Intelligence – Do You Need it to be Successful?

As early as 1976, the Carnegie Institute of Technology presented a study that attributed 85% of financial success to human engineering skills, namely, self-management and relationship-management, rather than intrinsic or hereditary qualities such as IQ and analytical abilities. Over the last decade, popular culture has embraced the notion of emotional intelligence as a set of skills central to achieving happiness and attaining personal goals. However, popular belief seldom associates emotional intelligence with success in business; it is most often assumed to be connected to success in interpersonal relationships and thought to be more relevant to succeeding in the home than at the office.

According to Sternberg, the conventional notions of intelligence tend to favor people who are strong in memory and analytical abilities, while they disfavor those who aren´t. Sternberg concludes that,

The result is that individuals who may have the talents to succeed in life may be labeled as unintelligent, whereas some of those labeled as intelligent may be less endowed with such talents.

For the purposes of his own research, Sternberg has defined intelligence as the ability to adapt to the environment and to learn from experience and successful intelligence as,

  1. the ability to achieve one’s goals in life, given one’s sociocultural context;
  2. by capitalizing on strengths and correcting or compensating for weaknesses;
  3. in order to adapt to, shape, and select environments; and,
  4. through a combination of analytical, creative, and practical abilities.

In this context, the assessment of intelligence should rely on whether an individual´s chosen goals are coherent with the methods selected to achieve them and the skills demonstrated in that process.

Naturally, a person who desires to become a successful banker will not need the same set of skills as someone wishing to become the world´s most famous violinist. However, Sternberg´s vision of intelligence would encompass both of these goals. In other words, it would take an intelligent person, in the Sternbergian sense, to achieve either of these goals, which do not necessarily require the individuals to excel at analytical skills or possess a superior memory, as the traditional notion of intelligence would have it.

The Gift of Basic Abilities

A 2011 article by Hambrick and Meinz presents evidence from the field of music training that basic abilities — the kind people are endowed with from birth — can predict success in a wide range of extremely complex tasks. In a study designed to assess whether deliberate practice might overcome the decisive effect of working-memory capacity in sight-reading for pianists (i.e., the ability to play a piece without any prior preparation), their findings indicated that working-memory capacity was “a positive predictor of performance above and beyond deliberate practice” and that there was no substantial evidence that more deliberate practice could reduce the effect that working-memory capacity had on performance.

In other words, according to Hambrick and Meinz, practice can’t make perfect, without a little help from mother nature.

Intution vs. Cognition

Best known for being the founding father of modern behavioral economics, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman believes that humans resort to two different modes of reasoning, which he has labelled as intuitive (System 1) and deliberative (System 2). Kahneman’s research has lead him to conclude that individuals most often allow their fast intuitions, or the first ideas and solutions that come to mind, to supersede deliberation. Even in situations that seem to call for deliberate thinking and careful assessment, we seem to be letting everything that is heuristic and affective rule over our more rational side.

Presenting a very simple mathematical problem to the likes fo Princeton University students, Kahneman found an astoundingly elevated rate of errors, where even the slightest deliberation would have shed light on the right solution, even among people with only basic education and mathematical skills. According to Kahneman, this goes to show just how little we monitor the results of careless and effortless associative thinking, and how often we appear “content to trust a plausible judgment that quickly comes to mind.

In the light of Kahneman´s proposed theoretical framework and empirical findings, and drawing from Sternberg’s concept of intelligence, it would seem that the ability to set goals, find coherent ways to achieve them, and monitor intutitive reasoning enough along the way, can lay the true foundations of personal success. Naturally, as Hambrick and Meinz have shown, a little help from mother nature might not hurt at all.


Neale, S., Spencer-Arnell, L., Wilson, L. (2009). Emotional intelligence coaching: Improving performance for leaders, coaches and the individual. London: Kogan Page.

Sternberg, R., & Grigorenko, E. (2002). The theory of successful intelligence as a basis for instruction and assessment in higher education New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2002 (89), 45-53 DOI: 10.1002/tl.46

Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Hambrick, D., & Meinz, E. (2011). Limits on the Predictive Power of Domain-Specific Experience and Knowledge in Skilled Performance Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20 (5), 275-279 DOI: 10.1177/0963721411422061

Image via silver-john / Shutterstock.

Veronica Pamoukaghlian, MA

Veronica Pamoukaghlian, MA, holds a Masters in Creative Writing. She has directed two documentaries shot in psychiatric wards and a feature documentary about the 77-year old senior Decathlon champion of the world, Raul. Her last production is Monstruo, a short film about non-voluntary euthanasia. She is the CEO of Uruguayan film production company Nektar FIlms. You may visit her blog at The Wander Life
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