Jobs and the Future of Work

11 ways smart people sabotage their success

Richard Feloni
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Sometimes the smartest people do the dumbest things.

A group of Quora users drew from their experiences to address the question, “What are some stupid things that smart people do?” The answers shed light on some of the common ways intelligent people unknowingly undermine themselves — and how they can get out of their own way.

We’ve highlighted several below.

1. They spend too much time thinking and not enough time doing

“Because thinking comes so easily to smart people, doing becomes relatively harder. Research and planning are great in moderation, but can offer the dangerous illusion of progress,” says Silicon Valley entrepreneur Chris Yeh. Smart people who are perfectionists can get caught up in this kind of seemingly productive procrastination and often nitpick over minute details rather than finishing projects.

2. They follow the pack

Venture for America’s Andrew Yang has written extensively about the trend of top college graduates going into the same few prestige industries, like finance and consulting, rather than following their passions.

New York entrepreneur Lee Semel agrees: “Many smart people often seem to be followers, probably because they grow up spending so much time pleasing others via academic and extracurricular achievement that they never figure out what they really like to work on or try anything unique.”

3. They become risk-averse

Very intelligent people tend to be high achievers that end up in the company of those who are similarly smart and motivated. But that motivation can become confined to a small window for fear of embarrassment, resulting in “not opening up or trying something new which they know they aren’t naturally good at, because they fear loosing the ‘Smart’ tag in front of their peer group,” says programmer Pankaj Kumar.

4. They stop trying

People whose intelligence has helped them achieve a level of success can often get lazy. “These smart people fail to further develop their natural talents and eventually fall behind others who, while less initially talented, weren’t as invested in being smart and instead spent more time practicing,” Semel says.

5. They undervalue social skills

Some intelligent people don’t realize that intellect is only one element of achieving success and that personal connections are powerful in the professional world. “They never try to improve their social skills, learn to network, or self promote, and often denigrate people who excel in these areas,” Semel says.

6. They fail to recognize their cognitive biases

Consultant Danita Crouse says she’s found the smartest people become so used to using their intellect that they fail to recognize they’re operating with a worldview just as open to flaws as everyone else’s.

University of Toronto professor Keith Stanovich’s research has found that those with strong intellects are more prone to become close-minded than less proficient thinkers.

7. They place being right above all else

Many smart people indulge a dangerous combination of ego and logic and behave as though being right all the time is somehow endearing (it’s the opposite), Semel says. It’s bad when they argue a point they’re misinformed about, but it can be even more embarrassing for them when they insist on arguing facts against someone’s long-held beliefs.

8. They equate education with intelligence

An impressive academic pedigree can make some people think that where someone got their college degree reflects how smart they are, says Liz Pullen, a sociologist. In many cases, a degree from an elite university represents a great achievement, but there are countless instances where those who didn’t graduate college are more qualified for a job because of their real-world experience.

9. They underestimate others

Sure, confidence in one’s abilities is a prerequisite to becoming successful, but it can be easy for those used to praise for their intelligence to become arrogant.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve seen brilliant people accidentally give away the lion’s share in negotiations, and once or twice get outright conned, because they assumed intelligence gave them some kind of insurmountable advantage,” says the author Tim Romero.

10. They get wrapped up in theory and fail to see reality

Problems can arise when intelligent people in leadership positions focus solely on theory and forget they’re dealing with real people.

“This would be fine if it is simply for fun or if the consequences are confined to those engrossed in these abstractions,” says the writer and designer Oliver Damian, but when these brilliantly complex systems result in things like subprime mortgaged-backed securities, “then it becomes a big problem for everyone.”

11. They are too independent

Smart people can fail to develop healthy support systems that everyone needs to succeed. “Without a good support system, anyone can begin to slide down a slippery slope when they encounter hardship, miscalculate something major, or fall victim to the misdeeds of others,” says Quora user Andrea Martin. How do you develop a good support system? “Methodically place yourself in the company of the most mature, benevolent, competent people you can identify.”

This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider UK. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Richard Feloni covers management strategy and entrepreneurialism for Business Insider

Image: Pedestrians cross a road at Tokyo’s business district. REUTERS/Yuya Shino. 


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