Entrepreneurs who make lots of money aren't all brilliant intellectuals like scholars and scientists

Elena Shalneva
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You can be successful in business without being smart (Source: Getty)

"I could see from first glance that he was a half-wit, but then half-wits sometimes have the genius to amass a fortune.” The quote is from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Don’t you just love it?

Astute as it is, Miller’s observation is nevertheless remarkably at odds with the current consensus, which seems to be: you’ve made a lot of money – you must be really smart.

During a dinner the other night, a cosmetics mogul marked each sentence of her meandering speech with a rising inflection and the adverb “like”. I quipped to a guy on my right: “She sounds thick.” He stared at me with incredulity: “Do you know how much money she’s made?”

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Nominations season is upon us, and I get almost daily requests to nominate an entrepreneur: the “smartest”, the “brightest”, the most “brilliant” entrepreneur. You mean brilliant, as in novelist-JM-Coetzee brilliant? As in having-a-superior-cognitive-ability brilliant? I am afraid I can’t think of any.

I’ve known many entrepreneurs, some of whom have made a lot of money. Few of them were especially bright. In fact, intellectually speaking, most of them were perfectly average.

They had good ideas, yes. One may even call them visions.

Let’s say you move house a lot and get fed up with poor service from estate agents. So you decide to set up your own agency. You run a restaurant and have trouble finding part-time waiters. So you create a temping firm.

On the first day of each month, you send money to your retired mum and dad, and pay extortionate transfer fees. So you start your own money transfer company. Then you ask friends and family for money, hire some staff, sort out the tech, optimise the process, create efficiencies – and if you succeed, your product becomes either cheaper or better than everyone else’s. This is good, very good – but hardly in the Nobel Prize ballpark.

You also have an animal instinct for what will sell, single-minded determination, uncompromised devotion to customer service, and a sixth sense for where investor money is coming from.

One guy I know raised a very respectable sum for a distinctly mediocre product by hanging out in Swiss ski resorts and befriending a powerful backer. One may argue that this in itself is intelligent. Well, no. Working the room at a Gstaad cocktail party is not the same as exploring Nietzsche’s influence on the French existentialists. Also, if a nose for money is an indication of intellect, then the girls who lounge around in plush City bars on Friday nights in search of a rich boyfriend deserve to join the faculty of Oxford University.

There is emotional intelligence and to create the right culture and motivate your team, you need to have the right amount of it. But this is not the same as actual intelligence.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think entrepreneurs are half-wits. Those who create the goods and services that people need are great for the economy and for society. They make our lives better. But let’s be precise with language and reserve the term “intellectually brilliant” for scholars, scientists, and writers: people who engage in abstract thought, and have superior cognitive ability. The trademark of a good entrepreneur, on the other hand, is commercial talent. And sometimes, commercial genius.

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