Why Intelligent People Fail

1. Lack of motivation. A talent is irrelevant if a person is not motivated to use it. Motivation may be external (for example, social approval) or internal (satisfaction from a job well-done, for instance). External sources tend to be transient, while internal sources tend to produce more consistent performance.

Read Why Intelligent People Fail from Michael Anissimov for the other 19. Hat tip: Paul Kim.

52 thoughts on “Why Intelligent People Fail

  1. Very valid point, but why would this apply to only intelligent people.

    Is intelligence used as a global term like “Humans are intelligent beings” or to categorize people that are “more” intelligent in the grand scale of intelligence? 😛

    1. He’s not saying it only applies to intelligent people. His post is about why intelligent people fail and he’s identifying one of the reasons.

  2. Time and chance have a lot to do with it well. But intelligence is not everything, wisdom, knowledge, and even speed, strength and other physical abilities can still help modern man.

  3. You can only fail relative to a goal.

    Someone who is intelligent but who doesn’t really do anything with it is not a failure – they just lack ambition.

    When you can fail is when you have an ambition, but lack the motivation to succeed in achieving it. That is certainly something that happens to a lot of intelligent people, possibly because they underestimate how much work many things actually are.

  4. Motivation has its phases!

    Sometimes we feel motivated enough to think we can conquer the world, sometimes, so down, feel like we have lost it all…

    Sustaining this motivation, weather external or internal – is a challenge, and one who can master this art, can really achieve anything he desires.

    What is your mantra? What is it that keep you going?
    How do you sustain your motivation, is what I’d like to know. Thoughts?

      1. Well, the first factor is something that you have taken to a whole new level. With WordPress.com you have made it extremely easy for anyone to publish their thoughts online and its really awesome.

        As for liking the people who you work with – that must work out great for you, since you get to pick them – in my case, I have no control over that factor! 🙂

        However, you certainly empowered me and millions of other people to select their co-workers, if their blogs take off – something I am looking forward to.

        Thanks for all of this! 🙂

      2. Well, you surely have changed the way people are using their websites to publish information.

        You enabled non-technical people to get a website going producing ongoingly content in a at least semi-professional manner.

        So called “professionals” and corporations use WordPress to have a “lean” (in terms of usage) CMS running their sites without drowning in misery for coping with ugly “Enterprise” CMS.

        Well done.

  5. Hi Matt,

    This binary view of motivation is simply faulty. The truth is human motivation is much more complex and often involves a multitude of factors.

    There is a wonderful motivational construct called Expectancy Value theory that does a great job providing a framework for conversations about motivation. Don’t buy into this binary view, it doesn’t hold water when checked against many years of solid academic research.

    Thanks for your photos and of course, WordPress.



    1. That wasn’t really the point of the post, which was more a pointer to the full list. I’ll check out Expectancy Value theory out, do you have any favorite books or links about it?

  6. Very true, I find that external motivation motivation is what helps me the most. If some one is depending on me to produce I am more likely to push myself.
    Allthough, once I get the ball rolling on a project I tend to suprise myself with my work and then it moves to self motivation.

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  8. I think you’re using this quotation out of context, Matt. Having a talent is not necessarily the same as being intelligent. Most intelligent people do succeed in their own terms. Are you therefore arguing for ignorance as an indicator of success instead?!

  9. Just too true. When coupled with ‘Playstation 3 is the opium of the masses’ you have the ultimate recipe for a total waste of brains…

  10. Internal motivation is the strongest, longest lasting, and the only real source we can call our own. Any self made man or woman has an internal source of motivation that is always turned on and influences their every waking moment. They always find a way to succeed because they learn from their mistakes and are not discouraged by them.

      1. “if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.”

        Art cannot be made spontaneously, it takes both planning and execution. Primarily the former will dictate the artist’s success or, how topical, failure.

  11. Interesting insight. One of the things that I have trouble understanding is what my core motivator is – and I am not alone in this.

    If you can identify what drives you to use your intellect then you are more likely to be self-motivated.

    It would be interesting Matt to have you expand on what motivates you to succeed, and if that has changed over time.

  12. I disagree with the premise of the question but more especially with the first answer given. The statement “Why Intelligent People Fail” seems to suggest that an inordinate number of intelligent people fail over those who are not intelligent. While most people do assume that intelligence is a far greater means to success (or at least can be) I propose that the reason most intelligent people fail is not a lack of motivation, but a lack of focus. Intelligent people are better at more things than most people and therefore you’d have a hard time choosing which activity focus on, or are not happy with the results obtained from delegating it to someone else because they could have done better in the first place. But the real question is, or should be, what does it mean to fail? What is failure anyway? Failure is not always bad and it is impossible to learn without failing somewhere along the way. Almost all lessons of life could not be learned or deeply ingrained without some measure of failure occurring along the way. But usually questions like this are always basically centered on how much money a person has. This really isn’t a fair question if this is what is meant. I’ve seen people dumber than a stump be wealthier than almost everyone I know. I’ve also seen that intelligent people enjoy extreme wealth. But the real reason for this question is probably just to get someone like me to give a response. So in that case, it worked.

  13. Thanks for this, it’s a fantastic list.

    Interesting how much literature covers each of the points individually and yet how rarely they’re seen listed altogether.

    Could use with some expanding, but a great resource nonetheless.

      1. It seems your new styling make people to overlook the single line paragraph beneath the quote.

        It looks more like meta data people are used to have beneath the article.

