I don't like to write about intelligence. It is one of those topics that for some reason seems taboo. My experience has been that people get angry, defensive, and critical when I bring it up. But I want to break my own rules today and talk about it because I read this article about career advice for geniuses and began reflecting on my own unfulfilling work history. I began to wonder if many of you read this blog because you view the world much like I do. Many of you are probably quite intelligent and as such have lived through a series of similarly unfulfilling jobs. I hope you reach the end of this post and feel a sigh of relief, knowing that you aren't the only one that has this struggle.
The post is divided into three parts. First, my own history and experience. Secondly, why I think intelligence can be a curse at work, and why companies don't embrace the best and brightest. Thirdly, what you can do if you are an intelligent but unfulfilled employee and what to do if you are a manager that needs to engage a highly intelligent individual.
I will say upfront that entrepreneurship may be an excellent path for highly intelligent people interested in business, because it requires analysis and decision making on many different levels with different time frames and different problem domains – everything a genius really wants.
1. My Experience
I should have known something was wrong with me in the sixth grade when, given the chance to present a topic to the class, I chose "Atoms and Molecules." Most other students chose celebrities, sports figures, or historical events. I mixed vinegar and baking soda and listened to the class laugh as it overflowed my jug and soak the surrounding carpet. I was always in the advanced classes and went on to a high school for smart kids and did well but was more interested in girls and basketball during this period of my life. Otherwise I could have applied myself much more.
I went to college and majored in Electrical Engineering, but I often found the classes boring. I remember sitting in the back of my Electromagnetics class and reading a book on Fuzzy Logic because I found it more interesting and the college didn't have a course in it. As a senior, I took an ASIC design course and missed a key lecture on how to draw various transistor implementations of logic gates. It was an important component of the course, so I had to learn it on my own for the exam. A bonus problem on the exam was some sort of funky logic equation that we had to implement in as few transistors as possible. I was the only person in the class to get it right, and I even beat the implementation of the professor. Since I learned it on my own I had developed a different way of thinking about these problems, and he was so impressed he offered me a scholarship to grad school to come work in his lab. This was the late 90s though, and tech was lucrative so I wasn't going to give up good money for more schooling.
During my college years I also managed a restaurant that had lost money for three years and had it's first profitable quarter about six months after I came on board. I started to think that maybe I had unconventional ideas because I was smart, and not because I was crazy.
I started my professional work career and found that I had problems. I loved to tackle new things, unique problems, and I loved to debug hardware. But I hated doing many of the tasks that seemed to be part of the job. I didn't relate well to others when it came to unspoken expectations. If I was given lots of leeway in how to do something it was almost certain to turn out in a way that my manager did not anticipate. It seemed that I never had the same set of assumptions about a problem as anyone else.
I did some excellent things and I flopped on some things. Whether I was a good or bad employee depended on who you talked to. I didn't deal well with the structure. The career path was pretty much the same for everybody and I didn't have the chance to pursue projects that I found interesting. I was just given stuff that managers thought I should be doing based on my experience level and were the internal openings were.
After awhile I finally went to see a psychologist. I told him I thought I had problems because my worldview seemed to be so dramatically different than everyone else I knew. He suggested I take an intelligence test, which is how I ended up in MENSA. For the first time in a long time, I breathed a sigh of relief. It didn't fix anything, but it did give me some external verification that helped me deal with everything.
Throughout my career, I have felt, and still feel, like I could contribute so much more if given the chance. I feel like I live in a world where everyone expects things to work a certain way but to me the rules seem arbitrary and in some ways that makes it much more difficult to fit in. I have not had a normal career path, and by and large this is seen as a negative rather than a positive. I'm not sure where I will end up, but I keep looking for that job where I get paid to work on really hard really unique problems.
The irony in the fact that I am usually bored with my jobs is that I really love to work. My hobbies usually consist of side projects and businesses that are fun and challenging. My parents joke that the things I do for fun are things most people consider work. That is the love/hate relationship I am talking about. I love to do things. I love to think, analyze, discuss, debate, research, build, debug, etc. When I get home from work, I blog, I work logic puzzles, I study Chinese, I read (mostly non-fiction and lots of textbooks). I don't like to do things that don't require my brain to be engaged. But I end up hating most jobs because it seems that companies try to take all the thinking out of the work – probably because most people don't like it.
The one deviation was my first major foray into entrepreneurship. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of it all but, for various reasons, eventually sold my stake to my business partner.
2. Intelligence as a curse at work.
Out of all the possible tests you could give someone, the single best predictor of on the job success is raw intelligence. If you don't believe me, look it up. The problem is that even intelligence only has a weak correlation with job success (which means that we are really not very good at predicting who will be successful in what positions, without spending a lot of time and money looking at many different components of the person and the job). Add to that the fact that even intelligent people are frequently wrong (though statistically they may fare better than others), and you see why the value in hiring really smart people might not be readily evident to most companies.
