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.