  14. I know lots of intelligent people who have failed. They usually say it’s because they’re lazy, but I’ll try to remember to point them in the direction of this blog post in future as it really hits the nail on the head quite nicely. Perhaps it will convince them to look for ways to create internal motivation (assuming that is something which is possible to create).

    I tend to get the most internal satisfaction from the things which earn me the least money, which is quite counter intuitive to my eagerness to earn as much money as possible!

  15. Wow, not only is this applicable to me, but it’s also true. When you put it like that, it’s actually kind of motivating to some who read it. As stated, I love the satisfaction from a job well done, but often go unappreciated.

  16. They might also fail because they have a sucky method too. An intelligent person might have all the motivation in the world to learn a language or instrument, but if they go about it in an flawed/inefficient way (e.g. using school-style methods of learning) they’re more likely to fail as well.

  17. As an intelligent person who often fails, I can identify with this. And yes, motivators are complex, but they are either there or they’re not. The caveat here is that ‘intelligence’ is not simply a measure of cognitive development.

    Cognitive development alone cannot accomplish relative ‘success’ (and that is the only way to measure it: relatively).

    It seems to me that a lack of motivation often results from personal development not having been even across multiple lines. (Ken Wilbur has some great insight into this topic.)

    Funny though, how most people would rather get defensive than be humble and/or honest.

    Cool site, Matt.

  18. I read the article and while I agree in general that external motivation can be a big motivating factor, the article didn’t sit easily with me because it didn’t define success. It seemed more about achievement/commercial success than simply succeeding in general. There are people I think of as successful — because they are happy in their lives — who aren’t especially high achievers. Someone who waits tables for a living and doesn’t have a lot of money to do fun stuff on the side but is happy with his work, has a loving family, and is at peace with himself is a success in my book. Someone who meets deadlines and makes a big salary but is alone and unhappy is a high achiever, but not truly successful in my book. Having been both at various times, the people who “achieve” happiness often impress me more than those who achieve “success” in a competitive workforce, especially since our society places so much more value on the latter.

  19. I (sort of) know the guy who founded Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches — he went to my high school. He had a great quote in a interview a while back (which I hope I get right…)

    “Tenacity beats brains seven days a week.”

  20. Interesting article and added commentary. The reason why intelligent people fail is a complex matter and while generalizations work well in the aggregate they can break down at the individual level.

    As Eldon (above) commented upon from the original list, a particular bright person may be doing something incorrectly. If you want to play the piano well you must usually use your fingers, using only your elbows will probably not increase your chances of playing a waltz let alone a ragtime.

    Some people would immediately appreciate learning how to do something correctly. They could use this knowledge and then succeed. Others, however, can get defensive and even be dishonest when help is offered, and James P (above) may have been referring too. However, I think that to say that someone would prefer this response to humility, seems to disregard why that response occurs. If I burn someone, and they yell, do I ask why did that person choose to yell?

    Maybe what is being expressed here is a need for nurturing. If someone was overly criticized as a child, there is little or no frame of reference to feel that outside help is not an attack, and as such defensiveness could even become reflexive.

    Can you image how hard it could be to move from that point? This is perhaps were many fail as they cannot fully take advantage of the wisdom of others.

    And unfortunately most people are not either willing to or able to nurture another person. Our culture sees this as something that is the responsibly of parents, ourselves, and maybe professional help.

    Consider that intelligent people fail because of their own shortcomings AND ALSO because of the shortcomings of those people around them. When they fail, we fail, both as friends and also we fail as a society. And our contemporary western society, my friends, is to whom we should ask why is there an inability to properly support, nurture, and develop, its intelligent members successfully.

    This is not their fault but ours.

  21. I find it funny how commenters are getting too caught up about what it means to be intelligent or to fail etc and trying to define these words rather than just taking the article for what it is. An article that could potentially help you succeed, if the knowledge is applied.

  22. Hi Matt,

    Just want to ask one thing to you.. how should we manage things to implement ideas? what is your approach?

    For example , I had idea to create a simple WordPress theme ..something like wptouch… I thought I will code on Sunday.. that Sunday never came and someone worked hard and made it.

    I get lots of crazy idea in my mind to start something, make something new.. a unique ..something like WordPress 😉 but at a time so many ideas and all looks important.. I start working on all at a time.. but none of them finished

    I don’t know if I am not good in managing time… I work full day .. but at-last I see the result..looks like I am slower than tortoise.. quite depressing and after than other responsibilities.. I am fed up.. I read so many books time management, being successful blah blah…. but I don’t think knowledge from books works in it.

    I am doing a job which I don’t like… can’t take a risk to quit.. due to personal money commitments…and I really can’t

    leave it is becoming personal…I will be happy… if you can suggest what to do … I would like to know How can intelligent people get success? your opinion.

  23. Yes, very good!

    One may have a supper fast and powerful computer, but it’s the person whom is operating the brain who is in charge of the outcome.

    Meaning, the brain is simply a tool as well as all of our senses.

    They are all means by which to engage with the world by feeding us data to become aware of.

    Our consciousness should be in the driver’s seat making choices, not our impulses and emotions.

    Instead of living like a robot, the practice using our consciousness to manage a grand overview from small topics to life changing questions, is easy to say, but sometimes difficult pull off, at lease it is for me…

  24. Wow. I read this blog only occasionally now, but scrolling down the front page “Michael Annisimov” jumped out at me. I was like, “Hey I know that guy!”. For a long time he dated the sister of one of my best friends. And I remember another time back in 2006 finding out that he used the same wordpress theme that I did and talking to him about that. Weird. Just had to share that