Many years ago, I cold-emailed Salesforce founder/CEO Marc Benioff. I was 15 years old and starting a CRM software company like his. Would he meet to give me some advice? I wasn’t the only one inspired by Marc’s vision of the “end of software” at the time. But I may have been one of a smaller group who was especially inspired by the fact that Marc had started companies as a teenager back in his day.
To my surprise, he replied, we met for breakfast, and it kicked off a series of meals that we shared over several years. He eventually wrote the foreword to my first book.
At one of our early breakfasts, Marc told me something I’ve never forgotten. I remember the moment exactly. I was wearing a suit and tie, which in hindsight was kind of crazy. (“I hope you don’t normally wear a suit and tie when you go to school,” he said with a laugh.) He ordered pancakes. He had been telling me about swimming with dolphins in Hawaii, what he learned from Larry Ellison, and riffs on spirituality.
He then told me: “Ben, people in Silicon Valley are ridiculously smart. Super, super smart. You’re not going to be able to out-smart people. You have to figure out how to win in some other way.”
I was not lacking in self-regard for my own intelligence at the time. But when he said it, I knew immediately it was true. I may be generally smart but general smarts is like vanilla ice cream. Vanilla ice cream is a fine dessert but it’s not going to win a chef any culinary awards. And IQ is IQ. No amount of study would allow me to compete head-to-head in an IQ contest with the highest IQ people in the tech industry. If you regularly feel like you’re the highest IQ person in the room, you’re hanging out in the wrong rooms. The tech industry may not be as intellectually intense as academic disciplines like chemistry but there are plenty of rooms with off-the-charts IQ people in them, and those are the rooms you want to be in — even if they make you feel a bit inferior at times.
As I contemplated Marc’s comment in the months afterwards, my first plan was that I could out-work everyone in order to be successful. I may not be smarter than everyone else, but surely I could out-work them, right? Then I realized that there were people who could work harder than me, and already were. Damn those people who only need 4 hours of sleep a night!
Marc’s advice is not obvious to a lot of people. These days I still meet many super smart and super hard working people in business who, deep down, are mystified as to why they haven’t been more successful in their careers. They really believe their raw intelligence and/or their work ethic should be enough to carry the day.
Anyway, in the years after that breakfast, in my early 20’s, I came upon two deeper insights that ultimately are how I answer and incorporate Marc’s advice to me.
First, I could get good at facilitating the intelligences of other smart people. You don’t have to be smarter than someone in order to enable that person to be all they can be. Most business efforts involve teams — multiple smart people interacting with each other. If you can develop the ability to work with different kinds of smart people, to bring them together, to facilitate all the IQ points sloshing about, you can be a really high-impact player. In fact, I’d argue this is what great CEOs do well. They’re not the smartest person in the company. But they get all the other smart people to play well together. Arguably, that’s the most important job of all on a team.
Some years ago, my friend Auren Hoffman emailed me and said there had been a cancellation at an event he was hosting in New Orleans and asked if I wanted to take the open spot. I said yes. As I reviewed the list of other attendees, it was obvious that I was the B-list invite to an event filled with other A-listers. I was excited but a bit nervous. Then, a few days before the event, Auren asked me to moderate a 90 minute session with 15 accomplished people at the event. At first I thought he had sent the email to the wrong person; I think I was 17 years old at the time. The people in my session were all much smarter and more experienced than me. But I accepted the task, and I did fine. I did good, even. And it emboldened me with the confidence that I could credibly be a participant in a large meeting even if on paper I wasn’t the smartest or most experienced person.
The second insight I internalized in the years after that breakfast with Marc Benioff was that I could get good at combining multiple skills in unique combinations. Scott Adams once wrote that to be successful you need to either be the very best in one field or the top 25% of skill in multiple fields. In other words, if you’re not world class at something but you’re really good at a couple things and the combination of those two skills produces a valued offering in the market, you can be successful. Example: You can either be one of the top pianists in the world and succeed through sheer singular talent, or be a really, really good pianist (if not world-class) and also be really, really good at marketing (or some other skill), combine the two really-good skills, and success will follow.
Given my curiosity and knack for synthesis, I saw a path for me that would involve getting really good a couple things and combining them in interestingly unique ways (versus becoming solely obsessed with one skill area). I could take basic intelligence and work ethic, and layer on top of that very strong — even if not truly world-class — abilities in entrepreneurship and written / oral communication, for example, and that could produce some interesting career opportunities. (That specific skill combination helped me be a complementary partner to Reid Hoffman over the four years I worked for him.) In the years since then, I’ve continued to hone different skills that in combination in an attempt to develop a unique competitive advantage in whatever market I’m playing in.
Like a lot of important wisdom, Marc’s comment to me at breakfast in San Francisco all those years ago sounded simple. The depth of its truth took years for me to appreciate.