Last year, about 1.3 million high school students took the ACT, a standardized test used for college admissions. The exam, which evaluates English, math, reading, and science, is graded on a scale of 1–36, with the average score being a 20. In 2021, there were just 4,055 students who scored a perfect 36, and I’ve had the honor of mentoring one of them for the past few years: a young man named Nicky.
Nicky’s dream is to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is one of the hardest schools in the country to get into. A full quarter of their students have perfect 36 scores, so Nicky’s got his work cut out for him even with his stellar 4.3 GPA. But here’s the thing about Nicky—he’s not just smart. There are 4,054 other smart kids who got a perfect 36 score. There are tens of thousands of smart kids who got a 33, 34 or 35. What makes Nicky special is that he’s also bright. There is a difference between being smart and being bright. A big difference.
When he was thirteen, Nicky was building computers and 3D printers. He’s also an expert chef, having studied why slow cooking gives food its unique texture, why certain brioche buns taste so good, and how to make the perfect poached egg. Nicky doesn’t just want to study something; he wants to understand it. There is a difference. A big difference.
Nicky is going to have a killer career one day, but it won’t be because of his test scores or where he went to college. It will be because he understands people just as well as he understands math equations. Nicky is curious, and he never stops asking questions about the lives of others. He’s not just one of the most intelligent young men I know, but one of the most emotionally intelligent. There is a difference. A big difference.
Now, I’ll come out and say right now that I’m not as smart as Nicky. When I took the SAT back in high school, I got a 640 out of 1,600. That’s basically the score you get for spelling your name right on the first page. I had undiagnosed dyslexia, so looking at words and numbers felt like I was tying my brain in knots. Throughout high school and college, as I racked up Ds and Fs and had to repeat classes, I thought I would never get a decent job. I did manage to graduate with a 4.0 GPA—but only if you add together my 2.0 from high school and my 2.0 from college. But throughout it all, my dad kept telling me, “Tommy, you have a gifted heart, and all those people making As and Bs will be working for you one day. You know why? Because after your first job, no one cares what your GPA is or where you went to college. No one.”
My dad was right. That same dyslexic kid with a 2.0 GPA traveled to 84 countries and lived in Asia, Europe, and Australia. Today I teach leadership to Fortune 500 CEOs who are ten times smarter than me. None of them care that I graduated towards the bottom of my class at the only college that would take me, East Carolina University. All they care about is my heart and my passion to develop leaders. My mentor Jerry Middel is an extremely successful businessperson and he’s the last word on just about every major financial decision I make, even though he failed out of college his first year with a 1.2 GPA. Yet I trust Jerry more than anyone in the world.
When I hire new employees, I don’t care what their GPA was or where they went to school. I don’t care about what title they held at their previous job. I’ve worked with Ivy League graduates, community college graduates, and folks who’ve never graduated from anything in their lives. The only credentials that matter to me are that you can look me in the eye and tell me with absolute certainty that you want to positively make an impact in the world and change the lives of others. That’s why I don’t hire smart people. I hire bright people. There is a difference. A big difference.
As for Nicky, well, there isn’t much I can teach him that he doesn’t already know. At this point, I learn more from him than he learns from me. The only thing I can tell him is this: He’ll go on to a great school like MIT. He’ll excel and graduate at the top of his class. But in the long run, none of that is going to matter. Nicky is going to succeed not because of his math skills, but because of his people skills. He’ll succeed because he has something that very few of those other 4,054 smart kids who got 36s on their ACTs have: brightness. And that’s found in the heart, not the brain.