The Bell Curve

Dec. 21, 2004
When it comes to being a successful CEO, intelligence is overrated.

Back in the early '80s I received an invitation to speak to the Not So Terribly Good Club of Great Britain. To qualify for membership in this not so exclusive organization, all you have to do is prove that you're not so terribly good at something: something like peeling potatoes or onions, making love, wrestling crocodiles, or even being CEO of a company. Members have to attend meetings at which their peers talk about and demonstrate publicly their skills at screwing up. My credentials as the undistinguished guest speaker at this inaugural affair were impressive. I'm as incompetent as anybody and more incompetent than most. My audience was comprised of almost 400 club members with distinguished records of incompetence in a wide variety of fields. We gathered for a no-course dinner at a quintessentially inferior restaurant in the Soho District of London. Happily, my remarks were of a standard low enough to befit the occasion. As a matter of fact, my speech was so bad it received a standing ovation. I later received rave reviews from "The Worst Times," the club's publication, because my slide-projector bulb blew out at the most strategic moment of my presentation. Suffice it to say, my low IQ helped me to flop beautifully. Obviously, the Not So Terribly Good Club believes intelligence is overrated. Having just read the highly controversial book The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, I have come to the same conclusion. Everyone wants to be intelligent and achieve success despite proof that the human animal's real genius lies in achieving failure. Incompetence is what most of us are really good at--no matter how smart we are. It seems to me that we spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about the things we do well. But those few saplings of success pale when compared to the forest of our failures. The Bell Curve maintains that an individual's IQ is more affected by genetics than by social environment. I disagree. As an acknowledged incompetent, I am not surprised that so many individuals with above-average IQs are just as capable of making incredibly stupid decisions as those with lower-than-average IQs. And they do it every day in business, in banking, in manufacturing, in government and in politics. In fact, any intelligence test on which high scores can be achieved by people capable of believing anything so preposterous as the efficacy of intelligence tests is fundamentally flawed. IQ tests are not a good measure of executive success, as Sonny Kleinfeld, a former New York Times reporter, proves in his book Staying at the Top. His research discovered that the best executives do only moderately well on the tests. He claims there is another kind of intelligence that distinguishes good executives from poor ones. He calls it practical intelligence--the ability to apply intellectual gifts of common sense to the many problems they face in the daily operation of their businesses. There are some other interesting findings about intelligence that The Bell Curve authors failed to factor into their conclusions. Exhaustive surveys of how people's minds work prove that:

  • Intelligence varies with the seasons. Your brain functions better in the spring than during any other time of the year. Second best is the fall. Overall, you are more mentally acute in winter than in summer.
  • Your ability to think is affected by what you eat. The further you depart from an adequate, well-balanced diet, the more your mental alertness is likely to suffer.
  • The bigger your vocabulary, the smarter you are. Tests have repeatedly proved that people's ability to assimilate new knowledge, their ability to reason, and their capacity to solve mental problems are closely related to the number of words they know.
  • There is a strong correlation between intelligence and musicianship. This is further proved by tests that indicate that intelligence and manual dexterity are Siamese twins joined at the pocketbook.
Insofar as heredity is concerned, genetic researchers have determined that the dominant traits most likely to be passed along from one generation to another by all races are: curly hair, dark hair, non-red hair, normal skin pigmentation, brown eyes, near- or farsightedness, broad lips, large eyes, short stature, nervous temperament, blood types A and B, and positive Rh blood factor. Recessive characteristics (those less likely to be passed along) include: straight hair, light hair, red hair, albinism, blue or gray eyes, normal vision, thin lips, small eyes, tall stature, calm temperament, blood group O, and negative Rh blood factor. You will notice that there is no mention of intelligence in either grouping. In the matter of education, more than half of all chief executives among the 1,000 surveyed recently by Paul Ray & Co. have only a bachelor's degree. Only 18% have an MBA, 7% hold a master's degree other than an MBA, 10% have a law degree, and 6% have a doctorate degree. Another 6% have no college degree at all. Are top-notch executives born to their positions? Hell no! Top-rated executives learn their professions the hard way: through experience, and by making mistakes And what they learn first and best is that a high IQ may be nice to have, but it's pretty dumb to show off.

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