If I’m So Smart, Why Aren’t I Successful?

photo by Kevin T. Houle, creative commons, Flickr
photo by Kevin T. Houle, creative commons, Flickr

Smart people are rich and famous. They win Nobel Prizes and Genius Grants. They’re high achievers and arrogant. They don’t waste time on the little people. Right?


Well, OK. I guess that some smart people are all of the above. Or parts of the above. Maybe your Uncle Charlie. But how many are, say, none of the above? And if you are one of the none of the above, do you believe that you just aren’t all that smart? Do you think that you’ve fooled everyone only because you happen to be witty every once in a while, and people are so darned gullible? Do you believe that you’re really an impostor? In fact, most days you’re a total failure for now and all eternity?

But: What is success, anyway? What makes a successful life? Is it some grand achievement? What is achievement? Some people refer to “greatness.” What exactly is that anyway?

Oh boy. I think I’m getting in way over my head with all of these questions. This is a blog. A little itty bitty blog. Not a dissertation.

Speaking of dissertation, I never did get that PhD. Did I mention that I took Argentine tango lessons instead? Does that mean that I’m a total failure for now and all eternity?

(Note: Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m not really using myself as an example. After all, I’m barely g-g-gifted. But it’s just so convenient. So hang in there with me.)

(Another note: Yes, I do realize the irony in the fact that I’m writing about giftedness and impostor issues and I’m telling you that I’m not really really gifted when it comes right down to it. My qualifications come from years of teaching gifted kids in schools and now counseling gifted adults. I’m really good at it. But I can’t explain why. And stop looking at me like that.)

Back to the tango.

photo by Elvin, creative commons, Flickr
photo by Elvin, creative commons, Flickr

What if success and achievement have to do with something other than college degrees and how many rockets you’ve fired into space? I mean those things are nice but what if your compassion is an achievement? What if finding your authentic voice or stopping the cycle of abuse in your family qualifies as success? What if parenting sweet, loving, empathetic humans counts as greatness?

Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t win a Nobel Prize or shoot rockets into space. That’s OK, too. What I’m saying is that I want you to use that rainforest mind of yours in a way that has meaning for you and for others, maybe even for the planet.

And I want you to rethink what success really is. Maybe you already have it. And consider that if you feel like an impostor it’s not because you are one. It’s because you aren’t one.


To my blogEEs: How do you define success? What are your experiences with impostor syndrome? Share your thoughts, feelings, questions and insights. Please. Your comments are meaningful to everyone who reads this blog.

Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in international consulting with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. I’ve been a teacher and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal and online for psychotherapy dot net, Rebelle Society, Thrive, Introvert Dear, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is a collection of case studies of gifted clients along with many strategies and resources for gifted adults and teens. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of my most popular blog posts along with writing exercises for self-exploration and insight.

40 responses to “If I’m So Smart, Why Aren’t I Successful?”

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  1. If I'm So Smart, Why Am I So Dumb? Part Two – YOUR RAINFOREST MIND

    […] You’re afraid of success so you hide your abilities. Gifted people love to succeed and always […]

  2. EwaB Avatar

    reading old blogs again and this one is current for me at the moment.
    To most people I am now a succes. I am a medical dr, making good money with working at most 3 to 4 days a week ( as in I pay more tax a year than most people earn). But I am not happy.
    I am planning to start a different business but that also is a big thing with staff and lots of red tape to get thru first.
    Only somewhere I would love to just have a small house somewhere close to nature, have a dog and some cats, and just be creative instead of a big succes with lots of money and responsablity.
    But it is very very hard to break away from this cultural idea of money+ being busy+ having power over others= succes.
    family isnt helping, they are as addicted to the idea of succes as sociaty is

    ( sorry english isnt my first language)

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      This is a great example, EwaB. The question of success is not simple. I appreciate hearing from you. Thank you.

