I love this question because I often hear people talk about all the awesome uses of being smart.

I have a point of view on it for two main reasons:  a) I’ve took a bunch of standardized test in my life.  While no genius, I would generally qualify as smart and b) I’ve interacted with lots of very successful/smart people, mainly through my job in consulting, so I understand to a good degree what makes them successful.

I am defining “smart” as having a pretty high IQ.

I’ll start by saying I don’t think being smart is useful in the ways people think.  “Smartness” is often talked about in this way:  “That person is just so smart”…the implication being that “I couldn’t do that; I’m not smart like that.”.

I think smart is useful in pockets, but folks are being imprecise in their language.  What they often mean is “I don’t work hard enough to do that” or “I don’t have the experience to do that” or “I’m not detail oriented enough to do that” or “I’m not persuasive enough to do that” or “I’m not ambitious enough to do that”….I could go on, but you get the picture.

Here are some situations with my thoughts on how “smartness” might apply vs other traits:


Retaining, discussing, connecting, rationalizing mostly new material/knowledge is something the intelligent do well.  School is a great fit for smart people.  I believe this is part of what makes being smart so valued:  For the first 20 or so years of your life smart is very, very useful.  It is hard to get out of that mindset and realize that, in life, it isn’t as useful as it was in school.


Intelligence doesn’t help that much.  I never recall the smartest being the most popular or most beautiful or most liked.  In fact, too much intelligence can be a hindrance socially.

To be successful in relationships it helps to have traits like helpfulness, positiveness, honesty, decent looks, consistency (no one likes moody), sense of humor, kindness, etc.  Those traits can make you very successful in life…little intelligence required.

Corporate America/Work:

Intelligence is probably over-rated at work (depends on your line of work admittedly).  Most jobs simply don’t require you to be clever, inventive, to “figure out” a puzzle, etc.  It doesn’t matter whether you would be a good Jeopardy participant.

Work requires you to show up on time.  This requires you to have some level of responsibility, a car, a consistent, predictable life.  I’m not sure how smart you need to be for that.

Work requires you to do what others ask you to do.  You also have to do some thinking for yourself, but generally at work the overall goals are driven by others.  Definitely no link to intelligence to be willing to work towards other’s goals.

Work requires you to be a subject matter expert.  While being smart may make you learn slightly faster than others, experience/hard work can overcome that pretty easily in the real world.  As an example, a year of experience working as a mechanic will make you smarter about fixing cars than any amount of general intelligence/IQ.  You simply have to do it to know it.

Work requires you to be diligent.  Being able to keep track of the things you have to do and actually do them in the timeframe asked will make you A LOT of money.  It won’t get you to CEO, but diligence is, in my opinion, the single greatest predictor of work success.  Show up and do it and you’ll be amazed how successful you will become.  Is there a link between diligence and intelligence?  Not much that I’ve ever seen.

Code Breaking / Playing Chess / Being a Polymath, etc.

Yes.  Being intelligent really helps.  These examples seem whimsical because I can’t think of a lot of examples of intelligence being the one, great thing that will get you there.

Being an Executive

Being an executive requires you to be a persuasive leader in group situations.  Being persuasive means being able to state/defend a position, think on your feet, choose the right words, control your emotions.  I do think there is an element of intelligence in that; however, I have seen this skill learned as well.  Once something can be learned, is it intelligence that matters or simply diligence and time?

Being an executive means having “executive presence” / polish / poise.  This is mostly practice.  It is difficult to do, but is composed mostly of preparation and experience, not intelligence.  This is something that is mentored, practiced, honed.

Being an executive means having a track record of success.  Being smart might help.  I would say diligence, and relationships matter more.

Being an executive means having others want to follow you.  Maybe there is some element of intelligence here.  I would say diligence, relationships, honesty, and empathy all matter more.

Being an executive means you have to WANT it.  I’ve rarely seen highly successful people that didn’t have a bit of ambition that peaked through no matter how humble they are practiced to be.  Motivation is very important to being successful. I would be surprised if there is a strong correlation between motivation and intelligence.  I’ve seen some pretty lazy smart people in my life and some really hard working fools.

Being an executive means being articulate.  Like persuasiveness, I think there is an element of intelligence that helps here.  But are all articulate people smart?  Take actors.  Most are very articulate.  They love to talk and are great at it.  I don’t think anyone would imagine that most of them are smart.  It is simply practice.  In many ways, they get paid to talk and so do it often.  Over time, they begin to sound more articulate.


So my outstanding question as I read back over what I’ve written is:  “What is the strength of the relationship between intelligence and all these other traits mentioned (e.g. diligence, honesty, empathy, motivation)?  If intelligence is strong correlated with all of them….then intelligence IS what matters.”

What research I’ve seen says there is more correlation on some of those traits than others…but, to summarize, smart is useful in pockets.  It isn’t a cure all.

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