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How smart do you have to be to succeed?

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How smart do you have to be to be a successful entrepreneur?

How smart do you have to be to become a successful entrepreneur? How well does your training program have to be to become a top athlete? How perfect does your weight loss program have to be to burn fat?

These are questions we don't often ask ourselves, but they are built into our beliefs and actions at many stages of life. Often we think that the reason for our failure is that we didn't find the right strategy or that we didn't come into the world with the right talents.

Maybe that's true. But maybe there is an untold side to the story....

"The Termites"
In 1921, a psychologist at Stanford University named Lewis Terman set out to conduct a research study unlike any other.

Terman began by searching for the 1,000 most intelligent students in California between the third and eighth grades, as measured by IQ. After much testing and research, Terman came up with a final sample of 856 boys and 672 girls. The children became known as "The Termites."

Terman and his team began testing the children in almost every way imaginable. They tracked their IQs, analyzed how many books each student had at home, recorded their medical histories, and so on and so forth. But that was just the beginning.

What made Terman's study special was that it was the first longitudinal study, meaning Terman tracked and tested his subjects for years afterward. The study, now known as Genetic Studies of Genius, collected data from students throughout their lives. Terman collected more data in 1928, 1936, 1940, 1945, 1950, and 1955, and after Terman died in 1956, his colleagues continued tracking termites in 1960, 1972, 1977, 1982, and 1986.

In summary, the study began with the smartest group of children in the entire state of California and then tracked their success throughout their lives. Decades later, the researchers had discovered something very interesting.

The threshold theory

The surprising discovery that came out of Terman's study is best described by creativity researcher and physician Nancy Andreasen as the threshold theory...

"Although many people still equate intelligence with genius, a crucial conclusion from Terman's study is that high IQ does not equate with high creativity. Subsequent studies by other researchers have supported Terman's conclusions and led to what is known as the threshold theory, which states that intelligence above a certain level does not have much effect on creativity: Most creative people are pretty smart, but they don't have to be that smart, at least as measured by conventional intelligence tests. An IQ of 120, indicating that someone is very smart but not exceptionally smart, is generally considered sufficient for creative genius.

Being in the top one percent of intelligence has nothing to do with fantastic creativity. Rather, there is a minimum threshold of intelligence that one must have, and after that it comes down to a lot of deliberate practice, putting in effort, and developing one's skills.

Some psychology professors like to use the analogy of an NFL football player to explain the role of intelligence and success. If you were to analyze the productivity and effectiveness of all offensive linemen in the NFL and compare them to their weight, you would probably come up with very different results. It is highly unlikely that the heaviest lineman in the NFL is also the best lineman. Productivity does not increase linearly with weight.

But almost every lineman in the NFL weighs more than 300 pounds. There's a threshold you have to cross to get the job. After that, it's pure speculation as to who will be the best. It's much the same with intelligence.

The Threshold Theory in Daily Life

If you look around, you will find that the threshold theory is applicable to many things in life. There is a minimum threshold of competence that you need to develop in almost any area. Success is rarely as simple as "just work harder."

Beyond that threshold, however, is the difference between those who work hard and those who get distracted. Once you have a basic understanding of the right things to do, it's about doing the right things over and over again. Once you understand the basics, it comes down to your habits.

Some examples...

Weightlifting: Assuming you've reached a certain minimum threshold and are performing reasonably effective exercises (like these) with reasonably effective form, the details aren't that important. Once you get past that basic threshold, here's what makes 95% of the difference: Are you going to the gym and doing your reps?

Writing: Assuming you understand the basic principles of writing and the basics of grammar, it is primarily the fact that you write a lot that determines your ability to write well. Once you reach the threshold of writing a decent sentence, writing more will lead to success.

Entrepreneurship: assuming you know what the most important metric for your business is, focusing on that metric every day makes the biggest difference. Once you get past the basic threshold of knowing what you need to work on, the most important thing is to keep working on that one thing and not something else.

If you are brand new to an area, you may not have learned enough to cross the threshold. But most of us know what works, and we have enough knowledge to make progress. It's not about being smarter or more skilled, it's about overcoming distractions and doing the work that already works.

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