You Have to Be Smart to Be Successful?

  1. I’m an egghead and I agree 100% that smart people have a difficult time actually taking action. The explanation is pretty simple, a smart person is by definition good at analyzing problems while a dumb person isn’t. Most problems on the way to being successful are complicated enough that even a very smart person could analyze them for years and not come up with a definitive answer, which causes the smart person to be paralyzed with a fear of making the wrong decision. The dumb person has to oversimplify problems because they simply don’t have the intelligence to deal with the problem in detail, so the right answer looks much clearer to them and eliminates some of the fear of taking action. The dumb person will make a lot of wrong decisions this way (see these pyramid schemes for an example), but by taking action over and over again they’re more likely to find success than the smart person who never takes action for fear of making the wrong decision.

  2. “most IQ tests I’ve taken place me at the very low end of genius”: there are many terms used to name different ranges, like “highly gifted”, “highly superior”, etc, so I don’t know what to make of this. Are you saying your IQ is in the 150s-160s or something less unusual ? Also if you know of a reliable online test I can get my hands on, that’ll be very welcome, all I can find is uninformative ones with 20 or 30 questions, and I still have no idea what my IQ is.

    The article reminds me of the SMV test by Heartiste, where he considers very high intelligence as a handicap in the same way as beying slightly retarded is. That the same conjecture has been made about income and dating is pretty interesting.

  3. I’m an egghead

    Believe me, I know. Gil Galad is too. Guys like you two need to focus more on action and less on thinking.

    Are you saying your IQ is in the 150s-160s or something less unusual ?

    I don’t know that the exact number is, since I’m not sure if any IQ test I’ve ever taken was reliable, but it seems to be in the low 140’s.

    Also if you know of a reliable online test I can get my hands on

    None that are free. If you want reliable, you probably need to go into a testing center and pay for it.

    The article reminds me of the SMV test by Heartiste, where he considers very high intelligence as a handicap in the same way as beying slightly retarded is.

    He’s right. Very high intelligence is almost always an impediment to action. And nothing happens without action.

  4. In fairness society relies heavily on the systems that high IQ people design, however it seems true success lies in having a high EQ since managing peoples emotions effectively holds more weight. I have seen this happen time and time again. Higly intelligent people often get sidelined if they are unable to socialize with others who have the influence or power to catapult them to where they want to be. Sad but true is that many people value a warm fuzzy feeling over results, especially when you start throwing the ‘F’ word (facts) around.

  5. Right on point about Intelligence Caleb, its a blessing and a curse.(especialy if youre an INTJ)

    A blessing as you know the mistakes to avoid and a curse as you see all the possibilities or paths you can take.

    What I find helpful is simplifying things and being disciplined wth your time.(The E3D/Check system helped) The Slight Edge was also a great help.

    A Derek Sivers said ” Don’t be a Donkey.” – don’t
    keep deciding till you die of analysis paralysis.

    Thanks for your advice on two goal at a time, it saved me alot of pain.

  6. “Right on point about Intelligence Caleb, its a blessing and a curse.(especialy if youre an INTJ)”

    Might be off topic, but I’d like to talk about Myers Briggs types a bit. I’m an ISFP, how does that compare to INTJ? I don’t mean better or worse, I mean what is similar and what is different.

    I wonder if CJ believes in the concept of selective intelligence or being an idiot savant, like many with Aspergers (like myself, possibly, it hasn’t been confirmed, its very likely however) exhibit. I perform psychotically good in grammar mechanics and writing in general, but in certain other areas I’m as dumb as rocks.

    I think the main thing here is that no matter how smart, dumb, or autistic you are, if you don’t have a good work ethic and don’t have the wherewithal to truly explore foundations of success and don’t have a plan to succeed, you’ll fail at life regardless.

  7. I’m an ISFP, how does that compare to INTJ? I don’t mean better or worse, I mean what is similar and what is different.

    Just go here and read for yourself:

    http://www.personalitypage.com/html/relationships.html

    I wonder if CJ believes in the concept of selective intelligence or being an idiot savant, like many with Aspergers (like myself, possibly, it hasn’t been confirmed, its very likely however) exhibit. I perform psychotically good in grammar mechanics and writing in general, but in certain other areas I’m as dumb as rocks.

    Yep. There are 9 different types of intelligence, and it’s possible to be very high in some an dumb as shit in others (though those people are rare).

    http://fundersandfounders.com/9-types-of-intelligence/

  8. The link for the MTBI types is broken, but I’m sure I can just google it.

    Do you have any specific advice for ISFPs? Just curious really.

  9. Growing up, I have seen a lot of dumbasses win in life; especially when it comes to getting women and making money.
    I have seen a lot of smart, analytical guys with zero women and “barely-making-it” money.
    The conclusion I come to about this is dumbasses are sometimes too stupid to see the pit-falls or they see the pit-falls, but don’t take them serious enough to be scared of them.
    The smart, analytical guy over analyzes ever-freaking-thing to the point of fearful inaction.
    Being “smart” means nothing if you don’t have the “Balls” or “Guts” to act.
    Ignorance on fire always beats Knowledge on ice.

  10. The link for the MTBI types is broken, but I’m sure I can just google it.

    The link works just fine. Try it again in a different browser maybe.

    Do you have any specific advice for ISFPs?

    No. As usual, my advice is: maximize your strengths, and work to minimize your weaknesses instead of making excuses for them.

    Being “smart” means nothing if you don’t have the “Balls” or “Guts” to act.
    Ignorance on fire always beats Knowledge on ice.

    Correct!

  11. Being a thinker all my life and trying hard every day to become more a ”doer”, I always find it uncomfortable to make quick decisive decisions, due to many possibilities I can figure out in my head with equal benefits… BD, what do you think is the right amount (right timing) between analyzing the situation vs just doing it?

    What decision-making process do you follow?

  12. Analyze it, then DO IT. It’s that simple. You can be action-oriented while still analyzing things. That’s what I am.

    If you analyze, and analyze, and analyze, then you’re doing it wrong.

  13. Being somewhat smart is required to be successful if your Mission or goals require it.
    Most smart people I know (e.g. other scientists) often dedicate huge portions of their lives to their profession, making sure that they’ve put their mark on the world. They might not be swimming in money (though they certainly make the $ 75 K a year cut easily), some of them have very homely spouses, but they are some of the few people actually making a difference in the world.
    If you’re dumb, your options for this type of success is highly limited – sure, you might get some money and some women, but your life is kind of meaningless (but for your own personal happiness).

    I think it’s easy to be both – A scientist that focuses very much on his job and Mission, yet also focuses his spare time on himself and personal development. Sure, the job requires a lot of work (I made damn sure to only have a 32 hour work-week, which means I use all my overtime as extra vacation), but in the end you know that you’ve made a difference in the world (e.g. saved lives). However, it most certainly requires for you to put in the time to get the degree you want. (Don’t get a degree if it isn’t in a STEM-field. It’s just a waste of time).

    Side note: I do know a lot of somewhat smart people who never really get off their asses to make anything out of themselves. There’s really no use being smart if you get welfare or work at the grill in a McDonalds. I know a lot of average people who do this as well (and even more dumb people).

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