3 min read

Would You Rather Be Smart, Attractive, or Have Wealthy Parents?

Imagine for a moment you can pick just one of the three. Which is most likely to bring you what you desire?
Unclothed attractive woman in a seated position looking straight ahead
And no, you can’t have all three / Photo by Moncell Allen on Unsplash

Greetings friends!

One of these three factors will have a determinative impact on how your life turns out. Join me on a thought experiment and explore the implications of your choice.

For our exercise, assume you aren’t just a bit above average. You’ll be two or three standard deviations above the norm. This puts you somewhere between the top 5% and the top 0.3% of the total population. For our purposes, that translates into the following options:

  • Having an IQ of 130 or higher (the top 0.3% start at 145)
  • Being considered a 10 out of 10 in subjectively ranked beauty
  • One parent’s having wealth of at least $1 million

Think about these options for a moment and make your choice. Do you think other people will choose the same as you? Will men choose the same as women? Old versus young?

What we’re given, and what we can influence

Researchers disagree about what percentage of intelligence is inherited, but it seems to be at least a majority and maybe as much as 80%. One’s environment can dramatically lessen the development of intelligence. It’s not obvious that external factors can substantially increase one’s general intelligence.

Beauty is also something that one is largely born with. Note that we’re not talking about the inherent beauty that every person has or the inner beauty that some develop wholly unconnected from their external appearance. For these purposes, we’re talking about surface-level, skin-deep beauty — what a person sees who doesn’t know you.

We can make ourselves less physically attractive by getting out of shape (just as we can elevate our odds by being super fit). We can also look ugly to others by behaving in an ugly fashion. Think of the court case between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp.

While family wealth at birth is predictive of wealth later in life, there is considerable mobility among wealth quintiles. That is, a person can be born average or poor and make their way to significant wealth, and many people do. The fact that others are already wealthy says little about whether you can become wealthy.

They each carry advantages and disadvantages

General intelligence is strongly correlated with academic achievement, job attainment and performance, and income. Whether you’ll become well-educated, get a high-status job and perform well in it, and earn a lot is heavily driven by intelligence. Higher intelligence is linked with better health and mortality outcomes.

Similarly, things like proneness to accidents, crime, and welfare dependency are all negatively correlated with measures of general intelligence independent of social class.

Chalkboard festooned with equations and graphs - suggesting intelligence
Photo by Dan Cristian Pădureț on Unsplash

We all know smart failures, though. Being intelligent doesn’t make you nice, doesn’t give you grit, and doesn’t guarantee success.

Beauty is tarnished by being considered superficial. And not just in the fact that it relates to one’s appearance. A person too captivated by their own beauty is considered narcissistic, and people who emphasize a person’s looks are considered shallow.

Beauty fades and what then? Does a person whose identity has been founded upon being uncommonly attractive take a hit when the inevitable signs of aging appear?

Wealth is that most dangerous of medicines. Despite people hearing that money cannot buy happiness, and brings many troubles with it, almost everyone when given the chance says, “Thanks, but I’d rather find out for myself.”

So which is it: smarts, looks, or money?

I suspect many people will be tempted to pick money. After all, being wealthy solves so many of life’s problems. You can be ugly and dumb and still make your way quite well in the world with money.

A small number of people have ridden extraordinary beauty to seemingly wonderful lives. And because our scenario contemplates exceptional looks, maybe some will be tempted to choose beauty. After all, it is a fine thing to be widely admired, isn’t it?

Before writing this piece, my answer would have been intelligence. With intelligence, one can see past superficialities and so realize that looks are unimportant as well as ephemeral. Those with high IQs have greater odds of attaining wealth by virtue of their education and jobs. And they are likely to be healthier and live longer.

Even before reading the comments, though, I can see good arguments for any one of the three.

What’s your pick? I can’t wait to hear what you think.

Be well.

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