Because the Indian woman who IQ tested me at age 12 looked like a fortune teller, and had a grab bag full of mysterious jig-saw puzzles, blocks, and cards full of cartoon black people, I always loved the idea of IQ predicting destiny. I loved how years after John Gotti left high school and became a mob boss, a biographer found that he scored 110 on a high school IQ test. As Daniel Seligman noted, smart enough to get vey rich, but only in the crime world where he would end up in jail.

Oprah fascinates me because she was a case where brain size was destiny. Despite having everything against her (poor, illegitimate, abused, dark skinned black, fat, lower class, not considered beautiful) the smarts inside her freakishly huge hat size helped make her one of the richest and most powerful people alive just like the human species, despite having everything against us (weak, small, slow. no fur or fangs) used our freakishly large brains to become the World’s richest and most powerful species, causing some to define intelligence as the adaptability to turn situations to your advantage.

Bill Gates fascinates me because only one in a million Americans could have achieved his self-reported SAT score (equivalent to IQ 170) and he went on to become the World’s first centibillionaire decades before Jeff Bezos became the second one.

A self-fulfilling prophecy?

But my fascination with Gates is tempered by the fact that he achieved his high score on a college admission test instead of a nominal IQ test. Why? Because nominal IQ tests secretly predict your future and then get buried in your school files and only decades later do we see if you lived up (or down) to your score.

By contrast college admission tests are arguably a self-fulfilling prophecy because they allow you to enter the best schools and network with the smartest and richest kids which paves the way to success. If Gates hadn’t scored near perfect on the SAT, he never would have gone to Harvard and met Steve Balmer. Maybe he still would have founded Microsoft without him since he knew Paul Allen from Lakeside high school, but if he hadn’t scored high on Lakeside’s admission test, he never would have met Allen and more importantly, never would have cut his teeth on the school’s computer (which were super rare in those days).

So the question is, did Gates’s intelligence cause his success, or did his intelligence test scores cause it? If we could go back in time and prevent Binet from inventing the first IQ test (which led to the Army IQ tests which led to the SAT and Lakeside’s standardized tests) would Gates still have become the first centibillionaire?

IQ researcher Robert Sternberg has long argued that the predictive validity of IQ tests is illusory because standardized tests serve as gatekeepers to the very success they predict. Now I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. We want to live in a meritocracy, but how do we know if IQ tests measure real world adaptability if we keep rigging the game in favour of high test scoring people?

Dale & Krueger

On the other hand, a famous study by Dale and Krueger found it’s the other way around. Standardized tests don’t get their predictive power because elite schools use them as gate keepers, but rather elite schools get their predictive power by recruiting smart hardworking people who would have been just as successful without said schools (with the exception of minorities and lower class people who really do get a boost from elite schools).

It would be interesting to correlate life time earnings with both one’s SAT and PSAT scores. If after correcting for reliability (the PSAT is shorter), both tests predicted money just as well despite the latter not being used in college admission, it might prove that smart people get ahead because they do better in life (and not because they do better on tests).

Getting rich off failing the LSAT

For every high SAT person who becomes super rich because of the opportunities conferred by good schools, there might be another who is financially stunted by their high college admission scores (think of all the brilliant minds doing academic research for 6 figures when they could have made billions on Wall street).

Or take the case of Sarah Blakely. After failing the LSAT twice, she used her intelligence to get ahead naturally. Her bright idea was inventing a type of pantyhose you could wear with sandals and underwear. She went to a patent attorney but he laughed in her face.

Desperate and disillusioned, she asked the universe for a sign (something Oprah tells viewers to do). Then one day she turned on Oprah and discovered Oprah had independently had the same pantyhose idea. Emboldened by this “sign” she started her business and when Oprah heard, she promoted the product on her show, causing Blakely to become a billionaire. So in Blakely’s case, the gatekeeper to success was not the LSAT, but Oprah’s genuine enthusiasm for the value of her product. Whatever her IQ, Blakely had got ahead naturally, and not because someone had socially engineered smart people to get ahead by demanding test scores but because she had a bright idea in real life.

Echoing Oprah’s metaphysical belief that failure is the universe’s way of telling you you’re moving in the wrong direction, Blakely stated:

I failed the LSAT. Basically, if I had not failed, I’d have been a lawyer and there would be no Spanx. I think failure is nothing more than life’s way of nudging you that you are off course. My attitude to failure is not attached to outcome, but in not trying. It is liberating.

Years later Blakely would meet the woman who helped put her on track to be a billionaire.