How to be a mental overachiever, according to Charles Darwin

The British naturalist Charles Darwin created the most intense intellectual debate in human history with his book On the Origin of Species.

Darwin’s Origin was a courageous and detailed thought piece on the nature and development of biological species, and it became the starting point for nearly all of modern biology.

Darwin, however, was not a man of pure intellect. He was not Issac Newton, or Richard Feynman, or Albert Einstein — breezing through complex mathematical physics at a young age.

Charlie Munger, the billionaire business partner to Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway, thinks Darwin would have been in the middle of the class. He had notoriously bad health and really only worked a few hours a day in the many years leading up to the Origin of Species.

Yet Darwin’s “thinking work” outclassed almost everyone, even those who started with a higher IQ.


We can better appreciate our own strengths and weaknesses and gain insight into the working methods of a “mental overachiever” by exploring Darwin.

In his autobiography, Darwin appraises himself as honestly as possible (a lesson in and of itself) and offers a few lessons for us to follow.

1. Darwin did not think he had a quick intellect or an ability to follow long, complex, or mathematical reasoning

Darwin’s life also proves how little that trait matters if you’re aware of it and counter-weight it with other methods. Primarily, that meant developing extreme objectivity, extreme diligence, and taking time to think through his ideas.

He was very intellectually humble and open to being wrong.

2. Darwin did not feel easily able to write clearly and concisely, but he compensated for it

Darwin compensated by getting ideas down quickly (building rough first drafts of his ideas, to be revised) and then coming back to them later, thinking them through again and again. He was slow, methodical, and ridiculously effective.

For those who haven’t read it, the Origin of Species is extremely readable and clear, even now, 150 years later.

3. Darwin forced himself to be an incredibly effective and organized collector of information

Darwin’s system of reading and indexing facts in large portfolios is worth emulating, as is the habit of taking down conflicting ideas immediately. In the modern day, there are infinite ways to collect and organize information (I use evernote).

Choose one that works for you and stick with it. Don’t let the “stream” of the world’s knowledge pass you by without sticking out your cup.

4. Darwin had possibly the most valuable trait in any sort of thinker: a passionate interest in understanding reality and putting it in useful order.

This “Reality Orientation” is hard to measure and certainly does not show up on IQ tests, but probably determines, to some extent, success in life.

5. Ultimately, Darwin took a good honest look at himself and built routines and systems to compensate for his weaknesses

Most inspirational to us of average intellect, Darwin outperformed his own mental aptitude with these good habits, surprising even himself with the results. As you can see above, a major lesson for all of us.

To learn more about Darwin, read his autobiography, his The Origin of Species, or check out David Quammen’s wonderful short biography of the most important period of Darwin’s life. Also, check out the Farnam Street post on Darwin’s Golden Rule.

This article originally appeared on Medium.