The 5 Unique Ways Intelligent People Screw Up Their Lives

“There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs.” — Thomas Sowell


1) They may believe that learning about something is the same as doing it.

When you’ve gone to school for years, read hundreds of books, and talked to “experts” about a subject, there’s a tendency to believe that you can learn everything you possibly need to know about something without ever doing it. Unfortunately, there are some things in life you can just never understand without personally experiencing them, as this quote from Good Will Hunting explains.

Sean: So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you…. I don’t see an intelligent, confident man…. I see a cocky, scared sh*tless kid. But you’re a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my f*cking life apart. You’re an orphan right?… You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally… I don’t give a sh*t about all that, because you know what, I can’t learn anything from you, I can’t read in some f*ckin’ book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t want to do that do you sport? You’re terrified of what you might say. Your move, chief.


Additionally, as Thomas Sowell has noted, “experience trumps brilliance.” If you had a restaurant, whom would you rather have running it for the next year? A seasoned veteran of a restaurant business with a decade of experience and an average IQ or Nikola Tesla, one of the most brilliant scientists who ever lived? Keep in mind that Tesla used to falsely claim that he had created a death ray, never married because he thought great inventors should remain celibate, and spent the last decade of his life obsessing over pigeons. Yeah, that’s what I thought.

2) They can be really good at coming up with excuses for failure.

Just as you can use a gun for target practice or a robbery and a knife to cut a steak or slash a tire, intelligence is a tool that can be used many different ways. One of the most common ways brilliant people hurt themselves is by using their intellect to devise excuses for why they’ve failed instead of coming up with new ways to succeed. People who are really good at this can come up with a theory about life, see it fail every test, and still be just as convinced they were right as when they started. These are the sort of people Talleyrand once described as having “learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”


3) They sometimes become overconfident about their intellect.

If dumb people have a tendency to ask too many questions and move too slowly, their more clever brethren can make the mistake of asking too few questions and plunging in too quickly. This can often backfire because brain power is not applied equally across all facets of a human mind. You can be brilliant at math, but average at English; have a knack for dealing with people, but be unable to understand computers; be a marketing wizard, but a relationship disaster.


Many smart people make the incorrect assumption that because they’re smart in one area, they’ll be just as smart in every area once they “figure it out.” Napoleon was sure he would “figure out” how to deal with the Russian winter; Bernie Madoff thought he would “figure out” a way to get away with fraud; and William James Sidis, who may have been the most intelligent man who ever lived, was probably shocked to end up in a sanatorium for a year because of his decision to participate in a socialist riot. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as too smart to fail.


4) They’re used to being right so much that they stop listening to other people.

When you’re a genius, you get used to being right when everyone else around you is wrong. You outsmart other people, you out-test them, you outmaneuver them, and you get very used to moving forward even when other people are telling you that you’re wrong. This is not a bad thing. It just goes with the territory. However, whether you’re talking about you, me, Einstein — it doesn’t matter, everybody makes mistakes. The problem the smartest person in the room has when he screws up is that he may assume that this is one of those many, many times when he’s gotten it right and everyone else has blown it. Next thing you know, you’re Mike Markkula pushing Steve Jobs out at Apple or Lyndon Johnson dramatically ramping up our forces in Vietnam while simultaneously making decisions from Washington that made it completely impossible to ever win the war. No amount of intellect will ever replace the value of wise counsel.



5) They may try to show how “uncommon” they are.

Common sense doesn’t appeal to many intellectuals simply because it’s common. That may seem counter-intuitive, but think about it from their perspective: If they’re ever so much smarter than the average person, why are they doing the same things that average people do? Why would they believe the same things that average people believe? How can they be unique, special, and smarter than everyone else when they believe the same things as “average Alvin” and “dumb Dave”? If they’re so much smarter, shouldn’t they know better?

What you hear referred to as “anti-intellectualism” is often really just a reaction to this attitude. It’s why William F. Buckley once said,

I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.

It’s also why Morgan Freeberg has noted that “intellectualism has become the readiness, willingness and ability to call dangerous things safe, and safe things dangerous.” When smart people feel compelled to take stupid positions to prove how smart they are, they can turn their own lives and the lives of everyone around them into a train wreck in the process.



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