What Qualities Best Enable Success?
There is a widely held misconception that intelligence equals success, or is at least the best predictor of it. As a result, society overvalues IQ and academic performance while undervaluing many of the qualities that are far more likely to indicate someone’s ability to succeed, especially in a non-linear, non-traditional context (academic performance and IQ work best for very conventional, laddered jobs in the professional class like lawyer or investment banker). I’ve noticed this misconception a lot lately as my eleventh grade daughter, her friends and their families approach the college application process.
Intelligence matters, but only as a baseline. There are only a handful of jobs — cancer researcher, quantum physicist — where each additional IQ point may make a difference. For the rest, once you meet a certain threshold, when it comes to career success, IQ is irrelevant.
So what does matter? Based on my 27 years in the workforce so far, in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, as a CEO, a public official, a government staffer, a philanthropist, a venture capitalist, a political strategist, a small business owner, chairman of a publicly traded company, an entrepreneur, an author, a professor, a podcaster, a columnist, an advocate and even two summers in the professional class as a lawyer and 18 months as a banker this is what I’ve learned:
- As mentioned above, traditional intelligence is wildly overrated. Sure, you can’t be dumb and succeed in most industries, but whether your IQ is 112 or 132 doesn’t really matter. At Tusk Holdings, there are at least twenty people who are smarter than me, probably a lot more. And yet I’m their boss. Intelligence is just not that useful beyond the basics.
- Creativity is really important. If you can only see and do what others set out for you, your options are ultimately limited. Creativity comes into play in all kinds of ways — developing an idea, pitching an idea, turning no into yes, negotiating — every single day. “Thinking out of the box” is a cliche but if you can’t do it, your future is about as open as that box and nothing more.
- Character matters a lot — not because there’s necessarily a strong correlation between moral purity and career success but because you’re dealing with lots of people all of the time in many different contexts and if your underlying character is honest, consistent and stable, people can rely on that. That goes a long way. If you treat people well, if you show them basic respect, empathy and decency, if you give them the chance to both be heard and feel heard, they will respond well to you. If you take care of them and show them loyalty on top of that, they’ll scale mountains for you (also, obey the fucking law; as someone who has testified as a witness in three public corruption trials and two grand juries, you do not want to be on the wrong side of the criminal justice system).
- Hustle. Hustle and work ethic are two different things. To be clear, if you lack a work ethic, if you’re lazy, you’re already out of the game. In fact, you were never really in it in the first place. But there are many very, very hard workers who don’t think about how to make new things happen. They think about the task at hand and then they think about the next task at hand. Hustle means seeing opportunities at the margins and pursuing them. It means taking one more shot before giving up. It means being able to pivot right when everyone else is moving left or going home. Give me someone with hustle and creativity over someone with an Ivy League degree all day long.
- Risk tolerance is critical. And unfortunately, it’s not a trait that can be learned. Either you have it or you don’t (most people do not). Knowing yourself in this regard is incredibly important. Society has deemed having a high risk tolerance cool, so that’s what everyone wants to have. But if taking a lot of risk will keep you up all night and turn your stomach into confetti, it’s not worth it and it’s not going to work.
- Being able to sell is even more important. In any business, the people who can generate revenue are simply more important and more useful than people who just execute really well. This drives executor types crazy because they can achieve academically their whole childhoods and work incredibly hard in their jobs and their ceiling is still relatively low. But whether you’re selling an idea, a widget, a company, a tv show, a vacuum cleaner, a consulting contract, a rug or anything else, if you can sell — if you can create, if you can make shit happen — your value is exponentially higher. And if you can’t, it’s a very difficult skill to learn (you can also call these communication skills more broadly — speaking, writing, relating — but you also still have to close the deal or none of it matters).
- Street smarts also matter. If you never leave academia, perhaps you can get away with having purely book smarts and little else (but even then, getting tenure isn’t just about your publishing output — it’s about politics and hustle and sales and understanding people). We live and work in a competitive world. That’s capitalism. Street smarts mean you see who’s going to fuck you and you stop it before it happens. You see when someone is lying. You see when something is just off. It keeps you out of trouble and helps you quickly write off people who are full of shit. Not shockingly, the people with the best academic credentials are often those with the fewest street smarts.
- Speed matters. There are professions where exactitude is required and getting something perfectly right matters far more than anything else. But in most cases, if you can produce twice as much as everyone else in the same period of time, you’re twice as valuable (or at least more valuable). If productivity is the ultimate measure of work, then speed is the greatest facilitator of productivity. In almost every case, something that’s 88% as good and done in 50% of the time is much, much better than something that’s 98% good and took 100% of the allotted time. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good is a cliche but it’s also usually true.
- Ability to handle failure is critical. No one truly succeeds at everything they do every time out. If that happens, they’re taking far too little risk. The bigger the idea, the bigger the swing, the greater the odds of failure. It took Jordan and me two years to raise our first venture fund. We heard “no” more often than a dog about to poop on the bed. We kept going. It took other factors too to make us a success, but it helped get us from zero to one. I fail at stuff all the time — Exalt (a telereligion social media platform I stupidly created), Yang for Mayor of NYC, 25–35% of our venture investments, a tv show I wrote, etc… I wrote a novel that’s sitting in front of publishers right now. It will break my heart if no one wants to publish it, but I’ll still keep writing.
- Patience can be a virtue, but sadly, it’s not one of my virtues. I make mistakes because I lose my patience, force decisions or actions and had I waited a little longer, I would have gotten the result I wanted. Now, patience can also just be an excuse for inaction but if you can hold the skills above and be patient, that’s even better.
- Being non-judgmental is surprisingly important. Wasting time and brain space deciding that this one or that one isn’t good enough because they did something differently than you would have or they hold different views or they like different things is dumb. What matters is commonality on the thing that matters, not how they think or look or tweet or what they do with the rest of their time. You can’t succeed in this world if you only interact with people who act and think the same way as you (safe spaces are for children). Over time, I’ve learned that being less judgmental of yourself is equally important.
- Being tough, being able to say no, being able to make really hard decisions is also necessary, especially if you’re in charge. I hate firing people. You’re, at least temporarily, ruining their lives. But if you have investors, clients, colleagues, employees or anyone else relying on you, if someone can’t do the job and the attempts to change that have failed, you have to let them go. I’ve never gotten used to it but you have to be able and willing to do it.
All things equal, is it better to get a 1400 on your SAT than a 1050? Sure. It’ll make the college application process a little simpler. But do your grades, test scores or generally any type of status really matter that much in the real world? Nope.
Virtually every quality, every skill, every trait listed above is more important. None of us have all of them but a 7 out of 10 in multiple categories will get you a lot further than a 9 out of 10 on intelligence and status and a 4 out of 10 on the rest. If you can understand this as you make your way through school, as you look for jobs, as you spot and pursue opportunities, and as you manage people and make decisions, your path to success and, more important, to feeling fulfilled and happy at work, is going to be much, much easier.