Intelligent people often understand counterintuitive ideas that don't make sense to others. They often see complex interactions between things that others don't see or understand. On average, they are quicker to change views and less tied to a specific ideology. This is a big problem in the workplace because most everyone has their pet theories that they hold dear. Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Myers-Briggs disciples, Predictive Index disciples, and on and on… people believe many things that they will never let go of, regardless of the evidence. Intelligent people just don't care as much about ideologies and the idols and gurus that promote them as others do.
Just last week during coffee with some friends, one guy turned to the other and said "if there is anyone you admire don't tell Rob about it. He'll boot them right off of the pedestal." It's not that I do it intentionally, I just like to present a balanced view of an issue which often surprises people who haven't been exposed to the full story about something.
Intelligent people tend to be ambivalent about a broad number of topics. While this stems from being informed and having a good understanding of the complexity of most situations, it is often seen in the workplace as being wishy-washy. That doesn't help careers in an age where decisive inspirational leaders are worshipped by the business media. (Keep in mind as I go through these that I'm not speaking in absolutes about intelligence. There are smart people that are charismatic and decisive, but by and large they aren't.)
Intelligent people can master many domains, and they can do it quickly. If you go to a MENSA meeting, you will meet many people that don't stick to one thing very long. In part it is because most workplaces won't advance them quickly enough to keep up with the pace of their learning. It's part of the problem with school too. I don't usually need a 16 week course to learn something. I need a faster pace.
I read job postings all the time that sound fun and interesting but I know I don't have a shot because I don't have "7 years experience" in whatever. Yet at the same time I have worked with people that are shocked at how quickly I came up to speed on something. Career changes for smart people often stem from connections with people that realize their potential.
Intelligent people often have many interests, and they go through them quickly because once they have learned about a domain, it loses its allure. This often gets them lumped with "flighty" people that can't stick with anything, even though what really happens is that smart people don't need a ten year career in something before they realize they don't like it. They figure it out quickly and move on. They like to learn new things, but tend to have long-term careers in areas that are complex and rapidly changing. I think the reason business and neuroscience are two fields that have continued to fascinate me for years is that they are both so complex and multi-disciplinary. There is so much to learn, and there are macro and micro problems within many sub-disciplines of these fields.
3. What to do if you are an employer or employee.
If you are highly intelligent, I would encourage you to apply for MENSA. Their meetings are one of the few places you can go and speak your mind without getting strange looks. If you read lots of non-fiction and you always wonders who else is buying those books, you will find some kindred spirits there. But keep in mind it is a social club for smart people, and many of the events consist of smart people drinking and eating junk food while rapidly changing discussion topics.
I would also encourage you to seek work in a multidisciplinary and/or entrepreneurial environment. Jobs that don't have a standard career path are much easier to obtain. By contrast, if you suddenly find managerial accounting to be interesting, you are out of luck. You better go get an accounting degree, a CMA license, and start in an entry level position. (Or like a former professor of mine with a PhD in biochemistry, you could go back and get an accounting PhD, but then most companies will consider you overqualified.)
If you are stuck in a position and you think people just don't get you, there are a few options. The best is probably to figure out how you can contribute to some side project. It is risky to come out of the blue with some sort of new report/analysis/software/etc, that no one asked you to do, but there is always the chance that it could be a big hit and people will start to understand what you are capable of. I wish I had done more of this early in my career. Your next best bet is probably to try to make games out of your work. Sometimes I take long tasks and see if I can complete them in a 30 minute window. It helps me focus and gives me a challenge. Your other option is to keep your eyes open for unique opportunities. There are people out there that care more about your ideas and your ability to learn than about what you have done in the past. There are people that will tailor jobs to individuals instead of individuals to jobs. Target small businesses instead of large companies. They are more likely to appreciate your flexibility. Keep in mind though, that there are lots of flighty, unfocused, inexperienced people that want good jobs too and think they deserve them, and that most employers fear they are getting that type of person, not someone with unusual intellect.
If you are an employer, keep an eye out for people that seem to consistently have unique perspectives. People often think high intelligence means "has memorized more facts," but that isn't it at all. It has to do with the way someone thinks, not necessarily what they know. Highly intelligent people have the ability to filter information rapidly to get to the crux of an idea. You can tell this because they ask good questions – questions that show they understand the idea and are testing its limits and applicable contexts. Watch for this.
Also remember that highly intelligent people still make mistakes. Be tolerant of that. Michael Jordan missed a lot of shots during his career with the Bulls, but you still wanted the ball in his hands with the game on the line. Nothing is worse than being expected to know everything because "you're supposed to be a genius."
Give your best and brightest some flexibility. When that bright programmer wants to move into business development, it might be best to give him or her a shot. Not everyone is successful at transitioning domains, but intelligent people will usually rise to the challenge, and you will be amazed at how much they will learn in a few months.
I could go on and on but this post is already longer than I intended. The last thing I will say is that employers and employees need to remember that intelligence is just one component of success. Undisciplined intelligence is wasteful because intelligence needs to be directed at a problem. Many very smart people can't focus long enough to solve something. But if you can harness the power of a highly intelligent employee, you will undoubtedly appreciate his/her fantastic contributions.