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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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    Last Updated on December 3, 2019

    10 Life Lessons You’d Better Learn Early on in Life

    10 Life Lessons You’d Better Learn Early on in Life

    There are so many lessons I wish I had learned while I was young enough to appreciate and apply them. The thing with wisdom, and often with life lessons in general, is that they’re learned in retrospect, long after we needed them. The good news is that other people can benefit from our experiences and the lessons we’ve learned.

    Here’re 10 important life lessons you should learn early on:

    1. Money Will Never Solve Your Real Problems

    Money is a tool; a commodity that buys you necessities and some nice “wants,” but it is not the panacea to your problems.

    There are a great many people who are living on very little, yet have wonderfully full and happy lives… and there are sadly a great many people are living on quite a lot, yet have terribly miserable lives.

    Money can buy a nice home, a great car, fabulous shoes, even a bit of security and some creature comforts, but it cannot fix a broken relationship, or cure loneliness, and the “happiness” it brings is only fleeting and not the kind that really and truly matters. Happiness is not for sale. If you’re expecting the “stuff” you can buy to “make it better,” you will never be happy.

    2. Pace Yourself

    Often when we’re young, just beginning our adult journey we feel as though we have to do everything at once. We need to decide everything, plan out our lives, experience everything, get to the top, find true love, figure out our life’s purpose, and do it all at the same time.

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    Slow down—don’t rush into things. Let your life unfold. Wait a bit to see where it takes you, and take time to weigh your options. Enjoy every bite of food, take time to look around you, let the other person finish their side of the conversation. Allow yourself time to think, to mull a bit.

    Taking action is critical. Working towards your goals and making plans for the future is commendable and often very useful, but rushing full-speed ahead towards anything is a one-way ticket to burnout and a good way to miss your life as it passes you by.

    3. You Can’t Please Everyone

    “I don’t know the secret to success, but the secret to failure is trying to please everyone” – Bill Cosby.

    You don’t need everyone to agree with you or even like you. It’s human nature to want to belong, to be liked, respected and valued, but not at the expense of your integrity and happiness. Other people cannot give you the validation you seek. That has to come from inside.

    Speak up, stick to your guns, assert yourself when you need to, demand respect, stay true to your values.

    4. Your Health Is Your Most Valuable Asset

    Health is an invaluable treasure—always appreciate, nurture, and protect it. Good health is often wasted on the young before they have a chance to appreciate it for what it’s worth.

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    We tend to take our good health for granted, because it’s just there. We don’t have to worry about it, so we don’t really pay attention to it… until we have to.

    Heart disease, bone density, stroke, many cancers—the list of many largely preventable diseases is long, so take care of your health now, or you’ll regret it later on.

    5. You Don’t Always Get What You Want

    “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

    No matter how carefully you plan and how hard you work, sometimes things just don’t work out the way you want them to… and that’s okay.

    We have all of these expectations; predetermined visions of what our “ideal” life will look like, but all too often, that’s not the reality of the life we end up with. Sometimes our dreams fail and sometimes we just change our minds mid-course. Sometimes we have to flop to find the right course and sometimes we just have to try a few things before we find the right direction.

    6. It’s Not All About You

    You are not the epicenter of the universe. It’s very difficult to view the world from a perspective outside of your own, since we are always so focused on what’s happening in our own lives. What do I have to do today? What will this mean for me, for my career, for my life? What do I want?

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    It’s normal to be intensely aware of everything that’s going on in your own life, but you need to pay as much attention to what’s happening around you, and how things affect other people in the world as you do to your own life. It helps to keep things in perspective.

    7. There’s No Shame in Not Knowing

    No one has it all figured out. Nobody has all the answers. There’s no shame in saying “I don’t know.” Pretending to be perfect doesn’t make you perfect. It just makes you neurotic to keep up the pretense of manufactured perfection.

    We have this idea that there is some kind of stigma or shame in admitting our limitations or uncertainly, but we can’t possibly know everything. We all make mistakes and mess up occasionally. We learn as we go, that’s life.

    Besides—nobody likes a know-it-all. A little vulnerability makes you human and oh so much more relatable.

    8. Love Is More Than a Feeling; It’s a Choice

    That burst of initial exhilaration, pulse quickening love and passion does not last long. But that doesn’t mean long-lasting love is not possible.

    Love is not just a feeling; it’s a choice that you make every day. We have to choose to let annoyances pass, to forgive, to be kind, to respect, to support, to be faithful.

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    Relationships take work. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s incredibly hard. It is up to us to choose how we want to act, think and speak in a relationship.

    9. Perspective Is a Beautiful Thing

    Typically, when we’re worried or upset, it’s because we’ve lost perspective. Everything that is happening in our lives seems so big, so important, so do or die, but in the grand picture, this single hiccup often means next to nothing.

    The fight we’re having, the job we didn’t get, the real or imagined slight, the unexpected need to shift course, the thing we wanted, but didn’t get. Most of it won’t matter 20, 30, 40 years from now. It’s hard to see long term when all you know is short term, but unless it’s life-threatening, let it go, and move on.

    10. Don’t Take Anything for Granted

    We often don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone: that includes your health, your family and friends, your job, the money you have or think you will have tomorrow.

    When you’re young, it seems that your parents will always be there, but they won’t. You think you have plenty of time to get back in touch with your old friends or spend time with new ones, but you don’t. You have the money to spend, or you think you’ll have it next month, but you might not.

    Nothing in your life is not guaranteed to be there tomorrow, including those you love.

    This is a hard life lesson to learn, but it may be the most important of all: Life can change in an instant. Make sure you appreciate what you have, while you still have it.

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    Featured photo credit: Ben Eaton via unsplash.com

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