Smart != Success

The Back Story

Having been in the technology field all my adult life, as both a student and professional, I’m used to working with extremely bright people…what most would consider people with “high I.Q.s”.  I have friends and family who often characterize me as being “smart” or a “genius”, of which I usually respond with a smile…and then let them know right away…that there are loads more people I know and work with much smarter than I.  I take great pride in my ignorance, as it keeps me humble and hungry for improvement and knowledge.  In my quest for “less ignorance” I recently decided to re-read a book I picked up years back, when I was studying for my Engineering Management masters degree…recent events had me questioning certain truths I hold dear, so I figured I should re-evaluate them.   The book is called “Working with Emotional Intelligence”, by Daniel Goleman, PhD.  Doctor Goleman is an excepted expert of behavioral and brain sciences, and has a series of books on the subject of emotional intelligence.  I stumbled across his earlier book, simply called “Emotional Intelligence” while in a book store, and just the book jacket synopsis was enough for me to buy it…and I’ve been a true believer of the concept ever since.  Basically, he argues that how we’ve typically defined and measured “intelligence” has been far to narrow, ignoring a critical range of abilities that matter tremendously in determining how we succeed in life.  How do we explain why people with high IQs fail in life, while those with average traditional IQ scores succeeding amazingly well.  He suggests that factors such as self-awareness, self-discipline, empathy, etc are incorrectly left out of typical I.Q. measurements, and that these should be included when evaluating an individuals capacity…that the emotional IQ is more important to success than most imagine.

Trained Emotional Incapacity

In Dr Goleman’s book, there’s short section called “The Computer Nerd: Trained Incapacity”, which resonated so much with me, that I felt the need to share it.  Goleman starts out with what most have observed, that many people in IT with high level of technical skill often have a hard time dealing with people.  He states that he used to think it was just a negative stereotype, or “cultural misperception”, because he assumed one’s emotional intelligence and traditional IQ were independent of each other.  However he continues to discuss how a colleague at MIT of his observed that people with extremely high levels of IQ often lacked social skills…that the smarter they are the less competent they seem to be emotionally and socially. “It’s as though the IQ muscle strengthened itself at the expense of muscles for personal and social competence.”  He writes about how the mastery of technical pursuits demanded long hours…often spent working alone…starting early on in childhood or teenage years….a critical period in emotional development.  He also states that self-selection plays a role, in that people lacking in sufficient emotional intelligence are probably drawn to study fields such as computer science or engineering…because cognitive excellence is stressed over anything else.

The Secret to Success

To be clear, Goleman is not implying that all high-IQ scientists are socially incompetent, that would be stupid.  However, what he is suggesting is that people with good emotional intelligence in a technology field are in high demand,i.e. someone with “high science skills and high social skills” has the potential to be a highly successful in an engineering or technical organization.  Dr. Goleman goes further to site a UC Berkeley study from the 1950s, where 80 PhD students in science were tested for IQ and personality competence, along with extensive interviews with psychologists, all to measure emotional balance and maturity, integrity, and interpersonal effectiveness.  Forty years later, researchers tracked the surviving students down and made estimates on their career success based on resumes, evaluations by experts in their field, and credible scientific publications.  The result was that the emotional intelligence abilities were four times more important in determining professional success and prestige than traditional IQ.

The Bottom Line

If you are in a technology field and interested in management or even team leadership, don’t assume that just because you can code the best or solve the most technically challenging problems the fastest, that you can lead or manage people.  On the flip side, if you find yourself sometimes struggling to keep up with other engineers on your team, or just not picking things up as quickly, don’t let that deter you from pursuing a leadership position.   There is more to succeeding as a leader than simply being the smartest person in the room. 😉


About Robbie

I live in the awesome city of Austin, TX and work for Canonical, sponsors of the best damn operating system in the world...Ubuntu.

Posted on October 24, 2011, in Ubuntu, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Something people tend to ignore about traditional IQ is that it’s basically meaningless for most people. It was a test developed to draw a line for what’s considered “special needs” in schools and nothing more. Its creator warned against attempts at using it to demonstrate degree of smartness in normally-functioning people. (See: )

    In light of that, people who compare IQ scores to decide they’re smarter than everyone else (hello, Mensa), can suck an egg.

  2. It’s quite possible you’ll also like this recently published book – Godhead: The Brain’s Big Bang

  3. @Robbie:

    the world is lacking people who are “socially smart”.

    “Socially smart managers” are asking the right questions to get answers from their “technically smart team members”.

    But this is really missing in many places.



  4. what this person many not have know at the time was the existance of ASD’s. This is one of the biggest issues with many people on the Autism spectrum (which is more noticeable in IT/STEM). The folks might be called Aspies. Many are unemployed or underemployed because of these crucial skills that they might never have been taught or have difficulty learning. Empany, social interactions, fitting-in, small talk. Dealing with interpersonal issues. Sometimes it can developed if picked-up in childhood. But many are not always diagnosed as a kid or later in life. This leads to the issue you and this book author noted. If you see these people, it might be useful to tell them to checkout books on Aspergers syndrome. Once they know what the issues it, it can lead to them be able to ‘work-on’ gaining some social skills and better employment. You dont have to be Bill Clinton to get ahead, so every little bit learned helps. But one things to note is that there are people who have very high social intelligence but no empathy, they are called psychopaths.

  5. Nice writeup and something I have been trying to impress on colleagues for years. You did so more eloquently than I can though.

  6. Very nicely stated Robbie..and I’ve found this to be true in other fields as well – not just the IT industry!

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