Surprising Downside of Being Smart

Why Intelligence Is Actually Holding You Back

Much of our education system is aimed at outputting “smarter” students — academically. Collectively we foster the belief that the smarter a person the more successful, the more well-off, and the more likely he/she is to have a fulfilling life.

So, if that is the case, it makes sense to train and develop smarter students — but, we may have it wrong…

There are actually key disadvantages to being smart.

(And if you are one of those that fall in this “clever people” category, I don’t expect you to agree with any of what I say…I’ll explain why later).

But before we jump straight into the weeds,

Let’s define “smart”?

-> There is academic intelligence, and,
-> There is social and emotional intelligence.

We are talking about the academic side here.

And this is typically (and traditionally) measured by how high your Intelligence Quotient is…

…or more commonly known as IQ.

The higher your IQ, the “smarter” your are.

*Pat on the back*

Our education system and all its associated structures are aimed at improving academic intelligence, and IQ is still the primary way of measuring cognitive abilities.

We spend billions on training and cognitive enhancers that try to measure and further improve those scores.

But what if this quest itself is a fool’s errand?

What if manufacturing “smart” students isn’t really the end goal that all our education structures should be geared towards trying to achieve?

Let’s me talk about Lewis Terman.

In 1926, psychologist Lewis Terman put the IQ test to the test (hi5 for the play on words). He used it to identify and select a group of gifted children.

He wanted to pick out the best of the best.

He combed through California’s schools to hand pick 1,500 pupils with an IQ of 140 or more -

80 of whom had IQs above 170.

*Double pat on the back*

Together, they became known as the “Termites”.

His name Terman, hence Termites.
Awful, terrible, name. But interesting study.

The highs and lows of the lives of these Termites are still being studied to this day.

Let’s get straight to the point. Here is a summary of the results:

  1. Termites salary was double that of the average white-collar job, but a handful pushed this average right up,
  2. Many achieved wealth, fame, and success (some easily recognisable names in there),
  3. However, many pursued more “humble” professions which didn’t require any high levels of intellect, and digging deeper…
  4. Their smarts didn’t endow personal happiness — the levels of divorce, alcoholism, and suicide were the same as the national average, and,
  5. As they entered old age, their intellect hindered their level of fulfilment, as opposed to them being dealt a better hand in life.

So being part of the elite in terms of IQ doesn’t perfectly correlate with success. And success here is in whichever way we choose to describe it.

Why is this?

Isn’t being smart and intelligent the master key to success in life?

Well, there are key glaring disadvantages to being smart. Most of us don’t seem to realise this, because, well, we fall in the category of smart.

Smart people:

  • Find it harder to see past their own flaws
  • Are more likely to not take action
  • Have a tendency to develop a fixed mindset, less grit

Let’s explain each. As it is quite important.

Can’t See Past Their Flaws (Cognitive Biases)

Here’s a situation.

Have you ever had an argument with a smart person about something so bizarre you walk away thinking….

“How can he possibly even believe that?”

Yet somehow,

You start to question whether you are the one that’s wrong? And maybe that smart person is actually onto something?

This is a common trait of smart people.

They are able to see the flaws and biases in other people,


They have their own mental blind spots which, naturally, they are unable to see. These blind spots are self-created and it’s possible because they have the capacity to undergo deep internal narratives and develop logical arguments that seem to make complete sense…

However, are flawed with layers of personal biases.

In other words —

Smart people get themselves into some obscure corner through deep conjecture in areas others probably haven’t ever considered (and ones that probably aren’t even relevant).

But they are able to tie it all together neatly and eloquently with complex layers of justification, because they are intelligent.

And only smart people can do this.

More Likely to Not Take Action (Analysis Paralysis)

Similar to being blind to your own flaws,

Smart people have a tendency to over-analyse situations to a point that — they just don’t take any action at all.

We’ve all heard of the term analysis paralysis.

