What's your IQ worth?

Chris Langan is purportedly the smartest person in the world (IQ 210).  What can we learn from him?

If you get far enough into this video series (video 3), you will hear this dialogue:

Interviewer: "Say you had the opportunity to run the world.  How would you do it?"

Langan: "Well one of the first things that I would do is I would institute something like the Manhattan project for a safe long-lasting means of birth control.  Simply implant that in all children at age 10.  That would solve our population problem right off the bat and it would also enable us to practice a benign form of eugenics.  Or I should probably say anti-dysgenics.  Prevent undesirable mutations in the human genome.  People who wanted to have children would apply to make sure they had no disease.  Either we have to do it through genetic engineering or we have to let only the fit breed.  We like to think that it is our right to breed as incontinently as we want to... have as many kids as we want with whomever we want to.  Future generations of mankind are being saddled with the results of what we do or don't do.  Freedom is not necessarily a right.  It is a priviledge that we have to earn.  A lot of people abuse their freedom and that is something that people have to be trained not to do." 

He goes on to say that he'd be happy to train people... just put him in charge.

Thanks, Hitler, we'll keep that in mind.  So what role does IQ play in entrepreneurship?  Langan has an advantage over you in business like the large gentleman pictured to the left has an advantage over you in golf.  They are two entirely different things-- unless you are in the business of taking IQ tests.  I admit that I kind of like Langan though.  You have to admire somebody who went through everything he has and now dedicates his life to saving humanity, albeit through eugenics.

IQ does not equal intelligence in my view.  But why does he end up on top of what we define as intelligence?  Perhaps we can find some insight into our own standard measure of intelligence by looking at impairment... there are cases where a stroke in a certain area of the frontal cortex increases IQ by 15 or more points in some patients.  Clearly, it cannot be measuring all mental ability accurately when damage to your brain can increase your score.  

It does a good job of testing certain abilities, but it leaves out a number of very important ones, such as creativity, which I think most people believe is probably the most important ability.  Some people who are born with only half a brain (only a left or right hemisphere) or with an organic disease, such as autism, perform conspicuously well at certain tasks that we associate with intelligence.  They sometimes have phenomenal memories, can perform mind-blowing math skills, or can calendar count (see Daniel Tammet and Stephen Wiltshire below).

Daniel Tammet

Stephen Wiltshire

These are amazing abilities, but I think they also demonstrate how powerful a normal brain must be.  It may be that our definition of intelligence needs to be rethought.

You do have to be smart to be a good entrepreneur, but IQ doesn't really get at it.  The brain is highly plastic and adapts a lot more than you may have been led to believe.  Norman Doidge has written a great book on this subject of neuroplasticity called The Brain That Changes Itself (the first few chapters it read like an infomercial for Fast Forward, but it's good after that).

How your brain actually changes

Our focus on intelligence in entrepreneurship probably arises from the belief that successful business leaders are typically very smart.  So, the smarter you are the more likely you are to be successful.  After all, smarter people receive more Nobel Prizes and invent more innovative products.

Right?  Well, no.  Once you get above a certain IQ (around 125-130) there is no correlation at all.  It turns out that what you need to receive a Nobel Prize, cure a disease, or invent a great product is sufficient understanding of the field and a lot of imagination, not pure virtuosity.  It is also the case that what we consider to be inborn talents, such as playing the piano and math, are correlated very highly with the amount of time that you practice them.  In fact, there is even a number-- 10,000 hours-- under which, purportedly, there are no cases in the world of expert ability in any field.  This was true even for Mozart who I think most people assume was given the innate ability to compose music with virtually no practice.  It isn't true.  He was born with a lot more ability than almost everybody else, but he had to hone his ability like anybody else would.

If you are skeptical of these claims, then you should read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.  Gladwell argues that the year and even month that you were born are, in many cases, critical factors in success.  His basic point is that, although genetics and personal environment do play a huge role in what we're capable of doing, our actual success also depends on a lot of factors that are out of our control-- such as the year in which we were born. One example is that a grossly disproportionate number of Canadian hockey players are born in January, February, and March and almost none are born in December.  Another is that Bill GatesBill JoySteve Jobs and a number of other famous software entrepreneurs were all born within 6-12 months of each other.  I'll let you find out why in the book.