  3.  Avatar

    Thank you very much for this post. It appealed to me because I think there’s truth in it. In fact, the post spoke to me so much in a time of emotional need that I read through each and every one of the comments—something that I never do. I have a deep hunger for truth and genuine discourse, so I’m leaving a comment—another thing that I never do.

    I never struggled with academics but have great success working with students struggling with any area of academic work, whether it’s preparing for medical school, college, or any subject (e.g., math/english/science) as young as 4th grade. My point is that I think you could be exceptionally talented at working with gifted individuals without exhibiting the same qualities that make them who they are.

    I also appreciated your thoughtful responses to each and every one of the comments above.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you for taking the time to read and write, Anonymous! As you can see, the comments add so much to my blog. There’s a community of wonderful folks here. And the comments give me ideas for future posts, too. Glad to have you here.

  4. To Achieve Or Not To Achieve — That Is The Question | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] What does it mean to achieve or to be successful? […]

  5. honey34567 Avatar

    Even as I try to redefine success away from work title or productivity I feel I should be Mother Teresa instead. If I’m so compassionate shouldn’t I be selfless? Or is that codependency talking and a sense I have to earn the right to live? What happens when you actually invest time and energy into recognizing unhealthy dynamics in your relationships but still can’t heal them on your own – and they aren’t toxic so it would be inappropriate to just cut friends & family from your life? Ok, authentic voice, I’d give a kidney to know what mine is, to know who I am and what makes me come alive, to say something or express something meaningful instead of just calculated rambling words, repressed pain and soulless art. If I suspect even success won’t alleviate existential meaninglessness, why do I keep searching for it? I must sound like such a pessimist (which is funny because I’m everyone else’s cheerleader) but they’re serious questions.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes, serious important questions. Keep searching for your authentic voice. It may be closer than you think.

  6. Pressure, Paralysis And Your Great Potential | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] for yourself how to define achievement. Write your own treatise on what makes a human successful. Record in your journal your memories of what was said about your potential and feel your feelings […]

  7. If I’m So Smart, Why Am I So Dumb? Part Two | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] You’re afraid of success so you hide your abilities. Gifted people love to succeed and always […]

  8. Joey Avatar

    Paula – I’ve struggled with the areas you bring up for so long – It’s like you get all this affirmation from people just from your ideas and projects and so actually following through becomes almost pointless because you’ve already gotten the approval from everyone, but not the golden ring! I’ve studied success psychology and NLP and given many seminars on it and even though its a trap, you can’t help comparing yourself to massive material success. So how can i be out there evangelizing this stuff if its not showing up in my life in spades? Let’s face it – you can be a sage and spiritual as your heart’s content but it takes more and more money to live today – and even more tomorrow. why weren’t all of us shown the fundamentals of financial leverage and passive income from day one? i learned rocket science level calculus! its worthless. My point is mostly that while I can figure out almost anything quickly, staying on that one thing becomes really tedious and boring. I’d like to experience massive and lasting financial success to bring the freedom that comes from that and also to liberate me to develop multiple projects, like an idea lab that would develop tons of cool new things at the same time. that would inspire me!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I’m so sorry to hear about your struggle, Joey. I think it’s hard to figure out that balance between earning money and doing work that you find stimulating and rewarding, particularly if you figure things out quickly and get bored easily. Maybe Barbara Sher’s books would help, particularly Refuse to Choose. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Kristi Avatar

    This is so good . . . what you write really resonates with me. I do hope my “success” will be establishing a different/better family dynamic than what I received.

    I felt so much pressure — still do — to do something amazing b/c I was “so smart.” I know now that a lot of that pressure was from my parents’ narcissistic desire for success through me. It is hard, though, to let go of the nagging guilt that I’m not doing enough, or what I’m doing isn’t important enough. (I’m raising and homeschooling two beautiful and delightful and challenging children, which I know is the most important thing to do . . . I just think I should *also* be able to blog/write/change the world.)

    (If you know anyone like you in the Dallas area, please let me know.)

