You’re Not Smart Enough

My roommate tells me nearly every day: “I’m dumb.” Sometimes he uses variants, such as: “I’m stupid.”

I disagree, but that’s beside the point. Clearly, this kind of perspectives are a matter of opinion. But I do have a point I want to make: every time I hear him say something to the effect of “I’m not smart enough” or “Nobody wants me” (which he does quite often), I think of Paul Graham’s talk at Startup School 2007.

Here’s a screenshot of the slide he used:

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Here’s a photo of Paul and an audio clip of the relevant portion (quality isn’t the best, but it gets the point across; less than one minute):

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Listen to the 48-second MP3 audio.

From Why to Not Not Start a Startup:

4. Not smart enough

You may need to be moderately smart to succeed as a startup founder. But if you’re worried about this, you’re probably mistaken. If you’re smart enough to worry that you might not be smart enough to start a startup, you probably are.

And in any case, starting a startup just doesn’t require that much intelligence. Some startups do. You have to be good at math to write Mathematica. But most companies do more mundane stuff where the decisive factor is effort, not brains. Silicon Valley can warp your perspective on this, because there’s a cult of smartness here. People who aren’t smart at least try to act that way. But if you think it takes a lot of intelligence to get rich, try spending a couple days in some of the fancier bits of New York or LA.

If you don’t think you’re smart enough to start a startup doing something technically difficult, just write enterprise software. Enterprise software companies aren’t technology companies, they’re sales companies, and sales depends mostly on effort.

Paul’s point is that you may be dumb, but you’re not too dumb, especially if you’re worried that you are. And I can certainly identify even with my roommate. I frequently fear that I’m not living up to my full potential, which is why I seriously considered dropping a Thematic Option course earlier in the semester.

It’s not that I was going to fail it, but that I has serious doubts about whether I was able to give it the attention it deserves. I really dislike a lot of my writing. Once I’ve written something, especially in an essay, it always seems to come out the wrong way. And in my math and computer science classes, I begin to take things for granted. I should keep on my toes, instead of thinking that I know everything.

I’ve been deeply humbled many, many times, and I’m sure that’ll just happen more often in the future (at least if I hang around with the right people). Quite simply, there are a lot of people out there who are smarter than I am. But that doesn’t discourage me one bit. I know I can still do something amazing, which is why I never complain about not being smart enough. Every day I see a huge need for more people to do great things. What we really need is more people with the right entrepreneurial and technical attitudes. What do you think?

(For those interested in Startup School, audio recordings and presentations from past years. And if you’re interested in starting a startup, we should get in touch. Contact me.)

3 thoughts on “You’re Not Smart Enough”

  1. “And in my math and computer science classes, I begin to take things for granted. I should keep on my toes, instead of thinking that I know everything.”
    Same here.

    “I’ve been deeply humbled many, many times, and I’m sure that’ll just happen more often in the future (at least if I hang around with the right people). Quite simply, there are a lot of people out there who are smarter than I am. But that doesn’t discourage me one bit. I know I can still do something amazing, which is why I never complain about not being smart enough.”
    I agree.

    (You’re pretty smart, if I may add.)

    Have a good one.

  2. Here’s a tangent thought regarding knowing yourself.

    Leaders who can be trusted know both their strengths and weaknesses, according to Cloud*. So during interviews, he asks a candidates to share theirs.

    *Dr. Henry Cloud, PhD. – a nationally syndicated radio host and clinical psychologist.

    “You’re looking at somebody’s self-awareness, how involved they’ve been with personal growth and development.” “You are also able to feel out what their humility is, and defensiveness and narcissism.”

    Cloud remembers a time when he asked a candidate about his weaknesses.

    “The candidate looked at me, ‘What are you talking about?’ It’s like he had never even thought about it,” Cloud said.

    Finally, the candidate came up with a weakness, which, Cloud said, was really a strength he tried to disguise as a weakness. His “weakness” was that he achieved much that other people couldn’t keep up with him.

    Cloud went on record as voting no for the man, who was still chosen as president. In a couple of years, “he had an absolute train wreck,” Cloud said, adding that it’s an organization’s “biggest nightmare” to have employees who don’t know their weaknesses.

    But Cloud remembers another time when a candidate was very open He willingly revealed that he had little hands-on experience fundraising – that he didn’t even like to fundraise, Cloud said. This was no small admission since fundraising is an important part of most president’s roles.

    “You got a great feeling of the guy’s trustworthiness and what he’d be like when there are other forks in the road,” Cloud said. The man – who was strong in casting a vision and creating an organizational culture – was still hired, and he built a team of people who could raise money. Knowing his weakness let him work around it.

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