Why Do Idiots Get Ahead In Life?

Every week I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the archive). This week’s question is from C. with 101 votes] is Why Do Idiots Get Ahead?

I’m a diligent individual, but find it frustrating to continually clean up after the mess “idiots” create — but yet the “idiots” cannot be stopped. I have clout in my organization, yet individuals below me are supported by peers, while I’m ignored.

Your question is an interesting one, but not just for workplaces. As an experiment, lets turn your question around. Why Do Smart People Get Ahead?

I’m not sure they always do. The greatest single factor for how far ahead we get in life is simple: where and when we are born. If you were born in ancient Rome it was 50/50 you’d live past 10 years old no matter how smart you were. Then again, if your Dad was Louis XIV, King Of France in 1644, and you were the first son, you’d be far ahead before you said a single word. There were thousands of other smarter kids born that same day in France, but none were given the same advantages. Monarchy seems pretty limiting to us now, but even today who our parents were defined hundreds of advantages or disadvantages we didn’t pick, but often take credit for.

Of course there are no guarantees: many children of the rich and famous often have a terrible time living up to the burdens of those legacies. But my point is there are many factors that define who succeeds in the universe, some we control but many we don’t. Some seems fair to us and some unfair.

Specific to the question of idiots, smarter people get ahead only when they are able to successfully apply their abilities to the situations and challenges they face. Some challenges in life depend more on social skills, passion, empathy, dedication and ambition than smarts. More so, words like smart, dumb, intelligent and idiot are used very loosely. Howard Gardner defined at least nine types of intelligence, including spatial and inter-personal smarts. Depending on what we’re talking about (life? work? sports?) different kinds of intelligence yield different advantages. Some titans of industry have terrible social lives. Many of our most prolific artists struggle with depression. Life is more complex than the simple scorecard we often use to judge others, and ourselves, with. “Getting ahead” seems a lousy measurement, since it demands the question: ahead of whom?

There are six ideas hidden inside your question, as it relates to the working world:

  • Meritocracy depends on who defines merit. An idiot could easily get ahead in an organization that decided idiots are awesome. A crazy (or idiotic) CEO could say “we will give a 20% raise and rank promotion to the dumbest people we have.” With an incentive to be stupid, what would merit mean? We tend to think about meritocracy in simple, selfish terms, but it’s highly subjective and local to your culture. Some cultures value politeness, others directness. Banks reward consistency, but startups reward ambition. If you find yourself in a place where your definition of merit, or morality, doesn’t match those around you there are only 4 choices: influence their definition, change yours, accept your fate or move on.
  • When something goes wrong, look up. If ever you wonder why a team or group is a mess, look directly at their collective boss (or parent). It’s their job to make it not that way. If dysfunction and incompetence are common, hold those in charge responsible. Do you have a coworker who is truly incompetent? If yes, then ask: who has the power to fire, or reassign them, but hasn’t yet? (And who hired them in the first place?). Your problem might simply be your boss is terrible at her job (or her superiors are terrible, which constrains her abilities). A primary responsibility for a boss is to create a functional workplace where competence is rewarded. If the boss is failing to do that, not much else matters. They will spoil most attempts to right the ship, since they prefer it sinking (Perhaps because they are insecure and need to always feel smart, which is best achieved by having fools around them in an endless series of crises only the boss can resolve).
  • Intelligence is only one valuable attribute. An ambitious person with less talent can sometimes beat a lazy person with more talent. In workplaces, above a minimum level of intelligence, it’s often skills of listening, communicating, earning trust and being reliable that define a person’s reputation. Some abilities, like creativity, persuasiveness and work ethic, aren’t directly tied to intelligence. Someone of average intelligence but who excels at these other skills, and knows their own limitations, can succeed faster than a smarter person who is very difficult to work with or to trust. We’re also influenced by our biases: we like some people and don’t like others for superficial reasons. It’s hard for that bias not to slip into the decisions we make, or who we are willing to support (or not). And of course: if you’re smart enough to know your coworkers are idiots, but not smart enough to work around them or find a new job, how smart are you?
  • You might be confusing idiocy with disagreement. It’s possible the idiots see you as an idiot too (judgement reciprocity). We’re wired to divide the world into us vs. them distinctions, which often blinds us to the nuances we need to see to begin to understand a different point of view. To say “They Don’t Get It” might reflect as much about your own limitations as theirs. How do they see the world? How do they see their role or their contributions? Maybe they’re just as frustrated as you are, and recognizing you share this perspective might lead to other kinds of progress.
  • Cumulative Advantage. Any initial advantage, from luck, skill or inheritance, can tilt future odds of getting ahead into a person’s favor. Many people who don’t seem, in the present, to deserve the status they have, may be benefiting from past earned, or unearned, advantage.
  • People rise to their level of incompetence (The Peter Principle). The reasons people are promoted often have more to do with the work they’ve done than their ability to play the role they’re promoted into. An exceptional soldier might be a terrible manager or leader of other soldiers. It’s a common trap in organizations that the only way to earn more money is to take on a management role. This motivates people who have no real interest in leadership or management to take those positions. Once there, their mediocrity prevents them from further promotion, but their pride prevents them from seeking “demotion” to a role they are better suited for.

Also see:

Bestselling Author of The Myths of Innovation, Making things Happen, Confessions of a Public Speaker and other fine books

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