Are You The Smartest Person in the Room?

Probably not. There is usually someone else who knows more about some particular facet of whatever the issue is than you do. Everyone is an expert in something, and if that something is the topic of the day, then that person’s the smart one. In some cases, it may be even more extreme: someone’s IQ is significantly higher than you — not only can she kick your ass in math, she can write 30 eloquent pages in the time it takes you to write a single paragraph.

And yet, that person isn’t as successful as you. How can that be?

After a certain baseline, raw intelligence just doesn’t impact success, in my opinion. The more successful person is the one who can facilitate the intelligence in the room (ever tried to get an all-star to work for an all-star? It’s tough). The more successful person can translate the intelligence — Malcolm Gladwell has become a rock star for essentially reading academic psychology papers and translating them for popular consumption.

Sure, there are some who posses extraordinary raw intelligence AND are amazingly successful because of great people skills to boot. But those are few and far between. I see far more brilliant hobbits.  Most amazingly successful people are called "brilliant" when in fact I think they’ve mastered the art of facilitating other people’s brains.

11 comments on “Are You The Smartest Person in the Room?
  • Plenty of people we would consider brilliant hobbits are also considered quite successful in their fields (think academia, especially the sciences). Is this post about success in business, or do you define success more differently than I do?

  • I think IQ tests and the other forms of objectively measuring intelligence are incredibly suspect. Intelligence is probably at best a very subjective measurement, and is definitely nonlinear. To say someone is intelligent is like saying a piece of software is good. Both statements are fairly meaningless without context.

  • High tech is littered with examples of incredibly *smart* people who have done amazing things. Not the same as highly intelligent people.

    But I agree with you that it is the marshalling of skills in an optimum manner to bring out the collective best that makes a difference.

    The open source world can teach us a lot about this aspect of managing people.

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  • Ben, in an increasingly global setting, your comments are especially striking. Americans are not always the smartest in sheer quant skills (compared to say Japanese or Indians) or cognitive skills , but I see 2 camps…some are extremely good at being friendly, building consensus – others just come across as we are the world’s greatest becasue we are the richest/strongest military country in the world. If more of us can become the former, the opportunities are huge…

  • Elena: True. My theory here applies to any field where collaboration is required, which is pretty much everything except certain strands of individual research projects in academia and elsewhere.

  • Hey Ben – great post. I just came across your blog via the USA Today article (via some other blogger).

    I wish I had gotten such an early start at entrepreneurship.

    Also, I was wondering, do you use any speed reading techniques, or what is your secret? =)

  • Thanks for the note Shanti. I read on trains, planes, and before I go to sleep. I never watch TV. I’m a fairly fast reader, but haven’t mastered any speed reading techniques!

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