Smart or rich?

Being “smart” and being “rich” are of course not mutually exclusive – but they aren’t necessarily related either.

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

“If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?”

That’s what a high school friend used to say to me on a regular basis for a year or two after graduation when I came up with some idea that must have struck him as noteworthy – either because it was a good one or because it was so preposterous it still warranted some kind of response.

I’m still pretty far from rich, and I’m still known for responses or ideas no one else either considers or is willing to say out loud.

Being “smart” and being “rich” are of course not mutually exclusive – but they aren’t necessarily related either.

I’ve known many “smart” people who never achieved much financially – and plenty who did.

And I’ve known plenty of people with higher than usual levels of wealth or income (and there is a distinction) with higher – or even dramatically lower – levels of intelligence.

The difference, I am convinced, is that wealth, for the most part, can be measured or at least demonstrated.

We might attempt to measure intelligence, but most IQ tests measure knowledge rather than actual innate intelligence.

Anyone who reads widely will score high on almost any IQ test. Is that “intelligence” or is that merely exposure to the same sources as the test developers?

And anyone who gets a few lucky breaks – or is born into the right family (or even zip code: will end up vastly wealthier than those not so fortunate.

We can’t change our family of origin or defining zip code, but any one of us can expand our intelligence. True intelligence, after all, is not limited to encyclopedic knowledge of any given topic, but is more the ability, if not preference, to learn more than is already known.

No reservoir of knowledge is static.

I had a professor many years ago who had a Ph.D. in computer science – from 1958.

It would be difficult to imagine any body of knowledge less relevant to computers or business than whatever he may have “learned” about computers back then.

Even the definition of what a computer is has no correlation; back then a “computer” filled a large room and processed punch cards and made a huge amount of noise – and had no memory – or any of the features we take as a given on our smartphones or other hand-held devices.

That phone you use to watch cat videos has vastly more power and memory than the computers that guided the Apollo Guidance Computer (

Our “knowledge” of almost any topic pales almost as quickly.

Facts change, sometimes quickly, and often in ways that make those who use them seem dated, silly or even offensive.

The crucial difference is between knowledge that is fixed and knowledge, or perhaps better, the learning, that is dynamic and always changing if not expanding.

For whatever reason adults tend to prefer (or value) established and recognized (or even recognizable) bodies of knowledge.

Children, on the other hand, tend to value the experience of learning. And they aren’t afraid of failing (or even falling) on their way to finding and developing a new skill.

Children often find the disasters or mess-ups more interesting than the intended project – and as most entrepreneurs and innovators know, that is where the most intriguing discoveries are often made.

Children know intuitively the power of “yet” – they may not put it into words, but they tell themselves “I don’t know how to do this thing, and I don’t care how long it take or how many times I fail, I will master it.” From walking to riding a bike to cooking to coding, children will dedicate as long as it takes to master something. It’s all in the attitude.

Adults tend to give up or become unable to face failure even when it is an essential step to learning.

And the reality is that a fear of failure is really a fear of learning new things.

Consider any physical skill from skiing to bike riding to skating; will you fall or crash on your way to learning? Yes, I guarantee it. Will you hurt yourself? Probably. Will it be worth it? If you get back up and try it again, and again, yes, absolutely. Will you be embarrassed? Yes, just like everyone else.

How many of us are far less happy than we could be because we were afraid to sing, or dance, or go skiing because we were afraid of how “foolish” we would look?

Looking back on it, I don’t know if my friend who used to say “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” was serious or sarcastic.

In many ways I was, and perhaps continue to be, the first one to do, or attempt to do, all kinds of crazy things. I was usually the first one to fall or to try some exotic food at a street market or talk to someone no one else was willing to.

And yes, I got scars, got sick or got turned away many times.

But not every time.

Many times I talked my way into settings or situations that we never would have experienced if we had followed what everyone else did or was expected to do.

I’m still not “rich”, but I am still learning and my curiosity is far more valuable (and certainly more transferrable) than any amount of money.

Consider these observations from some people you may have heard of.

“I am not funny. My writers were funny. My direction was funny. The situations were funny. But I am not funny. I am not funny. What I am is brave.” – Lucille Ball

“Until you’re ready to look foolish, you’ll never have the possibility of being great.” – Cher

“The foolish and the dead alone never change their opinion.” – James Russell Lowell

“Nobody stands taller than those willing to stand corrected.” – William Safire

“No truly great person ever thought themselves so.” – William Hazlitt

My bias is simple, if you are not failing, you are obviously not trying hard enough.

Maybe you could look at wisdom and foolishness as aspects of a spectrum where little is fixed and the two seemingly opposite traits actually have a lot in common.

Learning and life experience allows us, or sometimes forces us, to move from one to the other.

Neither one is permanent. Foolishness might be embarrassing, but is rarely fatal, and just might lead to unexpected discoveries or encounters.

Wisdom may not always be recognized or rewarded, but is always worth pursuing.

You never know what you could learn from that next accidental, unexpected encounter.