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I know a gifted mom in the San Antonio area who might know people in the Dallas area. I don’t know how close you are to San Antonio. You can find her at http://www.redwhiteandgrew.com. Her name is Pamela Price. She has a great blog and I’m sure she’d be happy to share with you what she knows.

      1. Kristi Avatar

        Thanks, Paula. I’m enjoying her blog and will contact her.

  10. CA Avatar

    Hello Paula been way busy lately but I wanted to thank you for another awesome post. I struggle so much with the usual meaning of success because as I see it I was not as successful as I wanted to be eventhough a was a near genius. But I found out why. And it was dark and bewildering. My family and people I knew stole and projected and lied to me and kept as a servant for decades so I did t even know there was a new life! And I am beginning to see that new life now. So this sentence…
    What if finding your authentic voice or stopping the cycle of abuse in your family qualifies as success? Has helped save my life…I did do that I am doing that and I will keep doing that! And the usual kind of success is happening too! Because I am beginning to use my good for me! Who knew 🙂

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Well said, CA. Well said. I’m glad you took time out to write. Always good to hear from you.

  11. holbart Avatar

    “A Rose is a Rose,” by Susan Ashton, is a song that helped me to acknowledge the fact that having a rainforest mind means: “To deal with the scoffers; Well, it’s part of the bargain.” I was always afraid of casting an offensive shadow on another. How can you be what you are when being what you are always seems to “hurt” people? I don’t want to overshadow others. In a moment of tearful inspiration from the song, I drew a picture of a rose with pastels that filled the whole page of a half sheet of paper. My first response, honestly, was shock that I had drawn something so compelling and beautiful. My second reaction was that I felt shame for drawing such a narcissistic flower; I hadn’t left room for any other flowers. I don’t want to be narcissistic, but I do want to be free to fill my space. I do want to leave room for others, but I don’t want to leave a lot of room for the scoffers. Life is too short. I still feel so much ambivalence around filling my space and “being big.”

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh what a moving song. Music really does touch our souls, doesn’t it? Thank you, holbart. There is so much that you’re saying here. I’d love to write about it in a post. OK? What you’re saying is another misunderstood burden for the rainforest mind: “I was always afraid of casting an offensive shadow on another. How can you be what you are when being what you are always seems to “hurt” people? I don’t want to overshadow others.” I’d say, Fill your space. Others will only benefit from your beautiful rose-ness. (Will write more about this soon.)

      1. holbart Avatar

        Sure. I would love to hear your thoughts. 🙂

  12. KCB Avatar

    I am a gifted adult now trying to make educational and life decisions for my “slightly” gifted children. I know my husband’s IQ is lower than mine but he is undeniably more successful professionally. He is unburdened by the web of details that jam my mind and is better at making decisions. He is also more at ease socially .

    With facebook, I can see what all my childhood gifted friends are up to (we were in a pull out program 1 full day a week). They are not a particularly successful group – high rate of failed marriages, career instability and generally get the sense many of them are in stress.

    So I am navigating decisions for my children with a sense of balance that was missing in my childhood. Appropriate level of challenge so that they love the process of learning, balanced with time to pursue and explore hobbies.

    Our sense of self can not be limited to one (largely) genetic characteristic. Our brains are just different, not necessarily better. What good is it if you aren’t able to use it appropriately?

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I think this is a key piece of the puzzle: “He is unburdened by the web of details that jam my mind and is better at making decisions. He is also more at ease socially.” These are some of the challenges that face people with rainforest minds that often go unacknowledged. Thanks for your comment, KCB.

  13. Antarmukhi Avatar

    This is a wonderful post! Thanks Paula, a hug from India. This resonates with me, within every fibre of my being.
    I changed careers after my bachelors. The education system here made it an extremely tedious task. I was the oldest in the class with lesser knowledge of psychology. But I was determined so despite that, despite parental protests.. I pursued my masters.. I have continued education & this weekend I am presenting a paper on EMDR at the EMDR conference in india. Can’t help but look back at the tumultuous journey, feeling like an imposter every bit of the way..
    Though intellectually I know it’s a success, I would say to a client of mine. It’s tough to own it up..
    Thank you for this! It will booster my confidence this weekend 🙂

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I just got training in EMDR last year. It’s quite fascinating and useful. I’m glad I can help with your confidence. I’m delighted to receive a hug from India and you!

