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3 Ways Smart People Make Themselves Unhappy and Unsuccessful

Jessica Stillman
4 min readApr 19

One of the best ways to know what secret anxieties plague people is to look at what they click on online. And as someone who writes for the internet for a living, I can tell you few topics drive more clicks than articles that promise to “make you smarter.” People really, really worry whether they’re intelligent enough to accomplish the things they want to accomplish.

If you want to be a theoretical physicist, that makes sense. Even Jeff Bezos claims to not be smart enough to cut it in physics (becoming one of the world’s richest people was his fall back plan). But if your aim in life is to be happy and successful in any other career than esoteric academia, then exceptional intelligence is far from the be-all and end-all. In fact, in plenty of instances, it can hold you back.

Intelligence guarantees neither happiness nor success.

“In general… there is no correlation between general intelligence and life satisfaction at the individual level,” reports Harvard professor and happiness expert Arthur Brooks in a recent Atlantic column. Many of us have met tremendously gifted individuals — as well as individuals with remarkably successful careers — who are clearly miserable.

Intelligence can be useful for getting ahead, but as Brooks and others point out, not only does it not guarantee happiness but it can also actively thwart it. If you see yourself as clever and aim to use your gifts to win money and adulation, you’re probably going to end up making yourself miserable instead. Those who look for affirmation outside themselves tend to go on chasing more and more of it indefinitely.

If intelligence doesn’t guarantee happiness, how about worldly success? IQ is useful for many careers, but as psychologist and author Alice Boyes explained recently in the Harvard Business Review, being exceptionally smart can actually bring struggles as well as advantages. Here are three of the most common ways it can trip you up.

1. An excessive focus on intellect

Bill Gates, when asked what advice he would give his younger self, responded: “I thought if somebody had a high IQ, they could be good at everything. And that idea that you had to…

Jessica Stillman

Top columnist/ Editor/ Ghostwriter. Book lover. Travel fiend. Nap enthusiast.