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What does it take to be successful?
Is it a matter of being the “best and the brightest”?
We hear this term thrown around so often today that it seems as though intelligence is the gatekeeper to opportunities.
This idea that inborn smarts and talent are the great divider causes us to hold certain beliefs about our world.
If we see someone performing better than ourselves, we’re quick to assume that the person must be smarter or naturally more talented. And when this happens, it creates an excuse for us to give up on our goals.
For example, have you ever thought to yourself…
- “Wow, it’s amazing what that person accomplished. I could never do that.” [I’m not smart enough.]
- “I really want to do that, but…” [I’m not talented enough.]
- “How does that person stay in such good shape?” [I’m just not built like that.]
Notice how there’s the self-limiting belief at the end of each of these examples?
We might not consciously think those words – after all, it would be painful to admit these things – but it’s there, hidden underneath what we tell ourselves. This negative train of thought then justifies our inaction.
Now, we can agree that people aren’t born on equal footing. Some of us are probably have a better ability to grasp certain skills naturally. But do you need to be a genius to be successful in a field?
Creativity and Its Role in Success
As I mentioned before in my piece on Zara’s strategy, having an open attitude and putting yourself in environments that encourage growth are part of finding good opportunities. Why?
Because having those two things help us come up with new ideas. And, just as importantly, they encourage us to implement those ideas.
But before we get into that, let’s talk about the perception that good ideas only come to the lucky few who are born gifted. Do you have to be smartest person around to achieve great works?
Well, the answer might surprise you.
In a study done on intelligence and creativity levels, here’s what researchers found:
“When investigating a liberal criterion of ideational originality (i.e., two original ideas), a threshold was detected at around 100 IQ points. In contrast, a threshold of 120 IQ points emerged when the criterion was more demanding (i.e., many original ideas).”
The average IQ score is 100. The average IQ for high school graduates is 105. It goes up to 115 for college graduates, and then 125 for PhD degree holders.
That means if your intelligence is average, you can come up with at least a couple ideas. But if your average is 120, which is very smart but not at a genius level, you can come up with many ideas.
So if you meet a certain threshold to come up with new ideas, what differentiates those who do “okay” from those who excel in a creative field?
Here’s the second part of what the researchers said:
“In addition, we obtained evidence that once the intelligence threshold is met, personality factors become more predictive for creativity.”
What they found was that you don’t need to be an inherent genius to come up with great ideas. Once you reach a benchmark of above average intelligence (but not exceptionally so), other factors come into play.
The Qualities to Excel
So what personality factors do you need to achieve success?
For one, the research above revealed that openness leads to higher creative potential. In other words, are you curious about learning new ideas and discovering the world around you?
Successful scientists, artists, and professions that require creativity show higher openness levels. It’s not a surprise, especially since groundbreaking work means examining a topic from various angles and being willing to try something new.
But all the intelligence and openness to experiences won’t help if you don’t bother to apply them. This is where perseverance comes in.
In order to improve at a skill, you need to do the same set of tasks consistently, even when it seems boring and there’s a low level of reward in the beginning. When you hit inevitable roadblocks, perseverance means that it’s not a question of “should I give up?”, but instead “how can I approach this?”
Perseverance requires putting long-term rewards in higher priority over short-term pain or discomfort. It’s like a game of chess. When expert players are stuck, they don’t get frustrated or walk away. They sit there quietly in deep thought and approach the problem in a calm, rational manner.
Expert chess players see the game using a long-term perspective and plan their moves two to three steps ahead. They’re not there for the short haul. They’re in it to win.
Temporary setbacks are just part of the journey.
Success Isn’t Magic
Sometimes people treat success like it’s some form of wizardry. One tap of the wand, and – poof! – you’re blessed with talent.
Part of the magic is making something difficult look easy.
But underneath that icing is the willingness to try something and to keep at it, day in and day out. To come up against a roadblock and find a way through. To practice when no one is looking.
The good news is that these things are within our control. They can be done by a person who’s willing to put in the effort. Now that’s true magic.
Suggested reading: Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin