Successful Intelligence: Why High IQ Is Not Enough To Succeed - David C Figueroa's Blog
David C Figueroa's Blog

Successful Intelligence: Why High IQ Is Not Enough To Succeed


Is IQ the best predictor of success in life?

I was a school psychologist for 37 years working with children from the age of 3-18 years old. One of my main responsibilities was to assess children to determine if they were eligible for special education services.

As part of this assessment, I was required to administer an intelligence (IQ) test. Most often this was the latest version of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), or the Stanford-Binet Test of Intelligence.

These tests measured abilities of verbal intelligence, non-verbal/spatial intelligence, and memory. They measured only a small portion of human abilities.

Although these tests were useful for determining eligibility for special education programs, they are not great for predicting overall success in life. Common thinking about IQ is that if you are determined to have a high IQ, you are assured to have a successful life. And, the higher your IQ the more successful you are likely to be.

However, that is not necessarily the case. High IQ people are not guaranteed to be successful in life. According to a Forbes article, Intelligence is Overrated: What You Really Need to Succeed, “high IQ does not guarantee that you will stand out and rise above everyone else.”

Unfortunately, variations of these types of IQ tests are used to make decisions about who gets into college, or who gets hired. I’m sure you are familiar with the GRE (Graduate Record Examination), the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test), or the Miller Analogies Test. These are all IQ tests in different forms.

Because they only measure a small portion of the intellectual spectrum, they also tend to be discriminatory. They do not take into consideration the cultural influences on intelligence. What is highly valued as intelligence in one culture may not be valued in another culture.

This has been a problem with traditional IQ tests because they do not consider cultural factors. As a result, they have been discriminatory for children of color.

Test developers have tried to adjust IQ tests so that they are not unfair to black children or hispanic children. Test creators started to take into account cultural factors.

One such test that I used to administer was the SOMPA (System of Multicultural Pluralistic Assessment). Although it factored in the different cultural factors, it was still founded on traditional IQ tests and therefore had limited predictive ability.

A more recent theoretical approach to intelligence is to recognize that there is more to intelligence than IQ. Howard Gardner proposes that there are at least eight different intelligences. Daniel Goldman suggests that Emotional and Social intelligence are in fact more important than IQ for success.

In this article, I will focus on Robert J. Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence. It has been his quest to explore and try to define the kind of intelligence that is an accurate predictor of success.

His focus is on the kind of intelligence that matters to you in reaching important life goals. He calls it “successful intelligence.”

Dr. Sternberg proposes that there are actually three different intelligences that combined are better predictors of success in life. He has identified analytical, creative, and practical thinking abilities as composing “successful intelligence.”

Being exceptional in just analytical ability may not be enough to be successful in life. Successful people use all three abilities to achieve success.

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What are the three abilities?

Analytical ability is used when a person analyzes, evaluates, compares, or contrasts. Creative ability is used when a person creates, invents, or discovers. Practical ability is used when a person puts into practice, applies, or uses what he or she has learned.

Successfully intelligent people show a balance of these three types of thinking. I know people with whom I went to high school who were considered to be very “smart” with a high IQ that failed miserably in life. They did not have creative nor practical abilities that are essential for real life success.

Yet, creative and practical intelligence are undervalued in school and often times in the job hiring process. In life, a person needs a balance of all three abilities: analytical,creative, and practical.

To illustrate successful intelligence, in his book, Teaching for Successful Intelligence, Dr. Sternberg tells a humorous story of two boys walking in the forest.

The first boy’s teachers think he is smart, his parents think he is smart, and as a result, he thinks he is smart. He has excellent scores on both ability and achievement tests, excellent grades, and notable paper credentials that should take him far in his scholastic life.

Few people consider the second boy to be smart. His test scores are nothing special, his grades are not so great, and his other credentials, although satisfactory, are not notable. At best, people would call him shrewd and street smart.

As the two boys walk through the forest, they encounter a problem: A huge, ferocious, hungry-looking grizzly bear is charging straight at them.

The first boy calculates that the grizzly bear will overtake them in 17.3 seconds. This is an impressive feat, given the strain they are under. Not only does this boy know the Distance= Rate x Time formula, but he is able to apply it under great duress. The second boy never would be able to calculate the number of seconds until impact, and never would try.

The first boy, panicking, looks over at the second boy, who is taking off his hiking boots and putting on jogging shoes. The first boy says to the second boy, “You must be crazy. There is no way we are going to outrun that grizzly bear!” The second boy replies, “That’s true. But all I have to do is outrun you.”

The outcome is that the first boy becomes the grizzly bear’s lunch, and the second boy jogs off to safety. Tragic! 😉

I worked with many children who were not high achievers in school, but I knew that in their community they were like the second boy, street smart. They were also leaders. I often wondered if their abilities would pay-off as adults. They had a high degree of practical intelligence that was not measured by traditional tests.

In fact, I can identify with the second boy. My grades in high school were about a ‘C’ average, nothing exceptional. I eventually became a successful school psychologist, a teacher of three college level courses, and an educational trainer. In addition, I also created two restaurants from the ground up.

Today, I live a life of leisure. I’m successful on many levels and I live a lifestyle that many people envy. They say that often, ‘A’ students end up working for ‘C’ students.

According to Dr. Sternberg, “successful intelligence is the integrated set of abilities needed to attain success in life, however an individual defines it, within his or her sociocultural context.”

Dr. Sternberg describes Successful Intelligence as:

  • The set of abilities needed to attain success in a person’s life, however the person defines it.
  • Success is defined only in terms of sociocultural context. It does not occur in abstract, but rather with respect to standards or expectations either held personally or by others.
  • A person’s ability to recognize and make the most of his or her strengths. Almost everyone is good at something.
  • A person’s ability to recognize and compensate for or correct his or here weaknesses. No one is good at everything.
  • A person’s ability to adapt to, shape, and select environments by adjusting thinking or behavior to fit better into the environment in which the person is functioning or by choosing a new environment.

The grizzly bear story illustrates how it is possible to have the abilities needed to achieve success in school and yet fail when it comes to abilities needed to succeed in life. The first boy died, while the second boy was a success because he stayed alive.


IQ is overrated! Just because you have a high IQ doesn’t mean that you are guaranteed success in life. Recent research suggests that in addition to IQ you must have a high degree of other intelligences like emotional and social intelligence.

IQ tests can be discriminatory because they fail to factor in cultural differences and expectations.

The better predictor of success in life is to have a balance of three types of abilities: analytical, creative, and practical. According to Dr. Robert J. Sternberg, these are the essential components that make up “Successful Intelligence.”

If you got value from this post, please share it on your social media. I also enjoy reading your comments below.

To your success,

David C Figueroa

Success Coach

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About the Author David C Figueroa

David C Figueroa is a psychologist with over 35 years of experience teaching personal development. An awesome success coach, and internet marketer. Now retired, he has refocused his goals into helping ambitious men and women to create exceptional lives.

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