1. success
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  3. skill
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  5. effort

IQ, talent and technique are often thought to be the Holy Grail, but that is not the whole story. Without a good work ethic, social intelligence and creativity you won’t get very far in business. Performance is the sum of the qualities you possess and those you need to work on.

Schools focus on intelligence but is being intelligent a guarantee for success? A recent survey held by the Dutch institute of intellectually gifted adults (Instituut Hoogbegaafdheid Volwassenen) estimates that one in three highly intelligent people perform poorly. And many also have trouble finding a job. One reason could be that people with a high IQ have difficulty connecting with people of average intelligence.

Being successful in business does not require a university degree. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of university – not because they weren’t intelligent but because they couldn't wait to start a company. UK businessman Richard Branson was less academically gifted. Dyslexia and ADD didn't help his cause. On his last day at school his headmaster told him he would either end up in prison or become a millionaire. He left school at 16 and never returned, not even for a management course. But that didn't stop him and he has gone on to become a world-famous entrepreneur.


US psychologist Angela Duckworth believes that grit – not intelligence – is the main factor that determines personal success (not to be confused with happiness). Grit is the sum of the passion and perseverance to achieve long-term objectives. As a post-graduate student interviewing leading figures in the field of business, sport, journalism and science, Duckworth noticed that these people stand out because of their perseverance and passion to achieve a goal, regardless of how boring, frustrating or painful the process may be. Her research showed that SAT scores, leadership experience and athletic ability did not predict success. “Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another,” she said.

Duckworth believes that we are inclined to attribute achievements to a ‘gift’ but underestimate various relatively normal things we do, such as training courses. Talent is important but the effort we put in is twice as important, she said. You have to put in the effort to become skilful (talent x effort = skill). And effort is needed to be successful. That means performing the skill many times (skill x effort = success). John Irving, a dyslectic and by no means a standout in English, was nevertheless able to become a master in storytelling. Thanks to his ‘handicap’, he spends more time rewriting and editing a novel than he does writing the first version.

Social contacts

It goes without saying that grit is not the only key to success. It is often forgotten how important it is to be able to listen to and effortlessly interact with people. And how developing skills is only possible with the help of others. Leaders lacking skills in certain areas can compensate for this by surrounding themselves with people who possess these skills. This could be a reason why Richard Branson has achieved so much. He is a master at cooperating and it all started with the very first company he set up. Due to his dyslexia he had trouble with bookkeeping. But he did not hesitate to ask for the help of a family friend who was an accountant.

Being able to interact socially is important if a company is to succeed. People want to do business with people and not with machines. And people will always be needed who can be held accountable if technology goes wrong. If, for example, you were unable to open the cargo hold of the Just Eat delivery robot or the Amazon drone were to drop your parcel in your neighbour’s pond, you would want speak to an actual person.


We are nevertheless nearing a reality in which people are no longer needed for everything. Researchers at McKinsey recently calculated that with the current state of technology we could automate nearly half of all work, but noted that only 5 percent of all jobs could in fact be fully replaced by technology. That means that human skills will still be needed alongside technology.

According to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, one quality that is clearly lacking in technology is ideation (i.e. the formation of new ideas and concepts). In their book The Second Machine Age, the authors assert that a truly creative, enterprising and innovative machine has yet to be developed. While software has been developed to make sentences rhyme, no machine can actually write a poem and no software has ever been created that can write good software, they explained.

Computers can generate new combinations of existing elements or gather a bundle of innovative ideas from customers all over the world. A case in point is Danish toymaker LEGO with its crowdsourcing platform on which customers proposed a product line based on the popular computer game Minecraft. This has been successful but people continue to be needed to generate or recognise ideas as good business cases. Brilliant innovations are one thing, but you have to keep updating and adjusting them. Otherwise the innovation is outdated in no time. This is precisely where humans beat technology.

Read more on The View - an online magazine by ING Wholesale Banking.