How smart you were born isn't nearly as important to success as how you act, according to research


Research shows that:

  • With the right training, the adult brain can rewire itself way more than we thought.
  • Lifelong deliberate learning exponentially compounds our intelligence over time.
  • Missing out on just one night of sleep can reduce IQ by 15 points.
  • And more...

The first time I thought about my IQ was third grade. I remember because of the disappointment I felt.

I had taken an IQ test to get into a "gifted & talented" program.

I missed the cutoff by one point.

My closest friends got into the program. I did not.

As a result, I carried the stigma of 'NOT being smart enough' with me for more than 20 years.

This was a mistake.

Since then, my view on intelligence has changed dramatically and so has the research.

In a nutshell, here’s what we now know—our intelligence can be dramatically increased by the actions we take during our life.

Here's how....

#1) Our environment has a HUGE impact on our IQ

One of the most fascinating findings in psychology over the last 100 years is the Flynn Effect. Even though IQ is viewed as a trait that CANNOT be significantly altered, the average IQ in the US has been rising for decades. For example, between 1932 and 1978, the average IQ in the US rose from 100 to 115—a startling 15 point rise. There isn't a consensus on the precise reason why this is happening, but we know that it's something in our environment. It shows, on some level, that we do have control over how smart we are.


#2) The ADULT brain can rewire itself if we push it to grow

For many years, it was conventional wisdom that the human brain stopped developing in adulthood and could not create new brain cells. The scientific consensus is now that the brain has incredible ability to rewire itself at any age. Granted, it may be harder as we age, but that doesn't mean we can't if we're committed.

“The brain is a far more open system than we ever imagined, and nature has gone very far to help us perceive and take in the world around us. It has given us a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself.” ― Norman Doidge, Columbia University researcher and author of The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

In addition, there is the lifetime work of Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan and his peers in the field of adult development. To put their work in context, you should know that in the 1930s, psychologist Jean Piaget identified four universal stages of cognitive development in humans:

Piaget’s work suggested that adolescents reached a final stage, which they remained in throughout adulthood.

This understanding was later turned on its head by the adult development field, where longitudinal studies showed that similar to children, adults go through a series of universal and predictable phases as shown in the model below created Robert Kegan.

The final stage of Kegan’s model, which only one percent of the population reaches, is called the Self-Transforming Mind. For a more complex overview, I recommend this 20-minute video of Kegan explaining his findings.

#3) Technology can augment the brain manyfold

Imagine two people taking an IQ test.

One person has a lower IQ, but knows how to use Google like a ninja.

The other has a higher IQ, but doesn't have Google.

Which one would score higher?

The obvious answer is the person with Google. He or she could simply search for answers to each question. Google augments our intelligence manyfold. And the power and quantity of tools that can augment our intelligence is exploding.

In the next decade, we may see the advent of brain interfaces that augment our intelligence even more than Google.

With these advances, our starting IQ will be less important. The Elon Musk interview below shows just how close we are to this happening:

#4) "Missing out on just one night of sleep can reduce IQ by 15 points."

The quote above comes from neuroscientist Dr. Tara Swart, and it has huge implications because:

  • Most adults are sleep deprived. According to the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, "Adults need 7 or more hours of sleep per night for the best health and wellbeing," and 35.2% of adults sleep less than 7 hours a day.
  • You can give yourself a big advantage by consistently getting a good night's sleep.

Another researcher, Dr. Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University, explains:

“A loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to [the loss of] two years of cognitive maturation and development,”

In other words, a slightly sleep-deprived sixth-grader will perform like a fourth-grader in class!

#5) Consistent aerobic exercise makes you smarter

Over the last 20 years, over a dozen studies have shown that aerobic exercise triggers processes that help your brain rewire itself, grow new neurons, and protect itself from decline.

One review study of the existing research found that consistent aerobic exercise dramatically slows the decline of our brain as we age, thereby helping us retain our intelligence for longer:

"Aerobic exercise in healthy adults were also associated with significantly improved cognitive scores. One year of aerobic exercise in a large Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) of seniors was associated with significantly larger hippocampal volumes and better spatial memory."

A Harvard Medical School researcher adds that exercise also helps us learn on three levels:

  1. "First, it optimizes your mindset to improve alertness, attention, and motivation."
  2. "Second, it prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new information."
  3. "Third, it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus."

#6) Lifelong deliberate learning exponentially compounds our intelligence over time

Ultimately, we are only as smart as how we use the knowledge in our brain to make decisions and take action.

Someone with a higher IQ might be able to learn faster, but if they don't invest in continual learning, that potential is squandered.

This is what makes the 5-Hour Rule so powerful. The 5-Hour Rule is the pattern that many of the most successful leaders, executives, and entrepreneurs spend at least 5 hours per week in deliberate learning even though they are so busy.

If those 5 hours are put toward reading books, that would mean you would read a book a week, 52 books a year, and 520 books every 10 years.

Given that even one really good book could change the trajectory of your life, the effect of reading 520 books is mind-boggling! The effect becomes even more mind-boggling when you consider that knowledge can compound if you learn the right knowledge in the right ways.

If you're interested in following the 5-Hour Rule or going beyond it, I spent dozens of hours creating a webinar to help you:

  1. Find 1-2 hours per day in your busy schedule for learning.
  2. Double your learning speed with a few easy hacks.

You can watch my webinar that summarizes some of the biggest research-based hacks by following the link below…

Sign up for the free Learning How To Learn webinar here >>

My final take-away is this

IQ is often presented as a static predictor of our potential in our careers that we cannot alter.

The research I have presented in this article shows that people with high IQ should NOT rest on their laurels. And, it shows that people with a lower IQ shouldn't allow this single number to determine their potential!

We can all heed Henry Ford's advice:

“Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right.” —Henry Ford

Finally and ironically, being smarter is not rocket science. Simply living a healthy lifestyle physically (eating good foods, avoiding bad ones, being active, and getting sleep) and mentally (putting aside time for constant learning) can have a profound impact on our life.

Special thank you to Kavya Sharman for leading the research on this article and helping to develop the ideas inside of it. Kavya is a PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University.