  14. Mark V Avatar
    Mark V

    Success: a four letter word?

    A therapist once told me she thought I was afraid of success. Years later I still don’t have a clue what she meant. Was it her assumption that since I had potential to be successful, that I should naturally desire — and achieve — success? Was she aware that to some of us, becoming successful often means doing soul-crushing things to achieve it or to hang on to it?

    When a man is successful, other men want to shake your hand and buy you drinks, women want to date you and the media wants to talk to you. If you fall down and struggle to get back in the race, they disappear pretty quickly. You’re like the dairy cow in the barn that stopped producing milk today: tomorrow’s hamburger.

    I know that sounds dark, but that’s the way I see it. I do get it. People struggle. So they’re attracted to whatever or whoever will make that struggle a little bit easier and avoid anything or anyone that might make it harder. But is that an excuse for treating others like a meal ticket? Like a commodity to be used or discarded depending on how useful or flattering to their egos they are at the time? Am I a judgmental jerk for thinking that?

    Success: I’m not sure I fear it, but I definitely know I am wary of it.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Sounds like you’ve had some experience with this, Mark. And perhaps, it will help to find a new definition of success because I would not feel successful if my work was soul-crushing. But I hear what you’re saying. In our society there are certain traditional standards that tell us what a successful life is. And then there’s all the pressure to keep it up once you’ve “made it.” Makes sense that you’re wary. Maybe some other commenters will chime in. You make some interesting points. Thanks, as always, for your thoughts.

      1. Mark V Avatar
        Mark V

        Thank you Paula! Yes I do have some experience with success (a bit of my own, and more through friends), and it can mess with the mind. Especially because of our cultural obsession with success. Even religion seems to have been delegated to a supporting role in the drive toward success: “I want to thank God for picking me to win instead of my opponent”. 😉

        You’re right, we need a new definition of success. When I was a teen my father often said “If you want to be successful, you have to pick one thing and be great at it”. He meant well but it was kind of heartbreaking, secretly knowing I probably would never be able to dedicate my life to doing only one thing. As I wrote before, some of us are so busy learning and trying new things that we don’t have time to become successful with any of the varied skills or knowledge we have compiled.

        I feel like a Swiss Army Knife: I have lots of different generic tools but none that are especially good at any particular task. It makes me wonder: what AM I good for?

        For example, on a whim I recently bought a typography book for cheap at a used bookstore. Turns out it was a fortuitous purchase which may prove invaluable for future projects that require type layout. And yet as I dived into this interesting new world, I quickly realized that there was a lot more to type design and layout than I ever imagined.

        People spend entire careers perfecting this craft and yet once again here comes Donny Dilettante, skimming the surface of an area of knowledge with the intention of using it in a way that may seem very amateurish. Which isn’t so bad — we all have hobbies and passions that we nevertheless do badly. But it’s hard to glean self-esteem from doing things when you never get good enough at any one of them to prove without a doubt that you are using your gifts wisely.

        Just thought I would share some of my thoughts on success that others may relate to. Thanks again. -Mark

        1. Paula Prober Avatar
          Paula Prober

          Mark. I’m not sure how long you’ve been reading my blog but if you haven’t read the posts on multipotentiality, do a search for those and check them out. Then look over some of the resources I suggest. What you describe here is common among the rainforest minds. And the thing is, you may think that you don’t do any of those passions well because you’re interested in so many, when, in fact, if you really had an objective assessment, you might conclude that the quality of your work is still better than average if not excellent. Seriously, gifted folks often do many things very well but they set the bar very high so don’t feel as if they do. One book: Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher. See what you think.

        2. Sharlette Avatar

          Hahahaha…..I had to laugh, not because it is funny, but because I am looking in a mirror.

