Being Smart Isn’t Enough

On page 48 of Career Warfare, author David F. D’Alessandro mentions the statistic that eight million Americans have IQs over 130 and that this makes smart people "as common in organizational life as bad coffee".  Reading his thoughts on the subject reminded me of several ideas that keep recurring with my own co-workers.

Smart Isn’t Enough.  As D’Alessandro points out, smart people are pretty common.  Being smart is the cover charge and if you aren’t, then chances are you won’t get past the velvet rope.  Some clubs have a higher cover than others – Google, for example.  Once you’re inside, though, no one else who paid the cover charge is going to be impressed that you made it in.

Smart != Good.  Being smart gives you potential.  It’s how you use that potential that counts.  If you are absolutely brilliant and create something that kind of sucks, it does not matter how smart you are.  Stuff that sucks that was created by idiots is roughly equivalent to stuff that sucks that was created by geniuses.  As a matter of fact, I might even have a preference for the idiot version since it’ll probably be easier to figure out and fix.

Smart Is a Vector.   Most people focus on the magnitude portion of being smart and ignore the directional component.  What’s worse is that they often apply the magnitude to arbitrary directions.  Even worse than that is applying the magnitude to multiple directions simultaneously and start assuming that someone who is good at one thing will be good at a bunch of others simply by being "smart".  This is dangerous before the fact because it sets people up for failure.  It’s almost worst after the fact because it will be used to explain why something can’t be done, and therefore not even attempted: "Bob tried to create a distributed .NET app and screwed the pooch.  Bob created something similar in Java and it was awesome.  Bob’s very intelligent, therefore .NET sucks and can’t work correctly."  Oy vay.  How about "Bob sucks at .NET and, therefore, Bob should have either gone to a Java shop where he could flourish" OR "Bob should have spent a little more time getting smart in the .NET direction"?

You’re Never Too Smart to Be Wrong.  I think that the most important thing that you can do to reach your potential and put your intelligence to work is to know yourself.  Know what you’re good at and recognize when a task just isn’t for you.  Let it go to someone who is actually smart enough (magnitude) in that way (direction) to do a good job.  If the direction is something that you’re interested in, then pitch in so that you can learn something and take a bigger chunk of the work next time.  Don’t, however, believe that since you’re smart that you’re universally capable.  Don’t let others believe it, either, or you’re bound to wind up like Bob where no one can help/save you because they think (because they were repeatedly told) that you were too smart to be wrong.


  1. Chris L says:

    I've long said that Intelligence is like Height.

    * It's not a Virtue. At All. It's just a quality.
    * For some stuff, it means you can do things others simply can't. Unless they get help, which might be pretty easy.
    * For other stuff, it doesn't matter. At All.

    I've also long said that Smart People aren't necessarily right or wrong, any more often than anyone else. They just *sound* better.

    Finally, a new thought: If you're a developer, and you think you're smart, there's a good chance that a) you are screwing up just as often as anyone else, b) you are oblivious to and defensive about this, since "you're so smart", and c) your mistakes are probably more expensive than others. Possibly much, MUCH more.

  2. Chris L says:

    In fact: Show me a really, really spectacular failure, and I'll show you a bunch of smart guys responsible