Four Reasons Highly Intelligent People Fail to Achieve Their Potential

Sean Kernan
Editorial Rights Purchased via Istock Photos

Intelligence and conscientiousness (work ethic, organization) are the most powerful predictors of success. Yet the world is full of highly intelligent, unsuccessful people.

Many of you, who are reading this very sentence, are also quite smart. After all, you’re spending your free time reading. Such a hobby selects for a very specific crowd. So perhaps you, more than most, should watch out for these pitfalls. Some you can avoid. Others, not so much.

The IQ maximum and its woes

It’s theorized that as one approaches the horizon of possible human intelligence, the risk for mental illness goes up exponentially. If you get too close to that horizon, you’ll completely lose your mind.

Beethoven famously suffered from severe depression. His behavior was erratic and he self-medicated by drinking wine at all hours, which eventually killed him. Interestingly, sad people are proven to feel better after listening to sad music. His creative process may well have become a productive form of self-medication.

Yet for each Beethoven, who leverage mental illness to their advantage, many more will crumble. Depression is powerfully correlated to motivation, ADHD, and anxiety. Talent is a grim harbinger of many woes and demons.

One of the smartest people I’ve ever known, a brilliant financial analyst, was consumed by alcoholism. It destroyed what could have been a prosperous career. He aced the hardest tests in college without even studying. His brain seemed prewired to think in complex equations.

Candidly, it pissed me off. I was totally jealous.

If only more gifted people like him sought treatment, who knows, maybe we’d be in flying cars already. The history books are littered with absolute geniuses who fell apart too soon because of madness.

The softer reason why they fail

I’ll probably never be as successful as my dad and I’m perfectly OK with that. If anything I’m proud of him. At one point he was overseeing a $50 billion annual budget as Undersecretary of Defense. The dude earned his Wikipedia page.

My dad is also an excellent case study. He is certainly very smart. But it wasn’t like he was always the smartest guy in the room. In fact, he was keenly aware when he wasn’t. Yet many of my dad’s peers, who were perhaps much smarter on paper, fell way short of his success.

Why? It’s mainly because of his people skills and his diligence. He is a very good listener. He knows how to dial in and pick up on what is important. He is also conscientious and very ethical. He treats people equally regardless of their position.

This is where many highly intelligent people fail. They lack the soft skills, the ability to relate with many types of people. Cliche as it sounds, many gifted people also have an underlying arrogance they mask. Business textbooks are filled with case studies of executives’ careers being destroyed by pride. My girlfriend is a college professor and complains constantly about the incessant egos at academic conferences.

And to be fair, I can’t totally blame them. When a person is told from birth that they are brilliant, and their test scores affirm that praise, and they live in a world that prizes intelligence — it is probably hard to stay 100% humble.

No matter how talented you are, remember you are dealing with human beings in your career. Success isn’t a MENSA test. Soft skills matter. Be nice to the secretary.

Back in the beginning

Chris Langan was born with a freakishly potent brain, having arguably the highest IQ of any living person.

Langan began speaking at six months old and went on to skip several grades. He had an adult vocabulary by age 10. He breezed through college-level tests as an adolescent. He took his SAT several years early and got a perfect score in half the allotted time and took a nap.

Today, he is a rancher. He never finished college. Most of his adult years were spent as a bouncer at a bar, and in manual labor jobs.

It all stemmed from his rough childhood. He grew up in a poor family. His mother married multiple times before he turned 12. One stepfather committed suicide. Another was psychopathic and abusive.

His stark upbringing created behavioral problems and a persisting contempt for authority. Combine this with inadequate mentorship, resources, and an absent professional network and he never weaponized his extremely rare gift.

Langan, like the gifted child working on a 3rd world farm, had been born into poverty and dealt a common, cruel blow to his chances of success.

The thing that everyone forgets

When I was in corporate finance, I met so many fanatically ambitious analysts. Sure, I am a driven person, who wanted to do well and get good reviews. But good god — I couldn’t identify with these people. They were machines.

There was one coworker, Julie, who took it to the next level. Anytime you came by her cubicle, she wasn’t just working, she was working as if defusing a bomb, set to destroy the world.

She was perfectly erect in her chair, eyes darting around her monitor, pounding her keyboard. Anytime I spoke with her, she was in theater mode, all smiles, speaking in this forced-soft voice, in full networking mode, clearly worried about her reputation. She came to work before the sun came up and left after dark every night.

Once, I heard her talking to her boyfriend outside and she was like a completely different person. Her shoulders were down, her voice normal. That was the real Julie.

This — is what highly intelligent people are competing with: Extremely motivated, capable people, who are are hellbent on getting to the top.

And some brilliant people simply hate working. I think we can all identify with wanting to chill instead. Many studies show work ethic is innate, inborn, as is laziness.

Don’t feel obligated to conquer the world. I’ve always believed we should all live our lives as we so choose, so long as it doesn’t impact others.

Just remember: happiness is the great equalizer. If you are happy, other people’s expectations no longer matter.

Recap: 4 Reasons highly intelligent people fail

  1. They are born into bad circumstances, poverty, a toxic family, a lack of resources and opportunities.
  2. They suffer from mental illness, which creates myriad other barriers to career advancement and better paychecks.
  3. They lack people skills or are arrogant. For every arrogant savant that succeeds, many more fail as they are pushed out of organizations. Be nice. Be respectful.
  4. They don’t put in the work, or lack the desire to.

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