How to be successful even if you’re smart

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Being smart is great but it’s not enough

One of the great things I learned at the Bronx High School of Science was that it’s great to be smart and to be around smart people. I love the conversations and the learning from other people. When it came to smarts, I was only on the junior varsity at that school. But we were all told that because we were smart we would accomplish great things.

If our parents and teachers were right, we all would have been riotously successful at world changing things. We weren’t. Being smart is no guarantee of success. In fact, being smart can keep you from success.

The downsides to being smart

When people are constantly telling you that you’re smart, you start to believe them. Smart is something that doesn’t change. If your self-identity depends on being smart you will shy away from trying new things. After all, if you don’t do well, maybe it means that you’re not smart after all.

There’s another danger, too. People often mistake intelligence for aptitude. You can spend a lot of your life doing things that you can do well, but with great effort and not a lot of joy. That’s part of my life story.

I spent the first twenty years after I got out of the Marines doing things where I excelled, but at a cost. One cost was the amount of time and effort I had to put in so that I would succeed. Another cost was the constant fear that maybe this time intelligence and hard work wouldn’t be enough.

That’s the bad news. If you’re smart, it’s no guarantee that you’ll succeed at anything but people will expect you to succeed at almost anything. The good news is that you can be successful even if you’re smart.

5 things to help you succeed even if you’re smart

Develop a learning mindset. Carol Dweck wrote the book on this. It’s called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. A learning mindset will connect your self-worth to things you can improve.

Find something you love to do. It takes hard work to succeed and it takes time to get better. If you pick something you love to do, you’re more likely to joyfully put in the time and the effort. I love speaking and writing and learning. When I made that the core of my work, putting in the time to get better was fun.

“If you can’t make a mistake, you can’t make anything.” I love that quote from Marva Collins. When you learn new things, you will get some of it wrong. When you try new things you will make mistakes. Heck, you will make mistakes doing old things, too. Since you won’t avoid mistakes, resolve to learn from them.

Not everything will go your way. So, you need grit. That’s the ability to keep moving toward your objective despite obstacles and setbacks. Angela Duckworth says that we don’t know a lot about how to develop grit. But a growth mindset will help.

Luck is part of life. Everybody has luck, good and bad. The thing that matters is what you do with the luck you get. Jim Collins and Morten Hansen determined that the most successful companies were the ones that made the best use of their luck. The key was the idea that they were responsible for how things ultimately turned out.

Bottom Line

Being smart is great, just don’t let it get in the way of your success. Develop a learning mindset, find something you love to do, learn from your mistakes, develop grit, and learn to make the most of whatever luck comes your way.


Thanks to Kurt Harden, whose post, “25 Blogs Guaranteed to Make You Smarter,” started the train of thought that resulted in this post.

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