Why It’s Better to be Nice than Smart

The following originally appeared as a guest blog post I wrote for NBC’s INC WELL.  It is free from my usual spelling and grammatical error, as it was graciously edited by the Charles Dickens of business blogs, the one-and-only, Mr. David Wolinsky.


Smart is overrated. Maybe I’m biased because I’m bit of a dummy, but I’ve always felt that having a big heart will get you further in life than having a big brain.

Sure, a high IQ is important if you’re planning a career in astrophysics or working in a secret government lab, building a killer, burrito-eating, ninja-shark robot. (Side note: Dear government, and I know you’re reading this, if this job exists, please let me where I can apply.)

But for most other careers, entrepreneurship included, being smart isn’t what’s going to make you good at what you do. Kindness, compassion, authenticity, humor and generosity — these are the qualities that matter.

Yes, of course you need to have a certain level of intelligence to be successful. But there are diminishing returns on IQ. And after you hit a certain threshold, additional IQ points don’t help you one iota. (Hat tip to Malcolm Gladwell).

Because, well, no one gives a shit if you got your MBA from Harvard or you got a perfect score on your SAT. Ultimately, the people you work with only want to know two things: Can I rely on this person to do what she says she’s going to do; and would she be a fun person to have a beer with?

In fact, being really smart is often a huge obstacle in the path to success. If you’re Mr. Harvard MBA then your natural inclination is to try to win by outsmarting everyone else. But outsmarting everyone else is an impossible battle to win. No matter how hard you try, you’re never going to be the smartest person in the world. Heck, you’re probably not even the smartest person reading this blog post right now. So, no matter how smart you think you are, there’s someone smarter out there who is going to beat you at your own game.

Smart is a losing proposition.

Once you come to the realization that you can’t out-Amazon Amazon, it’s time to change the rules of the game. Brad Feld recently wrote an excellent blog post on resegmenting your business. He said, if you’re not the market leader or at least in the top three for your category, then it’s time to create a new category and become No. 1 in the new category. The same principle can be applied on the personal level. Are you the smartest person in the world? Are you in the top three? No. Okay, then instead of trying to be the market leader of smart, resegment yourself and become the market leader of nice.

Because, while it’s damn near impossible to make yourself the smartest person in the world, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from becoming the No. 1 absolute nicest person in the world. So give it a shot, and see what happens. If you do, I promise you’ll be amazed at how many more people want to have a beer with you.


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13 thoughts on “Why It’s Better to be Nice than Smart

  1. Rishi says:

    Great post! I think networking and building new relationships is key to progress. Super nice people do this way better than super smart mean people.

  2. Good post Ethan. I agree, there is very little downside to being nice to people and it usually makes your day better. I’m not sure that I agree with you that I’m not the smartest person reading your blog post right now. How about now? Now? Dang.

  3. Jesse Mavi says:

    Nicely done Ethan! This reminds me of how I arrived at Zealous Good. I sent an email to Brittany asking if I could help and she asked if I could meet her for coffee. Two conversations later and I was part of the Zealous Good team. She has never seen my resume and probably doesn’t care to see it at all.

  4. Rob says:

    Ethan, if you get the info on where to apply for that burrito-eating robot making job, let me know! ;-)

    Ahem. In all seriousness…

    I think I lack the long-term perspective I’d need to give a definitive answer, but from what I’ve seen, read, heard, and intuit, I definitely agree that being nice has massive benefits, and that “being smart” isn’t as crazy important as some people think.

    I’d like to chip in my own perspective on “nice” and “smart” though, because I think there are types of nice and smart that win-out again and again. I think with being nice, what’s important is carrying a default attitude of generosity, openness, and a feeling of “we’ll pull each other up together.” It means helping friends, associates, and strangers, without an expectation of return (though a return down the line will often come from somewhere…thanks Karma!).

    It doesn’t mean you’re pleasant or helpful to all people in all circumstances though. Heck, if you were, you’d certainly become a pushover or be drawn into some nasty stuff. I think to be effectively generous and open, you need to be able to discriminate between the things worthy of being helped with, and those things that aren’t.

    This is where “smart” comes in. I think there’s a misperception in the U.S. (and maybe a lot of places) that “smart” people are the people good at higher-level math, or their nuclear physicists or something. It’s usually equated with book learning, or high levels of very specific logical analysis. While many of these people are definitely sharp and massively bright, I think there’s more to being “smart.”

    Part of that is being empathetic. There are lots of very bright people in this world without a dose of empathy. They can’t (or haven’t learned) to try and see the world and situations through other’s eyes, and so lack a very important type of emotional intelligence. It’s this type of intelligence that I think many great careers and lives are based on. If you’ve learned to be darn good at empathy, you can do all sorts of amazing things: know just the right gift to give someone, recognize when someone needs help and understand what kind of help to give, create user-centered products or services that delight and engage, etc.

    So….I’d say that learning to be emotionally-smart (about others and yourself), using that skill to help people in worthwhile ways, and then pairing that with whatever other intellectual skills we have is vital to a successful life. We can skip the calculus and chemistry if it’s not our thing, but we should never skip empathy.

    • Ethan Austin says:

      Man, you are right on point. You need to start a blog if you don’t already have one. You are speaking the truth, my man. My favorite line: “[Being nice] means helping friends, associates, and strangers, without an expectation of return.” Right on, dude. You nailed it with that one line.

  5. Basically the exact issues we discussed on Sunday over Chipotle … thanks so much for your insight, perspective and lunch :)

    We’ll definitely keep in touch.

  6. Andrew Bryk says:

    Really great post! I completely agree with you. Many people have that high IQ level you speak about, which creates an obstacle in achieving success. Great shoutout to Malcolm Gladwell. Being nice gives you a step up to all of your competition right off the bat.

    • ethanaustin1 says:

      Thanks Andrew. I’ve always thought that smarts were only so important. When I read Outliers and saw that the man with the highest IQ in the states was once a bouncer at a bar, it pretty much solidified it for me: Def better to be nice than smart (“nice” of course being an overly simplistic way of saying emotional intelligence)

  7. heidimassey says:

    Hi Ethan,

    I like this post, but there is something in my gut that struggles with it. I don’t think that being smart and not nice is an obstacle to business success. I think there are many assholes who are wildly successful-we could all name them. Ultimately for me, it isn’t about making lots of money. It is about being happy, experiencing joy on a regular basis, and being surrounded by great people who I love. And I don’t think lots of business success is real important for most people to be happy. In fact, I would suggest that many of the most successful business people-people who make the largest salaries-are probably among the least happy people. Not that it has to be a trade off. I do think there are happy rich people. But, I think that the best path to happiness is not just that money scenario. The best path, for me at least, is to have a sustainable income and to have the rest of the picture filled out as well-balance in my life. And in order to have the rest of that picture-people in my life who I love and the experience of joy in my life-requires that I be a nice person. That is why it is so important to be nice. And only the smartest people in the world really get that :)

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