Intelligence and hard work are a potent combination when it comes to achieving success.
But which is more important?
That’s the topic we are going to discuss in this article. We’ll cover each trait and its role in determining success in detail below, but here’s the short answer:
Intelligence is more important to success when your goal hinges on making complex and nuanced decisions. Hard work trumps intelligence when the goal requires swift and consistent execution. The more your goal leans toward one end of the spectrum vs. the other, the more the corresponding trait will dominate in terms of importance.
For example, there is no substitute for a high caliber intellect when your goal is to win a chess match.
I am not saying hard work is not important to the outcome – there is a lot of study that goes into chess if you want to become good. But when you see a 9 year old prodigy who started playing two years ago annihilate a 50 year old veteran who has devoted decades to the study of the game, the importance of raw intelligence (at least as it relates to chess) is undeniable.
Contrast that with a salesperson who needs to sell as many vacuum cleaners as possible before the end of the quarter.
Now if that salesperson is highly intelligent, they may be more persuasive and have a higher conversion rate (let’s say, they are really good and it is double the normal conversion rate). If their conversion rate is 10% and they talk to 100 people, they will get 10 sales.
But if a less gifted salesperson speaks with 1,000 potential buyers and they have the standard conversion rate of 5%, they will close on 50 sales, which completely crushes the intelligent salesperson’s outcome. In this example, hustle trumps intellect by a wide margin.
Ok, so we now know that the answer depends on the circumstances, but let’s talk about the exact role that each trait plays in obtaining success and how you can maximize what you bring to the table to improve your chances of achieving your goals.
If you would like to see a condensed version of this article in video format, check out my YouTube video on the topic below.
The Role of Intelligence in Success
As I’m sure you know, intelligence is typically defined by a score called the intelligence quotient or “IQ.” People often believe that IQ is a large factor in determining success. This belief is sometimes misguided, but in certain industries, intelligence seems to be a huge contributing factor to success.
For example, in the area of law, the most prestigious job you can have is being a Supreme Court Justice. When you look at where the current Supreme Court Justices went to law school, 8 out of the 9 went to either Harvard or Yale, with Amy Coney Barrett being the lone exception.
But she is obscenely smart too – she graduated summa cum laude from Notre Dame Law School, and was awarded a prize for being the top student in her class.
I am sure there are other fields as well which prize and (and more importantly) reward intelligence, particularly the hard sciences. There’s a reason why calling someone a rocket scientist is equivalent to calling them a genius.
So, if the field or endeavor you are pursuing requires deep (and accurate) analytical abilities, intelligence is going to play a critical role in your success. This doesn’t mean that hard work doesn’t matter – it does. But if your area revolves around coming up with brilliant ideas or tackling incredibly complicated questions, then intelligence is going to be your ticket to success.
The Role of Hard Work in Success
Now let’s turn to the role of hard work in achieving success. I was taught at an early age that hard work will spell success.
I am an immigrant to the US and my parents were immigrants too. They told me at a very young age that I needed to do work harder and do better than everyone else because I did not look like everyone else. I’m not sure how true that is, but I took it to heart.
And I am glad I did. I have seen how hard work can yield results in my life. But my personal results certainly aren’t the only validation for the argument that hard work equals success.
Hard work is in many ways tied to “grit,” which has been a topic of a lot of discussion and research. Grit is basically passion (the ability to not lose interest in something over time) coupled with perseverance (the ability to continue despite obstacles). Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania professor, came up with the view that grit is a key differentiator when it comes to determining success.
In 2007, she conducted interviews with people from all walks of life and inquired about what they thought drove success. Most believed intelligence was important.
But when Duckworth probed more into the question, she found that the people who experienced the most success (e.g., made more money, were promoted, etc.) shared a trait that was independent of intelligence. They had grit.
Another example of a theory that hard work is a large contributor to success is the 10,000 hour rule. It’s has become a common rule of thumb, popularized by Malcom Gladwell in his bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success. It states that to become an expert or achieve mastery of an area, you need to devote 10,000 hours to it.
There are people who swear by it and others who sharply criticize it, but I can see how dedicating a long period of time to getting better at something will naturally lead to improvement. That being said, I think it is important to understand that no matter how long you spend doing something, you will never achieve certain things.
In my case, I could spend every hour for the rest of my life trying to become a master violinist. It will never happen. Some things just require a certain amount of innate ability.
At the end of the day, I think focusing on goals that line up with what you bring to the table is the trick.
If you are a super hard worker but know you don’t have the brain power of our proverbial rocket scientist, you should pursue goals that line up with that combination.
If you are gifted intellectually, but know you lack the dedication and work ethic needed to pursue a goal that is heavy on execution, then you should find an area where creative and brilliant ideas are what you bring to the table and that is where you add value.
There are plenty of opportunities in both spaces and countless examples of people who have made the most of what they were given.
How to Improve Both Intelligence and Work Ethic
That’s not to say that you can’t try to improve one area or the other. If you want to become smarter, you may not be able to boost your natural intelligence, but you can certainly improve your knowledge and skills through study and hands-on experience.
Better knowledge does not perfectly equate to higher intelligence, but it’s not a terrible proxy – and in some cases, superior knowledge and experience can be more valuable to achieving success.
On the flip side, if you lack motivation and can’t seem to commit to hard work, you can use many of the productivity hacks that are out there, including (i) focusing on a single task at a time, (ii) getting rid of distractions (phones, etc.) when it’s time to work; (iii) setting reasonable goals for each day, (iv) working in short bursts, (v) taking frequent breaks, and (vi) doing simple prep work so that a hard task seems less daunting.
Of course, if you already have blistering intelligence and an unrelenting work ethic, then you are blessed indeed. Time for you to go out and conquer the world (or at least your piece of it)!
So there you have it – an answer to the age old question of whether intelligence or hard work is more important to success, and some tips on how to make the most of what you have.