Professional Development

Why Your Attitude is More Important Than Your Intelligence, According to a Stanford Study

Written by Kate Lopaze

Sometimes it seems like the most successful people must be the smartest ones in the room—after all, how else would they have achieved that level? And how can you compete if you’re not a double major in French and biology at an Ivy League school, with a minor in rocket science?

The reality is that those traditional hallmarks of intelligence and success don’t mean as much to your career as you might think (no offense to you French-speaking biologists in Harvard sweatshirts). In reality, your IQ may not mean as much to your career trajectory as the motivation and attitude you bring to your job.

It’s All a Mind Game

In a Stanford study, psychologist Carol Dweck found that career success was tied more closely to an employee’s mindset over his or her IQ. She found that employees tended to fall into one of two mindsets: “fixed” and “growth.” People with fixed mindsets believe that your self is set, and won’t be changed by the everyday work experience. Those with fixed mindsets tend to have problems with obstacles or challenges, regardless of their IQ.

Conversely, people with growth mindsets see challenges as learning opportunities, and believe they can grow with each obstacle they navigate. These growth-minded people tend to outperform their fixed peers, no matter whose base IQ was higher.

How You Can Adapt

So how can you make this work for you? In short, start thinking like a growth mindset-haver, if you don’t already. The best way to do this is start approaching your professional challenges (both big and small) in a more productive way. When presented with an obstacle, try these strategies to change your mindset.

1. Don’t panic.

You made a mistake? Someone just handed you a huge task, with a tight deadline? Someone else didn’t do something they should have? It’s important not to freeze, and throw your hands up in despair.

2. Be proactive.

Ask questions about next steps if you’re unclear about what to do. Think about what you can do in the short term, and what your plan is for the long term, then take concrete steps to achieve that particular goal. After you’re past the challenge or obstacle, take time to think about what led to the situation, what you did to resolve it, and what you would do if it happened again.

3. Learn from it.

Maybe you had an issue because you didn’t have a certain kind of skill. Or maybe someone else has expertise you need to be better at your job. Whatever can help you expand your horizons after you’ve dealt with the obstacle, take it as an opportunity to squirrel away knowledge for the future, or set mini goals for yourself in the short term to be better.

Like an optimist, someone with a growth mindset tries to see around obstacles—what they can do in the short term, and what they can take from the situation. Giving up in the face of adversity makes you rigid, and unable to deal with curve balls. And what is professional life, if not a series of curve balls thrown directly at you?

The most important thing is to be flexible and willing to adapt. You don’t need to be the person with the highest test scores, but if you’re the one who’s most willing to try (and even fail) in the interest of becoming smarter and more experienced, IQ is nothing but a number.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.