Reflections on the correlation between intelligence and success

Having recently reread Malcolm Gladwell's excellent book: Outliers - the story of success, I've been thinking about the correlation between high IQ and success in life. I think I may have come up with a nice way to clarify Malcolm Gladwell's conclusions. Malcolm writes that to succeed in a given field you need to pass a certain threshold of intelligence, but that having more intelligence than the required threshold will not increase your chances of success. In fact, having much more intelligence than needed may decrease your chances of success by inhibiting the development of social skills. Worse yet, it may make you more likely to suffer from the type of mental health issues that tend to develop in people that are isolated from their peers.

There is a well known correlation between intelligence scores and malcontent (e.g., anxiety, depression, social isolation, etc.).

I don't think that necessarily means intelligence comes at the expense of the capacity for social development, rather that the more unusually intelligent you are, the harder it is to find peers you can relate with, the less practice you are going to get during those critical years in which your personality is supposed to develop through social interaction.

Perhaps if you set up an environment in which unusually intelligent children are concentrated in one place so that they can form their own group and socialize with each other that could mitigate the development of the social handicaps and mental health issues the unusually intelligent are more prone to suffer from.

Whatever the reasons, there's no doubt in my mind that poor social skills reduce your chances of success in modern society as any meaningful accomplishment requires cooperation across disciplines and specializations. You can't specialize in everything, and even if a hypothetical super genius could do it all he still has only 24 hours a day to work with. If you don't learn to play well with others, many of those hours are going to be wasted on tasks that could be just as easily accomplished by someone with average intelligence or lower.

Which brings me back to Malcolm's conclusion that having more than enough intelligence doesn't increase your chances of success in any given field, especially under circumstances where intelligence doesn't give you a competitive advantage.

For example, if you're playing Tic-Tac-Toe, it doesn't really matter if you're competing against a trained Tic-Tac-Toe player with average intelligence or a vastly superhuman intelligence because the average person is intelligent enough to fully master the game. It's just too simple and predictable. Interestingly, intelligence also doesn't matter if you're playing dice, or another game of pure chance, but for exactly the opposite reason.

Then there are games such as Chess or Go where more intelligence does increase your competitiveness. Probably because they're both complex and predictable. How predictable depends on how far you can see into the game's future - how many outcomes and counter-outcomes you can simulate internally. Games like that are in a sort of Goldilocks zone where intelligence thrives.

Thinking along this line perhaps it would be useful to view life itself as a complex series of games. There are social games, money games, status games and little mini-games within each professional discipline.

Intelligence doesn't necessarily give you an advantage in all these games, it might even handicap you (e.g., the social game). Either because a game is simple enough that it doesn't take more than average intelligence to fully master it, or perhaps more commonly because the game is too unpredictable / chaotic for intelligence to model it usefully at all.

For example, it doesn't matter how smart you are, you can't predict the weather reliably more than a week into the future, because the weather is a chaotic system. Predicting the weather isn't just a random example. In the real world you're much more likely to come up against non-linear problems than linear ones. Chaos makes fools of the best of us.

Bottom line: Unfortunately for the unusually intelligent there aren't many of them around and life is generally not a math puzzle or a game of chess. Being more intelligent certainly makes you different but it won't make you more successful unless you're very careful to choose a lucrative field that can take full advantage of it inside a support structure that frees you from most of the drudgery.


OnePressTech's picture

My dad has lived a contented life that included a long stretch in the most of us have. During that time a number of aggressive people joined and progressed in the management chain above him. He commented that they were all puzzled why my Dad did not drive to move up the ladder. But my dad is a simple man who just wanted to earn a living and spend time with our family. His view on success...everyone he knew who climbed the ladder, sometimes over his back, are all deceased. Is it good genes...less stress...luck! Who knows but above average intelligence in many ways plays little or no part in "success". It depends on how you define success. In my dad's case it's being happy and alive. In that respect he has succeeded far better than many more intelligent people who moved past him up the "ladder of success".

Does one measure success by greater intelligence yielding greater wealth...did you know it only takes, on average, three generations to spend a legacy of wealth no matter how large a fortune is involved

Ever had someone you know of above average intelligence take you aside, look you straight in the eye and seriously offer you the chance of a lifetime...Amway (! I and others I know have experienced the bizarre phenomenon of professionals and ex senior executives we know well with above average intelligence succumbing with evangelistic zeal to the joys of pyramid retail sales. Go figure!

Robert Oppenheimer (H-bomb), Gary Dahl (inventor of pet rocks), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Governor of California)...the list goes there an actual correlation between success and above average intelligence! Depends on your definition of success.

I like to think of myself as a reasonably intelligent man. My view on above-average intelligence is it is just another characteristic of a person, neither advantageous nor disadvantageous. Food for thought!

w.r.t. Turnkey Linux I like to think its existence IS its own success and certainly a tribute to what I consider to be the product of a core team with above-average intelligence  :-)

So...speaking of intelligence (in more of a MI5 sense) and following on from your conclusion...are you guys going to share your TKLX V14.0 vision with us lesser mortals in advance or just surprise us as per usual? As you said...intelligent people should delegate the drudgery...and we drudges do need to plan our drudgery schedule...a docker future perhaps :-)



Tim (Managing Director - OnePressTech)


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