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Threshold Theory: How Smart Do You Have to Be to Succeed?

Threshold Theory: How Smart Do You Have to Be to Succeed?

How smart do you have to be to succeed?

What about to become a creative genius? Did Picasso and Mozart use superhuman intelligence to create their masterpieces?

And similarly…

  • How intelligent do you need to be to become a successful entrepreneur?
  • How good does your training program need to be to become an elite athlete?
  • How perfect does your weight loss program need to be to burn fat?

These are questions that we don’t often ask ourselves, but they are built into our beliefs and actions about many phases of life. We often think that the reason we aren’t succeeding is because we haven’t found the right strategy or because we weren’t born with the right talents.

Perhaps that is true. Or, perhaps there is an untold side of the story…

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“The Termites”

In 1921, there was a psychologist at Stanford University named Lewis Terman who set out on a mission to conduct a research study unlike any before it.

Terman began by finding the 1,000 smartest students in California between the third grade and eighth grade as measured by IQ. [1] After much testing and searching, Terman gathered a final sample of 856 boys and 672 girls. The children became known as “The Termites.”

Terman and his team began testing the children in nearly every way you could image. They tracked their IQ, analyzed how many books each student had in their homes, took their medical histories, and on and on. But that was just the beginning.

What made Terman’s study unique is that it was the first longitudinal research study, which meant that Terman continued to track and test his subjects for years afterward. The study, which is now famously known as Genetic Studies of Genius, collected data from the students throughout their entire lives. Terman collected additional data in 1928, 1936, 1940, 1945, 1950, and 1955. After Terman died in 1956, his colleagues continued tracking The Termites in 1960, 1972, 1977, 1982, and 1986.

To summarize, the study started with the smartest group of children in the entire state of California and then tracked their success throughout their entire lives. Decades later, the researchers had discovered something very interesting…

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Threshold Theory

The surprising discovery that came out of Terman’s study is best described by creativity researcher and physician, Nancy Andreasen…

“Although many people continue to equate intelligence with genius, a crucial conclusion from Terman’s study is that having a high IQ is not equivalent to being highly creative. Subsequent studies by other researchers have reinforced Terman’s conclusions, leading to what’s known as the threshold theory, which holds that above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t have much effect on creativity: most creative people are pretty smart, but they don’t have to be that smart, at least as measured by conventional intelligence tests. An IQ of 120, indicating that someone is very smart but not exceptionally so, is generally considered sufficient for creative genius.” [2]

Remember our question from the beginning: “Did Picasso and Mozart use superhuman intelligence to create their masterpieces?”

According to Threshold Theory, not necessarily. Being in the top 1 percent of intelligence has no correlation with being fantastically creative. Rather, there is a minimum threshold of intelligence that you need to have, and after that it comes down to a lot of deliberate practiceputting in your reps, and developing your skill set.

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    Threshold Theory in Everyday Life

    If you look around, you’ll see that Threshold Theory applies to many things in life. Success is rarely as simple as “just work harder.” The fundamentals matter. There is a minimum threshold of competence that you need to develop in nearly any endeavor.

    After that, however, the difference is between those who put in the work and those who get distracted. Once you have a basic grasp of the right things to do, it becomes about the consistency of doing the right things more often. Once you understand the fundamentals, it comes down to your habits.

    Some examples…

    Weightlifting: Assuming you’ve met some minimum threshold and are doing reasonably effective exercises (like these) with reasonably effective form, the details don’t really matter that much. Once you’ve passed this basic threshold, what makes 95% of the difference is this: Are you showing up to the gym and putting in your reps?

    Writing: Assuming you understand the core principles of writing and the basics of grammar, what determines your ability to write well more than anything else is writing a lot. Once you reach the threshold of writing a decent sentence, the thing that leads to success is writing more.

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    Entrepreneurship: Assuming you know what the most important metric is for your business, what makes the biggest difference is focusing on that metric every day. Once you cross the basic threshold of knowing what to work on, the most important thing is continuing to work on that one thing and not something else.

    If you’re brand new to an area, then it’s possible you haven’t learned enough to cross the threshold yet. But for most of us, we know what works and we have enough knowledge to make progress. It’s not about being more intelligent or more skilled, it’s about overcoming distraction and doing the work that already works.

    James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he shares science-based ideas for living a better life and building habits that stick. To get strategies for boosting your mental and physical performance by 10x, join his free newsletter.

    This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

    Sources
    1. Interestingly, Termin actually created the IQ test that he used to determine the intelligence of his original group. The IQ test was originally created by French psychologist Alfred Binet and Termin adjusted the test to create the “Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales”, which is now in it’s fifth edition and is probably the most well-known IQ test.
    2. Secrets of the Creative Brain” by Nancy C. Andreasen. June 25, 2014.

    Thanks to reader Dean Dwyer for sending me the creativity article by Dr. Andreasen, which led me down the long, twisted path to this article. As usual, you all are keeping me on the right track.

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    James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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    Last Updated on March 5, 2021

    Science Says People Who Talk To Themselves Are Geniuses

    Science Says People Who Talk To Themselves Are Geniuses

    I talk a lot to myself. It helps me to keep my concentration on the activity on hand, makes me focus more on my studies, and gives me some pretty brilliant ideas while chattering to myself; more importantly, I produce better works. For example, right now, as I am typing, I am constantly mumbling to myself. Do you talk to yourself? Don’t get embarrassed admitting it because science has discovered that those who talk to themselves are actually geniuses… and not crazy!

    Research Background

    Psychologist-researcher Gary Lupyan conducted an experiment where 20 volunteers were shown objects, in a supermarket, and were asked to remember them. Half of them were told to repeat the objects, for example, banana, and the other half remained silent. In the end, the result shown that self-directed speech aided people to find the objects faster, by 50 to 100 milliseconds, compared to the silent ones.

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    “I’ll often mutter to myself when searching for something in the refrigerator or the supermarket shelves,” said Gary Lupyan.

    This personal experience actually made him conduct this experiment. Lupyan, together with another psychologist, Daniel Swigley, came up with the outcomes that those to talk to oneself are geniuses. Here are the reasons:

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    It stimulates your memory

    When you are talking to yourself, your sensory mechanism gets activated. It gets easier on your memory since you can visualize the word, and you can act accordingly.[1]

    It helps stay focused

    When you are saying it loud, you stay focused on your task,[2] and it helps you recognise that stuff immediately. Of course, this only helps if you know what the object you are searching looks like. For example, a banana is yellow in colour, and you know how a banana looks like. So when you are saying it loud, your brain immediately pictures the image on your mind. But if you don’t know what banana looks like, then there is no effect of saying it loud.

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    It helps you clarify your thoughts

    Every one of us tends to have various types of thoughts. Most make sense, while the others don’t. Suppose you are furious at someone and you feel like killing that person. Now for this issue you won’t run to a therapist, will you? No, what you do is lock yourself in a room and mutter to yourself. You are letting go off the anger by talking to yourself, the pros and cons of killing that person, and eventually you calm down. This is a silly thought that you have and are unable to share it with any other person. Psychologist Linda Sapadin said,[3]

    “It helps you clarify your thoughts, tend to what’s important and firm up any decisions you are contemplating.”

    Featured photo credit: Girl Using Laptop In Hotel Room/Ed Gregory via stokpic.com

    Reference

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