You don’t need intelligence to succeed

Our society is pretty big on intelligence. Throughout our lives we are constantly taught, reminded, heck — even bombarded with the importance of intelligence.

You have to be smart to succeed.

Successful people are, inevitably and unavoidably, smart.

But, are intelligence and success really correlated? If so, in what manner?

Emphasis on intelligence

In western society, intelligence is considered not just a means to an end, it is considered the end itself.

Cognitive skills — measured through IQ tests, including, but not limited to verbal skills, pattern recognition and calculating ability /which are all standard parts of IQ tests/, are considered if not entirely, then at least predominantly important for achieving success.

Expecting mothers are playing Mozart’s pieces to their unborn children because it has been said it increases their unborn children’s intelligence. Parents are spending tons of money on all kinds of ‘Baby Einstein’ programs, on toys and applications which, some supposedly, some positively, make their children smarter.

The cognitive hypothesis, as it is referred to in Paul Tough’s book: How Children Succeed, is based on a conviction that success lies primarily on cognitive skills, and that exercising those particular skills as early as possible in life, preferably in the first 3 years of life, is of utmost importance.

School systems are primarily based on this cognitive hypothesis, which means school programs are based on conveying, building, exercising, valuing and rewarding cognitive skills, while non-cognitive skills are not even considered as something that is within the school program domain.

All of the above, simply based on a premise, that higher IQ will make children more competent to face life challenges, and that, as adults, they’re more likely to be successful, and to have, overall, a happier life.

Only problem is, this premise is false.

Non-cognitive skills

Non-cognitive skills include wide range of socio and psychological traits, such as perseverance, curiosity, attentiveness, self-control, dependability, consistency, emotion control, stress regulation, determination, self-soothing ability, optimism, confidence, teamwork, people skills, and so on.

With such emphasis on cognitive skills, non-cognitive skills are unjustifiably neglected;they are not considered as much of an asset, and they are certainly not a first thing that crosses our minds when we think of qualities required for success.

Sure, it’s good to have them, they might make your life easier, or more enjoyable, but we hardly ever think about them in terms of, for instance, building a business empire.

We all assume that successful people we all know, such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Aristotle Onassis, Oprah, etc., are somehow more intelligent than others. But truth is, not many of the most successful people on the Earth are Mensa members. And there are many, many Mensa members that are not particularly successful.

Successful people certainly are not stupid. But it’s not just their intelligence that led them to success; it is their particular skillset of both cognitive as well as non-cognitive skills, such as perseverance, optimism, or consistency.

There has been a change in the last decade, especially last few years, in understanding of the importance of non-cognitive skills, and their link to successful and fulfilling life.

We, humans, feel safe in predictable environment, and are inclined to safe, obvious and linear conclusions. Therefore, we readily accept the concept of proportionality between IQ and success —the higher IQ, the greater are the chances to succeed.

We are less prone to accept the fact that success lies on many traits that seemingly have nothing to do with ‘excellence’.

However, recent studies have shown that non-cognitive skills are even more important ingredient for success, than intelligence.

Take Perry Preschool study. It is a study conducted in mid 1960’s in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Researchers organised preschool for children from low-income families, and parents with lower IQ. They randomly divided enrolled children into Test and Control group. Children from the Test group received high quality preschool education, while children in the Control group received none. After two years, the children from the Test group had much higher IQ average than the Control group children. This effect lasted only briefly, and by the time children reached the 3rd grade, IQ average of the Test and Control group evened out.

However, researchers continued to follow these children into their adulthood, and found that the Test group children had greater chance of maturating from high school, finding steady job and earning higher income; and less chance of getting divorced, of being arrested and being on social aid.

Researcher James Heckman, intrigued by these results, which clearly didn’t have anything to do with increased intelligence (since the average IQ evened out by the third grade between the two groups) after years of research, came to the following conclusion.

It was the development of non-cognitive skills which the Test group children received during their preschool education that made the difference, and that made these individuals more successful later on in life.

Why is this a good thing?

It is considered that we are born with certain IQ and can only mildly affect it. You are not likely to jump from IQ 100 to IQ 130, no matter how much you exercise your cognitive skills.

With linear concept where greater IQ means greater chance of success in life, this means that you’re either born to succeed, or born to fail.

These two notions combined, (intelligence is unchangeable, and intelligence is proportional to the rate of success) make somewhat depressing combination.

People give up on themselves, and say — I am not intelligent enough, therefore I can’t be more successful. It becomes an excuse for not even trying. Intelligence is God given and lack of it can’t be supstituted by anything you can do. So why try, right?

On the other hand, many if not all non-cognitive skills can be learned and practiced. We can learn how to become more consistent, we can choose to become more dependable, we can try to be more attentive, work on being a team worker, and so on.

We can even train ourselves to become optimists, according to Martin Seligman, pioneer of positive psychology.

Since these skills are important ingredients of success, and since they can be learned, practiced and perfected, we have the power within ourselves to significantly increase our chances of success.

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