Can Hard Work Beat Intelligence? [Hint: Wisdom Beats Both!]

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People are curious whether hard work can beat intelligence?  A similar question is “Can hustling harder make up for a lack of native talent?”

The reason to wonder is obvious–we can hustle harder, but it is hard to manufacture more talent.

Or is it?

There’s really 3 things we should be considering, not 2:

  • Hard Work
  • Intelligence
  • Wisdom

By Wisdom, I mean already knowing the answers to most of the questions. The hierarchy looks like this in terms of success likelihood:

Hard Work is beaten by Intelligence is beaten by Wisdom…

Think of it this way:

  • If you need to do something you’ve done successfully before, all other things being equal, you are more likely to beat the hard worker or the smart guy who have never done it before. You already know a lot of the answers.
  • If you’ve never done it, but you’re smart, you will learn the answers or figure them out more quickly, which can mean you finish faster than the hard work guy if you work just as hard.
  • You can still get there on nothing but sweat, but you’d better hope the smart guy isn’t trying very hard and there are no wise guy (!) who’ve already done it competing.

I’m a big believer that wisdom trumps all, even though most people who know me think I’m very smart and very hard-working.

But I’m not the only one.

Malcolm Gladwell has a great book called “Outliers” that focuses on the “10,000 hour rule.”  Gladwell claims that the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing the correct way, for a total of around 10,000 hours.  What you’re learning with all that practice is what I’m calling “wisdom” in this piece.

Since that time, various others have argued that the 10,000 rule only applies to fields that are stable enough that practice matters.  If the whole field changes in less than 10,000 hours, you’re out of luck.

Or are you?

You can still have more experience / wisdom than anyone else pursuing the rapidly changing field.  In addition, you may have meta-wisdom.  That would be wisdom about how to approach anything in life for the first time, before you (or perhaps anyone else) has a chance to amass 10,000 hours.

Here are my takeaways on that meta-wisdom to help you be as successful as possible.

#1 – Do Your Homework

Why reinvent the wheel? Even if you do need a new mode of transportation, why not really understand the state of the art best practices before diving in?

There is so much knowledge accessible on the Internet today. The problem isn’t finding answers, it’s know which answers to choose. Anything that seems like it will benefit from Intelligence or Wisdom needs to be researched.

Learn how to get the most out of Google. Learn how to spot the experts from the charlatans, because it’s literally become possible to position yourself as an expert using fake news. Learn to cross reference answers to confirm they are correct. Most of all, learn to be a critical thinker.

#2 – Choose Your Niche Carefully

If you launch into a hyper-competitive arena that requires serious knowledge to succeed in, you’re picking the hardest possible fight. By definition, that area will attract the hardest working, brightest, and most knowledgeable individuals.

Think traders on Wall Street. The best and brightest get hired because there’s so much at stake. They have access to much better information than you or me. Why try to beat them at that game?

Now, what’s better is a sleepy little niche that may still benefit from your intelligence and wisdom, but that doesn’t yet have many sharp practitioners player there yet.

Set up your table there and go to work.

By the way—you want there to be a learning curve so that when competition inevitably shows up, you’re way ahead of them and hard to catch.

#3 – Front Load High Learning Curve Areas

I like spaces that have learning curves because as I just said, you can create a barrier to entry and you’re not just selling a commodity based on cost. So, my ventures always involve a learning curve.

Consequently, I try to can gain as much wisdom as possible early on before I’ve invested much. Front load the areas that look like they’ll require a lot of learning, in other words.

Here’s a prime example:

You want to start a business because you got a great idea for a product.


Product ideas are a dime a dozen. Lots of products are built and then fail. Your want to do things a little differently.

Instead of deciding on a business based on product, decide based on audience.

Start With an Audience Not a Product If You Want to Win…

The hardest part about your business isn’t the product–it’s figuring out how to sell it.  When you start with an audience, you are front loading the opportunity to gain that wisdom before taking much risk.

Choosing to thoroughly research an audience brings you so many advantages in terms of front loading the learning curves to stock up on wisdom early.

The biggest advantage is you don’t have to quit your Day Job. You literally can’t climb that learning curve any faster full-time than part-time. So do it part-time and reduce your risk further.

Hard Work and Wisdom Are Under Your Control

Here’s the best news for those who want to succeed in business:

Hard Work and Wisdom Are Under Your Control

You have to be born intelligent, but Hard Work and Wisdom are things you can emphasize by choice.

You might still get beaten by a very smart person who works just as hard or harder than you and who has more wisdom.  But the odds of that perfect storm happening are low if you do your homework diligently.  Plus, you have the option of picking a market niche where you can see all the players and judge whether you can gain the advantage.

That’s just one more reason to start with your audience!


The image at the top says, “Hard Word vs Intelligence.”  It’s a mistake on my part, and one easily corrected.  But I’ll leave it up as a reminder of what happens when your Hustle gets ahead of both your Wisdom and Intelligence!

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