The Best Career Advice For People Who Think They’re Geniuses

Smart people don't have it as easy as many people think. Help is here.

career advice

Even geniuses need career advice

You’ve always been told you’re very smart. And on your confident days, you believe it.

But as you’ve probably become aware,intelligence doesn’t guarantee success, let alone happiness. This article attempts to boost your odds with some good career advice.

Choosing the right career

Most people are too scared to shoot for something world-changing. And that’s understandable. Even if you’re brilliant, driven, and emotionally together, it’s hard to improve even a little corner of your sphere of influence, let alone the world. But someone’s gotta do it. Indeed, smart people have changed the world, from the wheel to the iPhone. Should you take a shot? For example, develop virtual travel? Unearth the genetic basis of intelligence? Develop an ethics curriculum that will actually change behavior? You have the goods to make a big difference, so ask yourself, “What is the biggest goal to which I’d like to devote my talents?”

Of course, you needn’t come up with an idea out of thin air. There are off-the-shelf careers that attract the super-smart: Examples: medical researcher, intellectual property attorney, and computer security cryptographer.

But puhleeze, don’t sell out for money, for example, working for a company or nonprofit whose product or service is inferior and survives mainly because of marketing. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Choosing the right workplace


If you’re a self-starter who rarely procrastinates, consider starting your own business.

What sort of business? Smart people often fail because they’re attracted to complex businesses: biotech, computer security, etc. That’s risky both because it’s expensive to start such a business and because you’re competing with fellow geniuses.

The best risk-reward ratio is in replicating cloneable shoestring businesses. The easiest businesses to replicate are retail operations because you can see what they’re doing. So, for example, visit a few very busy flower stands and, in yours, incorporate their best features. It’s a shoestring business because it can be started on a shoestring, which allows you to make the inevitable new-business errors without it busting the bank. Once your first location is operating well in a great location, clone it in an equally great location.

Don’t be deterred because you think such a simple business won’t use your brainpower. Au contraire, running even a simple business excellently requires an excellent mind. Nor should you let status deter you. Low-status businesses are more likely to succeed because you’re competing with the less capable. And success will make you happier than if you failed among the status seekers. Indeed, status is the enemy of contentment. You can quote me on that.

Employed by others?

Some workplaces are filled with clock-watchers, people grateful they can keep their job while working at half-speed. Other workplaces are vibrant and filled with good minds, excited about moving the business or nonprofit forward. They try to get the most done that’s reasonably possible, sometimes what’s unreasonably possible. They feel it’s better to work late on that cool project than to go home and stare at the tube, wasted.

What’s your best shot at finding a sparkling workplace, where your good mind will be welcomed, not greeted with defensiveness? Likely pockets of vibrancy include:

High-tech start-ups.True, start-ups usually stop but the fun and learning in working for one may be worth it. You can use what you learned at your next start-up that’s likely to fail.

  • Prestigious, category-killer companies, for example, 3M, Accenture, Amazon, Amgen, Apple, Berkshire Hathaway, Facebook, GE, Genentech, Goldman Sachs, Google, Johnson & Johnson, and Procter and Gamble. We live in a brand-name society and smart people aren’t immune to Names. Brilliant folks like to work at places with a designer label not just because they can tell their friends and make their parents proud but because those companies have the stability and bucks to fund even huge initiatives.
  • Venture capital firms. All it takes to call yourself a venture firm is a business card, but respected VC firms such as Kleiner Perkins, Bessemer, New Enterprise, Sequoia, and Institutional Venture are crawling with brilliance, often too-money-oriented brilliance, but brilliance nonetheless.
  • Hedge funds. Financially oriented brainiacs often head to hedge funds. Large, well-known ones include: Bridgewater, JP Morgan Asset Management, and BlackRock.
  • Think tanks, for example, American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution,. Carnegie Endowment, Cato Institute, Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Peterson Institute.

Getting on the right team

On workplace teams, brilliant people can often be frustrated if surrounded by lesser lights: people that reason poorly. That’s especially likely with people whose self-esteem exceeds their competence. That makes them insist on having their say or even their way. As Cornell University research(link is external) found, most people aren’t smart enough to know how stupid they are.

You might want to ask your boss for solo projects and/or to be placed on teams liberally laced with your intellectual peers.

Before saying something smart

As a child, you may have been praised for your precocious statements. But as an adult, especially around insecure people (That’s most people,) you risk being resented and even sabotaged. These tips may help.

Couch your smart statements

On a typical team, the brilliant person may feel s/he has two choices, both bad: showing-up team members or staying silent. A solution is in couching: Make your smart points in a way that doesn’t alienate. For example, try sandwiching your ideas like this: “I’m wondering whether it might be a good idea to (insert your idea.) What do you think?”

Weigh the risk-reward ratio of offering a solution

Smart people often feel they can solve problems well outside their area of expertise. They’re often right but when not, they tend to pay an outsized price: Insecure folks like to tell Smarty-Pants s/he’s wrong. So consciously assess the risk-reward ratio of offering a solution: How likely are you to be correct and, if you’re wrong, it be worth the price?

Network less

Workplace performers that aren’t the brightest crayon in the box may need to network a lot because, in applying for jobs, they’re unlikely to be the best candidate. So they have to develop emotional connections that trump their lackluster capability. But for you,networking, often time-consuming, may not be the best use of your time. Sure, if you enjoy in-person or online schmoozing, fine. But the standard advice to network, network, network, may apply less to you.

You can afford to dabble

For most people, dabbling risks career failure. In our era of specialization, it’s dangerous to be a jack of all trades, master of none. But you are smart enough to gain sufficient expertise in multiple fields. As a result, your dabbling may even give you an advantage. So when you reach that point of diminishing returns in your learning, you can feel freer to jump to that next area you’re curious to explore.

Forgive yourself–You’re human

Being brilliant is a burden. People expect you to be awesome all the time. No one can be. You’ll screw up. You’ll want to veg out. You’ll say something emotionally unintelligent. See if there are lessons to learn from your screw-up and move on. Forgive yourself. Let yourself be human.

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© Copyright 2015 Marty Nemko, Ph.D., All rights Reserved.