This article was originally published on March 4, 2010 at Max Klein’s blog. It has since fallen off the Internet and into the great 404 void. I am republishing it here because it is one of the very few blog posts that I’ve read in my lifetime that have stuck with me. If the original comes back online, please kindly comment below and I’ll remove this copy from my blog.
In 2004 I was in Brazil, walking down the hill in Lapa to get some lunch. I was with a friend who I had met in the hostel I was staying – his name was Ofer. We were having a discussion about intelligence, and what role it plays in success.
Then out of the side of the road stepped a man. He was holding a knife in one hand and a bottle in the other hand. He spoke to us in fast portugese, clearly asking us to hand over the things we held. I stood there, not very sure what to do. Ofer started speaking quickly to the man, telling the man not to rob us.
What you have to know about Ofer is that he had been an Israeli soldier. He hated violence of any form, but he knew how to be violent.
The man threw the bottle on the floor and it broke into pieces, he picked up the bottle and lunged at us. I ran a short distance off, and Ofer stood there and dodged the man, all the while talking to him. The man attacked several times, and each time Ofer just moved aside.
Then finally, Ofer kicked the weapons out of the guys hands, punched him, and he fell. He then told me to run, and we ran down the hill to the restaurant.
We sat there and he continued what we had spoken about. He said: That demonstrates what I mean. The man with the knife did not know how to use that knife. If he had been as trained in knife fighting as I was in hand combat, he would have been able to destroy me. But he had a tool that he felt gave him an advantage, but it’s nothing compared to a person who has no tool, but has worked to develop what he has.
Intelligence is like a knife. If you are intelligent, you are at a clear advantage against people who are not intelligent. But if you are intelligent, and another person is not as intelligent, but the other person is willing to train harder than you, the other person will very quickly overtake you in ability.
How your intelligence will destroy you
People who are born intelligent start off life with everything easy for them. They don’t have to work hard to get good grades, they never really have to do much to get ahead. The major challenge of early life is school – and school is designed for average people. So intelligent people just breeze through.
But there is a point where every intelligent person faces something that requires more than intelligence. It requires hard work, it requires the ability to fail, it requires being able to do tough tasks, boring tasks. For the first time in their life, in spite of their intelligence, these intelligent people are challenged, and they start failing. Like when they first attempt to create a startup.
And that’s where most of them retreat. They focus on things they can’t fail on, and ignore the other important things. They start to blame other things (like the school system). They procrastinate. They refuse to face new problems because they know they will not be able to handle them, and this does not fit into their worldview that they are invincible.
Let me tell another story. In 2007, I had dinner with the father of my girlfriend in Paris. He is currently a vice president at one of the top 5 consulting companies in the world. He is a jewish french immigrant from Morroco – he came in the 70s to France with no money and no connections, and he made it up to become Vice President, even though he studied to be an engineer.
I asked him: How did you do it? How did you start from being an immigrant to become executive material? He told me: I got this far because I’m intelligent. He continued: But there were many many people as intelligent as I am who graduated together with me. They are still engineers right now. The difference between me and them is that when I arrived, I knew that I did not have family here in france, I did not have connections. And I knew there were a lot of other people as intelligent as I was, and who had all these advantages. The only way to be successful then would be to gain a slight advantage over them – I had to work and train harder than they did, I had to get to know more people than they did, I had to learn more about more things that they did.
We started off equals, but at some point all the effort I put in started to pay off, and where they stopped improving themselves, I continued, and I got better and better. Where they were afraid to try new things because they would fail, I tried and I got better and knew more, till I was good enough for the job I hold now.
How this relates to you
Being intelligent is like having a knife. If you train every day in using the knife, you will be invincible. If you think that just having a knife will make you win any battle you fight, then you will fail. This believe in your own inherent ability is what will kill your startup. Success comes from the work and ability you put in becoming better than the others, and not from some brilliance you feel you may have within you.
So don’t believe that the brilliance of your idea is what will make you successful. What will make you successful is when you are out there every day, doing something new, challenging yourself, trying new methods, studying new ways, having a lot of small failures, then getting better every day.