Smart people know that they are smart. They know that they did better (academically) than most of their peers at school. They know they grasp concepts much quicker than others, simply because they’ve been in countless group situations where they “get it” while there are other blank faces in the room. And they know they are more well read than the Average Joe.
Chances are that they cruised through school without having to study their guts out. And they end up wowing their bosses early in their careers because they seem to be able to pick up (often digital) tools far quicker than their older colleagues.
Then they hit their late 20s. And that’s where the crisis of confidence hits.
I’m seeing this more and more in the world of work. Some people call it a quarter-life crisis. But it’s not an affliction experienced by everyone. It only impacts smart people.
Specifically, smart people who don’t recognise their limitations.
Just go with me here. You have to understand that I’m the biggest champion of believing that anything is possible. And I encourage people all the time to bust their self-limiting beliefs. But in order to truly bust them, you need to acknowledge that they are there in the first place.
The smart people I’m referring to above have managed to achieve a lot in life because … until now … life has been pretty darn easy. But then you get a few years into your career as the serious work starts. Your bosses will no longer write off your arrogance to the “enthusiasm of youth”. You’re now experienced enough to be expected to actually carry out the ideas you put forward. And you’re past the “I can make these silly mistakes because I’m still young” phase.
For the first time, these smart people can’t rely on their quick thinking and inherent intelligence to get things done. They may actually need to master technical skills, take responsibility for their actions and carry a project to completion. They can no longer rest of their laurels if they really want to get ahead.
Let’s look at Dorothy (not her real name). When you meet her, you’re impressed. She’s confident, well read and has infinite ideas. She believes that anything is possible. And that’s a good thing.
Dorothy has always been smart – through school, university, among her friends. As expected, when she got into her first job, she wowed her bosses. She has brilliant ideas and – to her credit – puts her hand up to make them happen.
Even if her bosses point out that the projects might be overwhelming, or technically challenging, she insists she can do it, pooh-poohing any notion that she might not be able to do it.
Her bosses – to their credit – give her a go, offering support and resources along the way. But Dorothy has been so used to mastering skills at the speed of light and accomplishing so much more than her peers, she gets demotivated when this doesn’t happen immediately. Because, guess what, Dorothy? You’re not in Kansas anymore. You’re in the real world. Dorothy blames someone else that the project isn’t going to plan. Or she abandons it altogether. She fails.
But everyone deserves another go right?
There is nothing wrong with failure as long as you learn from it. So her bosses give her another go with another project because they recognise that Dorothy is smart. But the same happens. And then it happens again.
By this time, it’s crunch point. Her bosses have run out of patience and no longer think she is the wunderkind she made herself out to be. They want to see some of that underlying genius turn into actual hard work and application.
People like Dorothy need to make a decision. They need to start putting in the hard yards. They need to acknowledge that the “smarts” they’ve been relying on can only take them so far. Some “Dorothys” manage to cruise through life a bit more by blaming suppliers, contractors or colleagues for their lack of progress. But it’s only a matter of time before it all catches up to them.
The smart people who pull through – and who become better people in the process – are those who acknowledge their limitations and then work hard to overcome them. Not by blaming others, not by fending off responsibility, but by genuinely improving themselves.
It’s something that I also see among “creatives” all the time. They want to have commercial success but don’t want to learn any commercial skills. These people are living in a fantasy if they think that they can have one without the other. Sure, you need to focus on your “art” or creativity. But you also need to learn the basic skills you need to make smart business decisions.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that you need to acquire every skill under the sun in order to get ahead. But you need to take responsibility for what you also want to take credit for. You need to “own” what you want to achieve.