Getting Paid: Smarts or Results?

One of the toughest lessons to learn during my first couple years in the business world was that nobody gave a damn about how great I did in school or how high my IQ was.

But when I finally came to terms with the fact that you’re paid for results, not smarts, the promotions, raises, and bonuses kicked into high gear.

I think the biggest weakness in our current education system is the set of expectations it gives students about their post-high-school or post-college life. Their GPA is their golden ticket. They’re given the impression that straight A’s will give them a free ride to a big paycheck for the rest of their lives.

But it’s just not true.

No company is looking for a genius to pat on the back. Companies look for profit.

Case in point: I went straight into the business world out of high school (a decision I am incredibly happy I made). At the end of high school my test scores put me in the very top percentile nationwide. So I knew that the working world would be a breeze.

I knew more than all my counterparts. I spoke and wrote better English, read graphs better, calculated budgets better–I was just smarter! I could sound impressive to any corporate leader and I could intimidate any team member. I understood how the business was supposed to work. Bottom line: I was sure I knew better. Better than my employees, better than my managers, better than the customers!

And where book smarts were concerned, I did. I could out-theorize any and everybody at my company. But guess what I couldn’t do: Get results. Real productivity was my downfall.

I wasn’t productive because all my brilliant theory made me such an idealist I refused to effectively use the system as long as it was broken (hint: it’s forever). I wasn’t productive because I was so distracted with the Why, What, and How, that I never balanced it out with the Do. I wasn’t productive because my education left me wanting to be recognized and rewarded by my company for being smart and good, not for growing their profit and getting results.

But a company’s bottom line is money. And if the high school drop-out with the tattoo gets more done for the company than I do, he gets paid more. If the company’s P&L looks better after his shift than after mine, he gets promoted. Not me.

At first this made me bitter. I felt like I was at a disadvantage because I had such deep care and understanding of business ideals. I was distracted with what wasn’t perfect while my less educated co-worker was happily using a flawed system to churn out numbers. Results.

After a couple years and a few good business books I accepted that the real world with a lot of money wasn’t made up of geniuses who insisted on doing everything their (brilliant) way. The money world is made up of people who figure out how to bring in more dollars.

In the real world, you’re paid for results. Period.

I started applying that to work. It meant I had to start doing a lot of uncomfortable things. Getting out of my comfort zone when I didn’t feel ready. Looking for sales in counterintuitive places. Collaborating with co-workers I used to think brought me down.

I learned to set exact, measurable goals and commit to figuring out whatever it took to get there. I learned to be a problem-solver, not a dreamer. I learned to innovate, not complain. I learned to be creative, not outsmart harsh reality.

What Your Teachers Don’t Tell You

Here’s the problem with the way we’re raising our kids and planning our education system: After school, your GPA just doesn’t matter.

Students are pushed incredibly hard to make good grades their top priority. They’re told the way to be confident about a happy and successful future is to study their way to the top.

But when they graduate and go in for their first interview, they suddenly have to deal with the fact that the recruiter is going to pick the mid-level student with more experience and workplace accomplishments. They finally get hired somewhere and find out that their manager doesn’t care how much theory they know, they just want to see numbers rising.

Of course there’s a balance. Having a good grasp of the theory and subjects like mathematics, economics, accounting, business, etc–that can certainly help if you approach things right.

But approaching things from the perspective that your 4.0 GPA translates to being an automatic top performer is a recipe for failure and frustration.

Thomas J. Stanley, Ph.D. spent years researching, surveying, and interviewing America’s first-generation self-made millionaires. He used the data to write a few books, my personal favorite of which is The Millionaire Mind. In it, he dedicates an entire 50-page chapter to examining statistical correlations between now-millionaires’ school experiences and their later success. It’s a fascinating read, and it explains that not only does quality of traditional schooling correlate very little with success in the business world, but in fact many of the millionaires he interviewed said that their weak performance and sense of inferiority in school drove them to create their own success. Most said that their focus on social skills, creative activities, and a hard work ethic (which not all geniuses feel the need to develop in school) as opposed to homework and academics later gave them an edge in the business world.

“Millionaires also report,” Stanley writes, “that they were not A students in college. In fact, only about three in ten reported receiving a greater percentage of As than either Bs, Cs, Ds, or Fs. About 90 percent graduated from college. Overall, their GPA was 2.9–good but not outstanding.”

So sure, school is important. But it’s important for a variety of reasons, and the number one reason is definitely not that your top tier grades will guarantee you a top tier paycheck in the business world.

What education do you really need to thrive in the real world? What skills really need to be learned? Creativity. Thinking outside the box. Problem-solving. Developing vision and goals. Social skills. Personal motivation and work ethic. Networking. Leadership. Determination.

It is qualities like those that will write you a big paycheck. Not a high IQ.

My first job was at a restaurant. I was a brilliant student with big ideas and a lot of knowledge and strategy. And I worked with a single mom who spoke almost no English and had just moved up Columbia. I complained, worried, excused, and dreamed. She put an apron on and worked her ass off. I was frustrated with customers and co-workers. She made her customers and co-workers happy. I tried to get paid for being smart and educated. She got paid for real results.

Guess who got paid more.

Author: Peter Elbridge

I am a lifelong learner and avid reader, which translates into doing smart work for myself, my team, and my clients. I have a passion for effective leadership and an even bigger passion for helping others do and feel better. I have a lot of experience in communication, public speaking, and writing. Above all, I have a deep and genuine care for every life I touch. That's why I write. (My opinions and endorsements are my own and do not represent my employer.)

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