Why being “smart” is overrated

Abbey Titcomb
Mar 31, 2017 · 4 min read

Dropping out of college is basically cool nowadays. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Elizabeth Holmes are just a couple of the successful college drop-outs who have exposed the irrelevancy of the GPA. It’s pretty obvious that good grades aren’t the key to success anymore and a college education isn’t the only path to a successful career.

So what is? Many preach the insignificance of grades yet don’t provide an actionable solution.

The answer is different in many cases — drive, connections, passion, vision, and luck are all contenders. But if we’ve learned anything from high school biology, there’s one core quality that is consistently paired with success.

When starting up, it becomes that it’s not about being smart, it’s about being adaptable. Charles Darwin adaptable. Survival of the fittest adaptable.

Scientifically stated, “cognitive adaptability is important in an entrepreneurial context because contemporary business environments are characterized by rapid, substantial, and discontinuous change”.

In layman’s terms, it’s not about how much you know, it’s how mentally attuned you are to solving real-world problems while keeping a greater vision in mind. Then, it’s how hard you work to implement your solutions.

Adaptability isn’t a class you can take, but it’s a mindset that you can develop. These tips will help you develop your problem-solving process so you can adapt and react like the best of them.

1. Accept your vulnerabilities

You aren’t the best. And in most cases, no matter how hard you work, you won’t be the best. This doesn’t mean you should stop trying — it just means you need to stop expecting yourself to be the best. Instead, learn to use your self-doubt to fuel your motivation and determination. As an entrepreneur, not knowing what to do is acceptable and totally expected. Ask anyone — being completely clueless is part of every founder story.

Worrying about not doing enough or being the best does nothing for your progress. Effective progress is made when you can address your list of “what haven’t I done’s” in a healthy way and turn them into daily/weekly goals and milestones. To mentally get ahead of the curve, you need to turn every pushed back deadline and unchecked to-do list into a motivator and a driver to get it done.

2. Always be learning

“The industry keeps moving. What you have to fall in love with is the process of learning and iterating and getting better,” — Jason Calacanis

Yes, you learn more to get better grades. But, the type of learning Calacanis mentions goes beyond the classroom. To be a successful entrepreneur, you need to be always developing your personal and professional skills to stay ahead of the game. The moment you complacently accept that you “know enough” you’ll be lapped by the next hustler on their way up the ladder.

Also, fun fact, you don’t have to take a class to learn. Read a book, talk to someone, watch a documentary. Find your the way that works for you and make it your goal to learn everyday.

3. Have strong but loose beliefs

The ability to pivot is a core skill under the “adaptability” trait. The ‘pivot’ is one of the most fundamental concepts learned from the Lean Startup. The book (which you should read) states that on day one, all you have in your new venture is a series of untested hypotheses. These key assumptions are what you believe is necessary to prove your value. Make it your priority to validate these assumptions — if you can’t, it’s time to make a change.

The inability to pivot is all too often the nail in the young startup coffin. Yet, pivoting too much can result in a loss of vision and a false sense of identity. Finding the perfect balance is critical. Your business’ values are like Lego bricks. The shape of the bricks, your core vision, stay the same, but they can always be rearranged to build something new and unique. Establish a foundation of strong values and beliefs, but be constantly molding your business and solution to validate your hypotheses.

4. Work hard… really hard

Working hard goes beyond all-nighters and early mornings. Working hard means always pondering and reflecting on current tasks and next steps. Your mind should be on and actively assessing your venture whenever you can. Mental complacency leads to painstaking mistakes and loss of progress. My best hack to staying mentally “on” is to make “thoughts” lists every couple of days outlining what needs to happen for my venture. This list can be big-picture (“Get a tech co-founder”) to small picture (“Send pitch deck to Kelly”) but all in all, it keeps me focused on main ‘themes’ and allows me to derive daily action items so I can get ’em done.


So, stop worrying about not knowing everything and start adapting to your current situation. You don’t have to drop out, just get with it — being adaptable is the new 4.0.

Abbey Titcomb

Written by

Solving people’s problems. EIR + Head of Strategy at Onward Labs | Former @UnderscoreVC | Star Wars Thought Leader | @abbey_ellis

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