          “Jack of all trades. master of none” was the term my father used. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, and I took it as he meant it. I used to think ‘if only I could be really good (read “the BEST”) at just ONE thing’, but like you Mark, it was never going to happen. I like to learn something, get it to the point that Paula mentioned (above average or very good) and then I’m on to something else. Once I learn how to do something I file it away for future reference, but I will get bored if I am required to do that same thing over and over….I NEED to move on to something new.

          Looking back, as a single mother of four, with very little income, being a “jack of all trades” has served me very well, and saved me a lot of money!

          I loved the typography reference…..I decided a couple of weeks ago that I would design my own font….started digging around on the internet for instructions and programs to do it, and oh my, it is such a complex process that I have shelved it for now….but will likely come back to it when I have more time to allocate.

          1. Paula Prober Avatar
            Paula Prober

            Sounds like you and Mark have a few things in common, Sharlette. Thanks for writing. Like I told Mark, if you haven’t read about multipotentiality, be sure to take a look.

  15. mamanya Avatar

    Reblogged this on Must Read Articles.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober


  16. Paula Prober Avatar
    Paula Prober

    Oh my gosh, that certainly needs to go on the list: stepping into your fears– equals a great achievement/success. Most certainly. Thank you for telling us about your courage and your successes, Ro. So good to have you here.

  17. Ro Avatar

    Paula, your parenthetical remarks made me chuckle 🙂 “What if finding your authentic voice or stopping the cycle of abuse in your family qualifies as success?”. These were the two things that immediately popped into my head as part of my new definition of personal success (I didn’t even have the guts to build a definition, before. I thought my life was on the trash heap – over & done with). I’ve felt like an impostor since about age 13. Complicated reasons. The past 9 months, I have been studying a course about Māori history and culture. The tears I have cried… the self flagellation. Then, I received the letter inviting me to sign up for the next year-long course of study. The letter and application form was almost put out to recycling, because “I’m not capable”. Well, turned out I was capable of the 1st year. I still don’t believe I’m capable of the 2nd year… but the application form has been filled and will be posted, anon. This is a new success for me; stepping into my fears. Four months ago I made some drastic changes in my life. They basically boil down to me deciding I am a human being worthy of respect (fancy that). Now, I care for myself first. I love myself first. I am sensitive to my own needs first. This truly does make it easier for me to love and care for ‘my people’. A huge success! I did feel like an impostor for a long time, but I think the person I projected was an impostor. I’d been trained that my true self was not acceptable to be out in society. It was never true.

  18. poprice Avatar

    Reblogged this on Red, White & Grew™ with Pamela Price and commented:
    This post by my friend Paula is fantastic and dovetails with my own recent post about redefining metrics for “success” beyond the narrow definition of academic achievement.

    The last couple of paragraphs here are golden. Truly.

    Thanks, Paula.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      And here is one of Pamela’s posts that talks about those metrics: http://redwhiteandgrew.com/2015/02/16/ghfbloghopfebruary2015/ As always, thank you, Pamela, for your generosity.

  19. mylittlepoppiescaitie Avatar

    Barely g-g-g-ifted my tush! 🙂 What Nicole said. Also, tango sounds FAR more fun than a PhD program 🙂

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yep. Tango. Better than a PhD!

  20. throughastrongerlens Avatar

    Paula, I love this post so very much. I have been thinking about this subject quite a bit lately, while I determine what my “greatness” is. I felt like I was failing for a long time, and not “living up to my potential”, the importance of which was drilled into my head from a young age. I am beginning to accept that perhaps sharing my empathy and intuition generously will have more impact on making the world a better place than a six-figure “successful” income. Thanks for your wonderful words. P.S. I find it highly unlikely that you are “barely g-g-gifted”. 😉

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      That pressure to live up to “potential” can be stifling for so many people with rainforest minds. Most certainly, empathy and intuition will trump a six-figure salary every time! Thanks for taking the time to comment.