Well it affects the clever and intelligent bunch more than anyone else. So most of you reading this, it affects you. Yes you.

I know many intelligent people who will look into a new idea or venture, and analyse the ABSOLUTE daylights out of it, trying to conjure up every single possibility and create a subsequent plan for each.

And they do this because it seems to be the “smart” thing to do.

And what does it achieve?

  1. They either start to focus on the holes in the idea, self-created holes,
  2. They find there are too many areas that require more analysis (*facepalm*),
  3. They realise there is a lot more work involved than previously anticipated,
  4. They chase their tail without actually taking any meaningful action, and,
  5. Lo and behold — they lose interest.
  6. …Repeat cycle.

And being a smart person, only they have the capacity to do this.

There Is More to Lose (Fixed Mindset)

Being smart is a big prestigious title to have next to your name.

…And a weighty burden.

Imagine partaking in something that people could label as stupid, and could endanger this illustrious status.


Why, sir, would you take that risk?

It makes more sense to do what is within our powers to maintain this title, instead of doing something that could jeopardise it.

And, really, doing anything could risk this.

For example, I’ve written several articles and if the majority now starts to believe I am an incredible writer (thank you!). I now have much more to lose, than gain.

This is an idea coined by world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck — the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

  • Fixed mindset — People believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them.
  • Growth mindset —People believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. Brains and talent are just the starting point.

The growth mindset is a quality that virtually all successful people have, and studies have proven the effectiveness of teaching a growth mindset to students can be the ONE core skill to teach that positively impacts many other facets.

* If you’re interested: Incredible talk on growth mindset.

Smart people fall into the trap of believing they are special.

Which leads to the thinking that they don’t need to work as hard, and the harder they work, the more they have to lose.

Breeding a fixed mindset.

Hang on a minute there Speedy Gonzales — let me get this straight, are you saying the aim is to NOT be smart?”

That doesn’t make any sense.

Are we supposed to teach our kids to be less intelligent?

Definitely not.

I hope you can see that intelligence is not the holy grail of success, and that teaching purely to enhance one’s intelligence is a package that comes with a number of viruses.

This is a crucial first step. It requires a big change in our thinking.

BUT, of course,

There is something we can train and should teach.

There are other measures, measures that we aren’t as aware of, that are equally as (if not more) important.

These measures can lead us to greater success professionally, personally, and provide a better toolkit to a more fulfilling life.

Along with IQ — it is important to consider

EQ (emotional intelligence),

MQ (moral intelligence), and

BQ (body intelligence).

All fancy terms and measures for one key thing…


Aware of what?

Aware of your mind, aware of your own behaviours, aware of your body, and aware of your own biases and downfalls.

There is a previous post I’ve written that goes into much greater detail on how you can train this ability — link below — if you’re interested.

So, even if you did receive the best academic training from a top university.

A person with comparably less education who has fully developed these other measures of intelligence can be far more successful in all aspects in life than this person with impressive intelligence and training from the ivy leagues who falls short on other measures.

** I understand there is a problem here though

I realise this post will only reach smart people.

The ones that fall in the higher intelligence category.


As you read this you’ve probably already created a bulletproof argument through clear and articulate mental narrative that disputes everything I’ve written.

Your argument, I can imagine, is backed by infallible logic and is ready to be conveyed in equally beautiful prose to prove what I’m saying must be incorrect. Or that I must have flawed logic.

Maybe some of you will become aware of this. Some, may not.

Hey, well, at least I tried?

Co-Founder K2AV and Founder Sixth Degree: Looking to connect with creative people who want to improve social media. To create a world where people have deeper, more meaningful conversations. I am working on it right now. Contact me


My story in 5 lines —

Studied to become an Engineer (did a 5.5 year double degree), but quit instead to start a record label, write a movie script, and tour the world as an MC and performer. With little savings left, co-founded now the largest AV provider to education in WA — growing it 100% year on year. Working on my next venture with aspirations to help people connect face to face in a way social media can’t.

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