Smart people fail for many reasons that don’t involve laziness. They don’t network. They act like jerks. They stop learning. They’re disorganized. They’re arrogant. I could go on.
Meanwhile, most highly successful people aren’t exceptional humans. Don’t let that VP title fool you. They weren’t winning any Math Bowls. But they had other skills.
My girlfriend and I were discussing a mutual friend, who is trying to go into her field (academia) and work for her directly. She was expressing her many concerns about his level of motivation and ability.
Finally, I said, “Laura, I mean, I think we both like the guy. He’s a good person. But let’s be honest, he’s not particularly smart, and he’s not very motivated. You need to have at least one of those things to have a shot.”
If you aren’t willing to work at least a little bit hard, stop reading now.
Bridge your gaps
One of my clients is an Asian-American woman who was a C student in high school. She wasn’t a slacker either. She studied hard.
She clashed with her Chinese immigrant parents who couldn’t understand why she wasn’t like her brother, who maxed out every test and went to Yale, later becoming a heart surgeon.
Yet today, she’s worth millions, and all by her own accord. She often says, “I may not be the smartest person in the room, but you won’t outwork me.”
Her other talent is that she knows her limits. The moment she’s at her ceiling on something, she taps out and stops moving forward until she speaks to someone more knowledgeable.
Her strength is in her people skills so she sticks to that: networking and making deals. She lets other people handle the rest.
An egotistical smart person often barrels forward and tries to do everything themselves. They’ll listen with their mouth instead of listening to someone smarter on a specific subject.
Don’t be afraid to work with someone smarter than you, or ask for help if when you need it. A simple conversation can save you lots of pain.
Be systematic and refine your process
I’m not a gifted writer. I bombed more in English than the Allies did in WWII.
I can vividly remember groaning after my teacher set graded essays face-down on my desk. The red ink was shining through, begging me to flip it over and smell the napalm.
I’ve bumbled my way to a successful writing career because I know the conditions under which I can continually improve.
I accept that other people are more talented than me — and I study them. Every week, I read a few writing lessons. I do a post-mortem analysis of my successful and failed articles.
When I have writer’s block, I have a step-by-step process to dig myself out. I review and refine that process (and others) every month or two. I have a network of people I exchange feedback with.
Remember, we live in a skills economy, not an IQ economy. It’s about drilling down on one specific thing. And after you drill down, drill even deeper.
There are four psychological stages of skill competency.
Unconscious incompetence (your art is bad and you don’t realize it)
Conscious incompetence (your art is bad and you know it)
Conscious competence (your art is good but it takes a lot of work)
Unconscious competence (your art is good and it’s second nature)
If you feel stuck at stage one, I’d recommend you get a mentor. The leadership model of development applies the above stages through the teaching view:
I do, you watch;
I do, you help;
You do, I help;
You do, I watch.
You don’t have to be talented. Just be consistent. Stay humble and keep learning.
Don’t throw sand at other kids
One of my childhood friends was recently telling me about his job, how things were going well. He said he was better than his peers and felt good about his future.
He is super smart and a hard worker. Two months later, he said, “They’re letting me go.”
I was shocked until I thought about it for more than two seconds. He is surely very talented. But he has a very abrasive personality. He doesn’t listen to outside advice or other ways of doing things.
He often talks before he thinks. He hurts feelings and clashes with people. He was the problem child in the office. Hell, he was a problem child as an actual child, throwing sand at other kids. He spent a lot of time in timeout.
I’ve seen countless talented people hurt their careers because they don’t play well in the sandbox.
Be nice. Be respectful. If your career were a test, this would be the easy question for easy points.
Know your green zone of performance
Can you answer this question, “I perform my job best when ___.”?
When I had a corporate job, I performed best when:
I slept well.
Had daily and annual goals.
Had some level of quiet (squeaky chairs drive me nuts).
Maximizing your performance is its own skill. Take a third-person view of yourself and continually refine your optimal conditions. I’ve found that there needs to be an edge inside of me, some level of pressure to get my top performance. It can be deadlines, bills, a boss.
If none of those work, you could have a secret competition with a coworker. Make it a goal to do better work than them without them even knowing.
Lastly, stick to the one thing that matters most
Scientists proved that telling your kid they are a hard worker is better than telling them they’re smart.
By highlighting their good effort, they’ll identify with their work ethic rather than an attribute. It gave the children a sense of control over their destiny.
Praising their intelligence led them to lose that sense of control. Some even began slacking off because they thought they were special.
Praise should be kept and focused on what is done, not who someone is. Because in life, that is really what matters, and all any of us should focus on.
Your perceptions of your own talent, or the lack thereof, are mostly distractions from getting things done and focusing on the actual skills you need. We are what we do.
You don’t need to be smart to be successful.
Pick a skill. Be systematic and consistent in developing it. Never stop drilling down and chasing competency. Choose something else if it feels hopeless. Network and treat people right. And don’t be afraid of working hard.
Do these things, and Mr. IQ Test will be your employee before long.
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