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Career Advice for Geniuses

By Marty Nemko

I’m now in my 20th year as a career coach specializing in intellectually gifted adults. Here are the suggestions I’ve made that those people have found most helpful:

Confirm your giftedness. Many intellectually gifted adults wonder if they’re really that smart. A confirming score, for example, 130 or higher, on an intelligence test can give you confidence that can last a lifetime. Today, intelligence (IQ) tests are often disparaged, but fact is, IQ is, for people of all races, a valid measure of the ability to think abstractly, complexly, and learn quickly—critical attributes in school, work, and life. Many studies, for example, those by Linda Gottfredson of the University of Delaware, have found that IQ, while certainly not perfect (for example, it doesn’t measure drive nor emotional intelligence) is the single best predictor of job performance.

Want to take an intelligence test? Go to, the world’s largest organization of intellectually gifted people.

Embrace your giftedness. Many people try to hide their intelligence, even from themselves. Intelligence is a wonderful attribute. Certainly don’t brag, but, inside, feel good about it.

Use your giftedness well. As with all power, intellectual power is only admirable when used to positive ends. What are the most positive uses for that great mind of yours? To try to cure a disease? Solve a social ill? Start a company that provides an important service? And even in little things, use your mind well. Help co-workers, neighbors, even strangers—problems that are impossible for others to solve are easy for you. Noblesse oblige.

Find kindred spirits. Many gifted people feel like outsiders. That’s because they, indeed, do think more rigorously than average people do. Make the effort to find a job at a place that employs many brilliant people: top biotech companies, consulting firms, financial institutions, think tanks, law firms, and universities. However, avoid teaching except at elite universities. The gap between your intellect and your students’ will frustrate you all.

Consider avocations likely to attract smart people, for example, book clubs, chess and other intellectual game clubs, or Mensa.

Trust yourself more than experts. Yes, consider experts’ input, but don’t automatically let their views trump yours. For example, a consultant may recommend that your company convert to a new accounting system. Your gifted mind can probably take into consideration many factors beyond what the consultant has. So, consider experts’ recommendations but reserve the final judgments for yourself.

You can afford dilettantism. Society discourages dabblers, calls them jacks of all trades, masters of none. True, but not for the intellectually gifted. Many of the brilliant people I know have significant accomplishments in multiple areas. Feel free to delve into a range of endeavors. Just monitor yourself to see that you are indeed accomplishing things.

If you’re self-motivated, avoid school. Even elite colleges and graduate schools are designed for the bright but not brilliant. If you’re a self-motivated learner, you’ll probably learn more and certainly learn more of what you care about, by taking charge of your own learning: read what you want to read, get mentored by those whom you respect, try out your learning, etc. For example, I’ve never taken a botany course let alone gotten a PhD in botany, but after reading a few books and visiting a few world-class rose hybridizers, I started hybridizing roses very part-time and now, three of my easy-care roses have been commercially introduced. Even if degrees are normally required for entrance to a career, gifted autodidacts who describe their learning process to prospective employers are often hired over more conventional applicants, who required the handholding of school and whose learning is usually more theoretical and less practical.

Work alone or with people with minds as least as good as yours. If you work with weak co-workers or bosses, you’ll have only two options, both lousy: intimidate them or stifle yourself. Normal people drive the gifted crazy. So, it’s worth taking the time to do a thorough enough job search among workplaces filled with smart people that you end up among your intellectual peers.

If you’re already employed in a place with less-than-stellar co-workers or boss and aren’t ready to leave, try to brand yourself as The Brain while allowing others to save face. For example, you might say something like, “I love trying to figure out the thorny problems, so if you ever have one, I’d enjoy taking a crack at it.”

Consider self-employment. Brilliant people often do well as consultants to high-level businesses, non-profits, and universities because that requires the ability to quickly generate solutions to problems so difficult the client couldn’t solve them despite inside knowledge of the operation.

Beware of starting a business in which you try to create a new product. Success in such businesses depend on so many factors beyond your control that unless you have pockets deep enough to afford multiple failures or are a genius at convincing others to fund you, you will likely end up broke, no matter how smart you are.

Resist calls for balance. Brilliant people find themselves driven to explore things deeply, often to the exclusion of “normal” things in life, for example, a clean house, family time, watching TV, going to parties. Embrace your intensity. Don’t let people denigrate it as workaholic or “out of balance.” The more accurate word is productive. Usually, they’re just jealous they don’t have your drive and intellect.

Don’t expect to be a genius all the time. Even geniuses sometimes want to fool around. And even if you’re trying to be smart, sometimes, you simply won’t be at your best. No matter how brilliant you are, you’re also human, so allow yourself human failings.

Find the right person to love you. One of the signature characteristics of genius is the strong preference for intellectual work and avocational pursuits over mundane activities such as the weekly family game of Monopoly. Most brilliant people need to find a romantic partner who is very bright and who won’t insist that at the 40-hour mark, you turn off your mind.

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