I was trying to understand why most people who are incredibly intelligent never amount to much and I came up with this conclusion. Intelligence is like a sense. It’s the ability to reason, to organize ideas according to principles. But just as being able to see, does not guarantee that you will actually discover something new, or good vision does not necessarily lead to significant observations, having tremendous intelligence does not necessarily mean that you will come up with some groundbreaking work.
When I think of the most intelligent people I knew in college, they all did well, but few did any kind of truly innovative work. That work, came from other types. From unexpected candidates. From odd thinkers.
What moves civilization forward is in a way, similar to what moves our genes forward, something akin to evolution. What we need is not just intelligence, it’s mutant intelligence, mutant thinking, mutant thoughts. We need to combine the ability to reason with the ability to “morph” a thought into a whole new proposal. And then this new idea has to withstand scientific enquiry, colonize thinking and prevail, like a new species. And as it happens with mutations, most of these new thoughts will be useless, foolish and lead to knowledge oblivion. But some of this mutant thoughts will cross the fine line between folly and brilliancy and make us all more knowledgeable and better off.
Today I came accross the question of why aren’t many very smart people rich. And while blunt, I am sure many smart people who are not financially successful have asked themselves that question. Especially if smart is defined as having performed very well at school which is how most people find out they are very smart. But I can relate to that question in a different way. Not as to “why aren’t many smart people rich” but “why aren’t people who are not considered to be smart, rich”.
When I was at Columbia Business School I was in the bottom half of the class. I was not considered particularly smart or bright. All I got studying entrepreneurship was a B+ and that was supposed to be my best subject as I wanted to be an entrepreneur. But then, after graduation I built, 8 companies over 25 years, 3 of them worth over $700 million. My last start up, Fon, has become the largest WiFi network in the world. And it is not only me, I know quite a few entrepreneurs who were mediocre at school only to thrive in real life. Some did better than me. So school is not such a good predictor of real life performance after all.
While teaching entrepreneurship at Instituto de Empresa, I have given a lot of thought to this paradox. How can school performance be a better predictor of life performance? Especially in entrepreneurship. As a result one thing I stopped doing, is grading students. Now they grade each other. And from what I have seen, students who other students think are smart, tend to do better in life than students who professors think are smart. Especially many professors who teach but don’t practice entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is more an art than a science.
Having said all this, my comments refer exclusively to business studies. In business getting rich is a direct consequence of success. In other fields being smart needs not to equate with being rich and that is fine. People shouldn’t become judges, or military commanders, or legislators, or many other essential occupations with the aim of getting rich. And getting rich is not a great objective in itself. In general in life having objectives is more interesting than having achieved objectives. Success in business is no exception.