Intelligence vs. Work in Test Prep and Beyond

One student rolls out of bed, takes the SAT with no preparation, and scores a 1570.

Another student works on SAT prep many hours a week for almost a year, inching up slowly but surely from a 1050 to a 1280.

Which student got the better result?

On whose long-term success – academic, professional, financial, personal – would you rather bet?

If you’re like most people, your first reaction will be to pick the student who scored a 1570 with no prep, far exceeding even the best score the other student achieved.  1570 is above the 99th percentile.  It’s simply impossible to score that high without good education and a certain amount of raw intelligence – even with test prep.  To get there without any test prep at all suggests an extremely powerful intellect, a trait that makes us think a person will achieve great things in life.

But have you ever stopped to think about why we think intelligence leads to success? Obviously it helps, but the reality is complicated.

There’s no shortage of stories by successful people about how they achieved their success.  If you listen to those stories, you’ll quickly notice a few themes.  The list will look something like this:

1.      Resilience
2.      Discipline
3.      Goals
4.      Luck
5.      Seeing lessons and opportunities where others see failure

You don’t have to be a genius to notice that intelligence isn’t on that list. It certainly comes up, but not as often and not as prominently on average.

Here’s another angle: take a quick look at the World Genius Directory.  How many of the top names have you heard of?  How far down the list do you have to go to find people you have heard of?  When you think of people who have accomplished great things in history, how many are high on that list?

But don’t successful people always seem so intelligent?  Aren’t they deeply insightful and good at making good choices?  Of course.  But look deeper. Most of the insights and decisions that seem to have been produced by intelligence are actually more about wisdom: knowledge and expertise gained through experience.  Next time you hear a successful person say something deeply insightful, or when you see them do things that turn out well, ask yourself – or, better yet, ask them – whether that insight or those choices came from raw mental horsepower or old-fashioned experience.  I suspect you already know which answer will be more common.

It’s not that intelligence isn’t important at all.  Of course it is.  In fact, IQ is very well correlated with success.  But as Malcom Gladwell points out in his book Outliers, the correlation only seems to go so far.  As long as you’re smart enough – which is pretty smart, but not genius-level smart – other factors like grit, people skills, and luck become more important. Being smarter than that doesn’t much improve your odds of success.

In fact, it’s even more complicated than that. Dr. Jonathan Haidt’s excellent work on moral psychology shows in great detail that our intellect is not a master of the forces that drive us, but a servant to them. We can use it to seek truth and wisdom, but its main purpose and function is to make sense of and reinforce what we believe for other reasons. We think, we feel, we react, and our intellects step in afterward to justify it all to ourselves and others. Thus, powerful intelligence amplifies who we are, for better and for worse. It doesn’t necessarily make us better people.

So, yes, being intelligent is a major asset. But it needs to be combined with other skills and aimed at a worthy goal. If it isn’t, it’s a tool without a purpose – and it can even become a liability.

All of this is important context when we consider our two students mentioned above.

The one who scored a 1570 without effort is obviously brilliant.  But that kind of easy success comes with a curse: it tends to make you believe that success is simply a matter of showing up and having the right attributes.  That idea is mistaken in the worst way. If you end up absorbing it – consciously or not – what are you to make of your future successes and failures? After all, you’ve been trained to think and act as though success depends not on what you choose to do, but on who you are. When you succeed, it’s hard to really own your success because you chalk it up to attributes you didn’t choose and can’t easily change. When you don’t succeed, you’re likely to think it’s because you can’t succeed.

If you’re the second student, you’ve had exactly the opposite experience.  You started with a result you didn’t like, skills you had to improve, a goal you hadn’t reached.  Then you got to work.  You pushed.  You stuck with it no matter how tedious or repetitive or difficult it got.  You moved toward a goal.  You acquired skills.  You improved yourself.  You really succeeded – not because of some natural gift you didn’t choose and can’t change, but because of the choices you made.  You came to a situation you didn’t like, and you changed it.  You changed it. And now, you know you can do it again. If you absorb that idea, you can own your future successes because you’ll see the choices that led to them. And you can see your failures for what they really are: invitations and opportunities to make more choices that can lead you ever upward.

Which set of notions would you rather come away with?  When you venture out into adulthood, with all of its impenetrable uncertainties and awesome responsibilities and endless possibilities, which mentality would you rather have?

Obviously, the ideal would be to have the big score and the experience of hard goal-directed work – the intellect and the grit.  And again, the point here is not that intelligence or test scores don’t matter.  Clearly they do.

The point here is that your score doesn’t matter nearly so much as what you did to get it and what you did when you got it.

If you look at a standardized test as a measure of your innate talent, it’ll be a dismal experience no matter what your score is.  But if you use it as a context in which to develop meaningful skills, that experience will keep paying off long after the impact of your score has faded.

So, what to do?

If you don’t have the score you want, smile and thank your lucky stars.  You’re reaching beyond yourself to become more than you are.  The experience of learning something through effort is a gift that never stops giving, and tests like the SAT and ACT are very learnable.  This is a golden opportunity to put in some effort and reap some reward.  And that’s an opportunity you might not have had if you were starting with a higher score.

If you already have that higher score, you have a different kind of opportunity – and an additional responsibility.  You can refuse to rest on your laurels and keep pushing for an even higher score, or you can close this chapter and seek another more challenging conquest.  Either way, you can take this chance to be one step closer to being the kind of person who will never, ever stop improving.  Surround yourself with people who can help you decide on a path and wring every drop of advantage from it.