9 Reasons Why Many Smart People Go Nowhere

You would have met many smart people who live a mediocre life. There are MANY of them. You might be surprised why this is the case. They have the brains to go somewhere, be someone and do remarkable things. When you talk to them, you will realize that even they want to go somewhere, be someone and do remarkable things.

Then, what causes smart people to go nowhere in life?

Update Mar 31: 10.00am: There is a ton of discussion in the comments here and at Hacker News about why everyone decides what is a good life for them and things are just OK as they are. I have tried to participate as much as I can on the comments section but I have to clarify a couple of things here.

Success for me is “increased capacity to contribute to the world around you.” Smart people have a special responsibility to be successful and make this world a better place. Why? Because they can.  However, MANY smart people are barely able to take care of themselves and feel “stuck” in life. Please read the rest of the article with that background. Thanks.

OK, here are a few reasons to start with:

1. They are not lucky (enough):

I have to start with a controversial reason first. Yes, luck (and also timing) plays a big role in someone’s success. Luck alone may not get one somewhere special but a little bit of luck will go a long way to get them to a better place. The following tweet from my hero Tom Peters sums this up nicely:

Taleb (per TP): Smart + Work hard = Odds are, pretty successful. Roaring success… that’s mostly a matter of luck – randomness

Like I said, luck alone won’t take anyone anywhere. It can. But that’s rare.

Knowing this, you can do something to start improving your luck. Yes, it is random. And yes, you can improve your chances of meeting luck. It is in your hands.

You should remember that fortune favors the brave. More importantly, you should remember that “luck” does not happen if you wish for it and wait.

How much ever important luck is, it is not in your control. In other words, you can’t work on “luck” directly. You can work on everything else and improve the chances of getting “lucky.” 🙂

2. Life is (quite) different outside the sandbox:

It all starts at the school. When people get good grades at school, they are considered smart. Except that school is a “sandbox” environment where the penalty for making mistakes is very low. In some schools and exam systems, memorization is given a huge premium – meaning the person who can memorize the best is considered the smartest. They don’t say it that way but the exams are designed to test someone’s memorization skill rather than testing what they have learned.

The marketplace is very different from the school. It is nothing close to a sandbox. The rules that work in the marketplace are very different from the rules that work in the sandbox. In fact, there are very few rules that work in the marketplace.

It will take a while for many “sandbox smarts” to graduate to “marketplace smarts.”

Note: Before you jump to any conclusions, I have to say that I was one of the “sandbox smarts” so I know how it feels. I have nothing against being a “sandbox smart” as long as you know that – that alone will take you nowhere. For the ultra-curious, you can read that part of my story here: As a Teenager

3. Their risk appetite may be low:

In school, following the rules helped them get great grades. In the marketplace, following the rules to the dot will help them lead a “successful” life at best. In average cases, it will lead them to lead a mediocre life.  At the center, you are safe but there is no premium.At the edges, there is less safety but the chances of getting a premium is high. In a “safe” or sandbox environment there was no need to take big risks. In fact, taking risks would not be rewarded.

Please read: Ways to Distinguish Yourself #203 – Focus on the Edges

The thing about risk is that you keep avoiding it and you will get used to avoiding risk. After a while, it becomes VERY uncomfortable to take any risk. And, then – it’s end of the road.

4. Their past success may become a baggage:

They say success begets success. But they never said “sandbox success” will beget “marketplace success.” In fact, success begets success only when you are willing to adapt to the new situations very RAPIDLY. What worked in their past gives them a feeling that following what made them successful in the past will make them successful in the future.

Please read: Resting on your laurels?

5. Ego -> Entitlement:

Early success (even in a sandbox environment) can build up one’s ego. When the person does not keep his or her ego in check, ego slowly transforms into entitlement. When a person feels entitled for something, he or she does not have to act much.

There is no entitlement for anyone in the marketplace. Until one reaches a tipping point, the only question a marketplace asks is “What have you done for me lately?”

Please read: Ways to Distinguish Yourself #105 – Be Entitled for Nothing

6. Not acting when there is a need to act:

The fear of failure makes some people go for “extreme preparation” – trying to cross all the “t”s and dotting all the “i”s – trying to be “fully” ready before taking the first step. As they prepare more, they realize that there is a need to prepare even more. They end up going into a never-ending loop.

Please read: Why some smart people don’t take action?

For many people, smartness stops in thinking and cooking up cool things. We all know that ideas are important but they are only worth much more if they are brilliantly executed.

Some smart people worry that others will steal their ideas and they won’t share them. So it’s a double loss there. If they stop worrying about others stealing their idea and start executing, it will be a whole new world out there.

7. Not knowing they need help:

In a “sandbox” environment, there was not a big requirement for teamwork. They were able to win the game with a solo act. It worked OK then. Unfortunately, the marketplace requires a bigger push – requiring a larger set of resources to be in play. The first step towards that is to realize that they need “more help” to succeed in the marketplace. Even if they have the skills to complete everything on their own “individually” trying to do everything on their own will be futile. It will have the same effect as an one-man orchestra performance will have.

8. Not getting “good help” when required:

They say knowing is not doing but doing is doing. Knowing is not enough. One needs a different level of humility to go and ask for that help. Unfortunately, that wont be sufficient as good people have “enough” opportunities to pursue and their request has to compete with all the available opportunities in front of those people that can offer “good help.”

Please read: Goals with or without help

9. Their relationship with failure:

Nobody has the “midas touch” – which means that sooner than later, they will fail and learn. Some smart people don’t want to fail and may think that a failure will expose that they are “inadequate” in some way. Unless that relationship to failure changes, they will keep trying something that has a sure-shot chance of success. This would automatically lead to tried and tested routes – that will lead to very predictable and probably mediocre lives.

The above list is no way complete. The point of the post is to trigger some thinking on this much needed topic.

Note: If you have come this far, please take a few moments to read the comments too. There are a few important questions raised about success and values etc.