Following on from my recent thoughts of what schooling does to our brain, I wanted to reflect on what happened to my friends who showed themselves to be remarkably intelligent in school. I have a circle of friends made up of people with IQs at least over 140 (sounds rough, I know, but thankfully it’s not limited to that). Seriously though, it’s interesting to reflect what had happened to my most intelligent friends over the 10 years that have passed since leaving school.They all did incredibly well in their exams. They all come from different countries and backgrounds: some come from well off families, which cannot be said of others.
I have observed a few different paths:
- Join the biggest fanciest company I can find. Think Goldman, McKinsey, Google – and I don’t mean the HR department of those companies. Everybody left after a year. Why? I’ve gathered my people couldn’t tolerate the lethal combination of short-sightedness and narcissism that’s characteristic of middle management in these companies. It will take years and years of repetitive boring back breaking work – measured by the hour, not by output, before you actually get to make any interesting decisions.
- Join the company that will take me with least resistance. We’re talking about less fancy firms – the big four, European investment banks, non-backbreaking medical jobs in fancy universities/hospitals or intense jobs in less famous ones. Interestingly, this has an almost 100% retention rate. I think these people are risk averse and comply with expectations set by their culture. They are capable of doing the same thing over and over and are able to see the greater context. They believe their labour now will lead to massive payoffs later – kind of the way it did 50 years ago. They often talk about how this job they have now gives them experience. Experience for what? I used to think there was some kind of substance behind this statement. However, now I think of it as a way of saying: what I am doing now isn’t a waste of time no matter how you look at it. A few of these people have even dipped their toes into entrepreneurship or trading – but they don’t seem to have any faith in their ability to succeed unless they are under the wing of a big company.
- Do a Ph.D./advanced degree in the fanciest place that will take me and proceed the academic route. Think Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford. Here, I’ve observed a 50/50 completion/dropout rate. Those that dropped out went with start ups – with varying degrees of success. Those that continued the academic route are exceptional scientists. One is lazy af. He’s there for the good life. The other is the most industrious person I have ever come near. Madonna ain’t got nothing on her. This girl, let’s call her Anna, has gone after every degree, exam, medal and trinket she could. She is also unhealthily thin – to the point of bone brittleness – and always has been. I’ve wondered about her: what motivates her? Is it the pure validation and vanity of medals and awards? Is it that she is simply playing to her strengths? I don’t think she is: she went into medicine after doing a science degree. This was no backdoor entry: I mean a first class honours top of the class from a university everybody knows. She didn’t want to do medicine when she was 18. My own view is that she would have much interest in patients – she’s not mad into vulnerabilities and feelings. In fact, she first got into law – and switched to science on a whim.She did mention money though. I recall a conversation between the two of us and a veteran academic before either of us were in college. Her questions revolved around trends. Clearly, she had no direction. I think what drove her is neither validation nor a thought out plan. It was the desire for safety and certainty: law and medicine will always provide you with a reasonably paying job; a trend will always bring you in the right direction. This is another example of a situation where directionlessness has played havoc with a person. Is she happy now? I have no idea. I know that the guy who pursued academics because it ticks the box of having a job and brings in some income is indeed happy. What Anna lacks in direction, this guy lacks in ambition. Both are doing pretty well for themselves on paper though.
- Doing something odd. I know a guy who started a science degree in a mediocre college, dropped out, started the same science degree in a very fancy college and went into finance after graduating. It’s not exactly a untrod path. The black swan who has managed to make billions in his twenties dropped out of an Ivy League college and was one of the founders of a tech start up. A number of friends have gone through a variety of things: medicine, startups and management consulting. All of these people tend to have excellent relationships with their parents: nothing promised, no regrets. There is an understanding there that the child doesn’t owe their parents the obligation of following a certain path past a certain point. The point seems to be after graduating and making some kind of money. These people tend to have a higher risk tolerance and put less value on conventional markers of success.
Of note, none of them have children of their own at this point. Many of them have travelled a lot and even permanently immigrated, mostly to the United States.
All in all, I think all these superbly intelligent people have fallen into different categories driven by what they value most. In terms of their values the most important spectrum seems to be their appetite for risk. Is there success here? It all depends on how you define it. They are all doing well financially. They are all reasonably happy, it seems. There’s no one size fits all recipe for success here. They only one I can suggest is play to your strengths and go all in.