When you visualize the quintessential startup, you probably see intelligent and optimistic people working together to solve big challenges. After all, a group of individuals usually has to be somewhat smart to get a new business off the ground and the group probably has to be relatively optimistic to find the motivation to face big challenges and succeed.

But forget what you think you know about the characteristics it takes to succeed. They just might not be accurate.

Brains versus Brawn

When it comes to a startup's success, a lot of emphasis is placed on the intelligence of its founders and management. And for good reason. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs are described as being geniuses. It's a hard description to argue against much of the time because some of the most recognizable and successful entrepreneurs are pretty darn sharp. But what if intelligence was overrated?

According to some recent research, how hard a person is willing to work is a more accurate predictor of achievement than intelligence. As detailed in a Boston Globe article by Jonah Lehrer, from cadets at American military academy West Point to finalists at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, an individual's grit has been shown to be far more closely related to success than intelligence. In fact, intelligence alone (as represented by measurements such as IQ) appears to be a poor predictor of success.

One of the researchers behind these studies, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, became interested in the study of grit after watching what her Harvard classmates went on to do after college. What she observed: some of least successful weren't any less intelligent than those who were successful. It's an observation mirrored by Lewis Terman, who created the Stanford-Binet IQ test. In studying gifted children as they matured, he observed that intelligence wasn't nearly as correlated with achievement as it should have been in his opinion.

The implication of this research if it's to be believed: the old adage "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration" is true. Being able to focus in on a goal and having the willingness to do whatever it takes to accomplish it come hell or high water is more likely to result in the achievement of that goal than simply having a high level of intelligence. Thus, it could be said that a person with average intelligence and lots of grit is often more likely to succeed than a person with above average intelligence but no grit.

Optimism versus Pessimism

When was the last time you met a pessimistic entrepreneur or startup employee? That's a tough one, isn't it? When it comes to business, and to the startup world in particular, those who exude optimism and who exhibit unbridled enthusiasm seem better equipped to develop something successful.

But what if pessimism was a valuable trait? Some research suggests that it is. One study found that in "more cognitively able individuals" worriers demonstrated higher job performance. The study's authors hypothesized that "far from being a disorder, anxiety is an important component of motivated cognition, essential for efficient functioning in situations that require caution, self-discipline and the general anticipation of threat".

When looking around at the economic ruin of the past year, as well as the .com bust a decade ago, there just might be something to this. Far too many people in key positions were clearly going to work every day hoping for the best and ignoring the worst. If we had a few more people in the right places who weren't so irrationally optimistic, perhaps the global economy would be better off.

What Does It All Mean?

By now, you probably expect me to make a crazy suggestion: the perfect entrepreneur or employee just might be dumb and depressed. But no, I'm not going that far. What I will suggest, however, is that there's something here worth considering.

I can think of several once-hot internet startups with smart founders that have lost lots of momentum (and possibly a shot at big-money M&A) in part because those founders became distracted by other ventures and their internet fame. And I can think of more startups I care to remember that were funded and hyped because of over-optimistic market assumptions while more realistic (and pessimistic) analyses revealed obvious flaws.

There's no doubt that the tech industry in particular places a lot of value on intelligence and optimism. You only need visit a startup in Silicon Valley filled with 20-something Stanford grads to see that. And intelligence and optimism certainly have their place. But if recent research is any indication, make sure you have at least a few people on staff who are more gritty than smart and more worried than exuberant.

Patricio Robles

Published 19 August, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2642 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (6)

Save or Cancel


that was inspiring, people always talk about the technical details ignoring the human factor which is the most important one in my opinion

almost 9 years ago


Matthew Oxley

I disagree, both are important , but I don't think there is much space in the Online field for people without Intelligence.

While there are many examples of very successful entrepreneur's who would be the first to admit that their success was due to factors other than intelligence, the sector and time is different. I wouldn't back these sorts to start a successful web startup.

The level of return is also significant here ; it's no good to just measure failure when those who are optimistic are likely heading for big returns knowing they have a 1/1000 chance.

If you want a small, tidy, affiliate business then grit and pessimism may well be what you need, but if you want to build the next Facebook you're going need Intelligence and optimism in abundance.

almost 9 years ago



I'm just happy to know that my natural traits "work" after all.

Grit is those that can knuckle down and stick to it.  Pessimism is making sure you are covering all angles, and ensuring success. 

You can still be intelligence and have faith in your endeavors (long term), but if you aren't watching your own back, and if you aren't willing to put in "sweat" equity in your own venture... who is?

almost 9 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy


I don't think any of the research mentioned here suggests that a lack of intelligence is a good thing. What the research does suggest is that, empirically, intelligence alone is not very well correlated with achievement.

When it comes to startups, like I said, I don't think you're going to meet a lot of entreprenuers who are eternal pessimists.

But let's be realistic here: most internet startups don't deliver the "big returns" you speak of. Most VC firms obtain their returns from a handful of home runs. So for all of the overly optimistic entrepreneurs who found startups, statistically most will 'fail' despite their optimism.

As for your final comment, I know a few people running small, tidy affiliate businesses that generate 5 and 6-figures worth of revenue each month. These individuals own 100% of their companies, are debt-free and because of their relatively low overhead, are able to take home a salary or distribution fit for an attorney or investment banker. Are their companies worth billions of dollars on paper? No, but frankly I think it's far more realistic to hope to do what they've done: build a focused business, work hard at making it successful and enjoy your liquid wealth.

This is probably what most entrepreneurs should be prepared to pursue; my understanding is that small business owners make up the largest group of millionaires in the United States, for instance.

almost 9 years ago

Jonathan Moody

Jonathan Moody, Freelance at Language4Communications

Regarding pessimism, I always liked Andy Grove's (of Intel fame) quote: "Only the paranoid survive."

Here the man himself explains what he gets paranoid about, why and how it sometimes helps:


almost 9 years ago


Chris Darling

There is no substitute for education, intelligence, and skill.  There is no substitute for hard work, dedication, and drive.  Automobiles were one of the greatest inventions but they couldn't go anywhere without the fuel. 

Too much optimism can make one fall for "pie in the sky" ideas that just crash and burn.  But too much pessimism can suck you down into an abyss.  Balanced and rational thinking about ideas and goals along with a steady consistent application of taking action day after day will get you closer to your goal.

I admire both smarts and hard work.  Set your sites on a goal and use your brain to reach it.  Move steadfastly forward. 

almost 9 years ago

Save or Cancel

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.