Chapter 3 Summary

The Trouble With Geniuses (Part 1)

Malcolm Gladwell describes the incredible genius of Christopher Langan, currently known as the smartest man in America. Langan has an IQ of 195. His genius makes him an outlier because he stands out so much in comparison to the rest of the world. However, has that genius helped Langan be successful in his life? Other than the celebrity it has garnered, has he done well? The interesting thing about Langan is that in traditional terms, he is not very successful. Despite being invited to speak on television and being interviewed a lot, he has not had any publications, has no college degree, and has not impacted the world of academia. He works on a ranch and lives a very low-profile life. Gladwell compares Langan to Einstein, who had an IQ of 130—still in the genius category. Both men were geniuses, but what led one man to succeed and not the other?

To answer part of the question, Gladwell summarizes the results of a long-term study done on intelligence by Lewis Terman, a professor of psychology at Stanford University in the early 1900s. He studied close to 1,500 students who had high IQs throughout their lifetimes. The results yield many interesting findings, one being that when it comes to intelligence, there tends to be a threshold; once you get past a certain level of intelligence, it does not really impact your success much. Instead, other factors—particularly creativity, the ability to think in innovative ways, and dealing well with change and unexpected factors—are what help people succeed.

To elaborate on what is called “the threshold effect of intelligence” in real life, Gladwell cites a study done of University of Michigan graduates. Through their affirmative action program, the university admits disadvantaged students who do not do as well in college classes and tend to have lower IQs. However, after they graduate and get a job, they are as every bit as successful as are their more privileged counterparts.

With Terman’s group of gifted students, in the end, only some of them succeeded; others did not. This shows that intelligence is nice, but when it comes to real-world success, intelligence only matters to a certain point. After that, other elements are also needed to help someone succeed. Gladwell reaffirms that even though we put a lot of emphasis on natural talent and genius when it comes to successful people, we often leave out the idea that success comes in part from intelligence and talent and in part from creativity and hard work.