Too Smart To Succeed, Too Good To Win -- The Plight Of Black Professionals And Students

What if your best was too good and set you up for failure?
African American Male Student - Young African Man Studying In University
African American Male Student - Young African Man Studying In University

Co-authored by J. Luke Wood, Associate Professor, San Diego State University, Frank Harris III, Professor, San Diego State University, and Joshua Wood, Executive Director, Region Business

What if your best was too good, and set you up for failure? Consider this, African Americans have routinely heard common phrases, such as “You have to be twice as good as other people,” “They can be good, but you must be great,” and “Whatever they do, you must do it better.” From youth, Black families and communities tell their children that they must perform at a higher standard than other people, particularly at a standard higher than their White peers, or else they will not be taken seriously, respected, and rewarded for their accomplishments. For instance, it is widely assumed that Black professionals in all sectors will not be hired, retained and promoted in their fields unless they have performed at a significantly higher level than that of their peers. This notion is undergirded by common perceptions that the work put forth by people of color is of lower quality and that they themselves are intellectually inferior.

One of the few ways to counter these stereotypes is to be “exemplary.” As a result, many of us African Americans are tirelessly dedicated to excellence, even to the point of immense self-sacrifice. But while messages about excellence are common in our community, the challenges one faces when their excellence is seen are discussed less. You see, when one is disregarded because they are thought to be intellectually inferior, and their efforts eviscerate these negative expectations, people can become engrossed in fear, fear that their understanding of the world and their place and position within it is not as secure as it once was.

Simply stated, excellence disrupts erroneous assumptions of supremacy. But what happens when this occurs? What happens when you become too smart to succeed and too good to win? You become a target, the center of attention in a bitter (and sometimes unconscious) effort to derail your success or question the standards by which your success is measured, or you become the focus of incessant inquiries surmising that your achievements were ill-gotten.

Many have seen evidence of the consequences associated with being too smart and too good. Examples abound:

  • Instance: A student is asked to retake an exam because he performed better than expected. Assumption: He must have cheated.
  • Instance: A politician is unjustly slandered by her peers to reduce her rise in power and influence. Assumption: She must have cut corners or she didn’t put in her time.
  • Instance: A working professional’s promotion is reconsidered until after there is another review of her work. Assumption: She must have deficiencies we are overlooking.

While these represent instances we have witnessed that are specific to African Americans, this phenomena is by no means restricted to our community. In fact, recent headlines have featured the story of a Latina college student who used the word “hence” in a paper and was accused of plagiarism. The assumption was that what was written was too good to be hers. The comments in the posts and re-posts of this story are full of examples of how students of color have been adversely affected because of their excellence in similar ways.


The result of being too smart and too good is that others root to see this person fail, question their accomplishments, and disparage their character.


As a community, we have to tell our children the full story, that our excellence will not be as valued or welcomed, that “you can be too good.” The result of being too smart and too good is that others root to see this person fail, question their accomplishments, and disparage their character. A friend once told us that, “People want to see you do good, just not better than them.” This is certainly an accurate statement, but carries even heavier weight when the one who is “better than” is a person of color.

Anecdotally, we believe that the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has served to spur more clear examples of reactive dominance. Reactive dominance occurs when those who are in positions of power see their power being usurped and respond through more aggressive actions to control those who they see as subservient. In a post-Trayvon Martin era, being too smart and too good may carry even greater consequences than in the preceding decade. The fear more pronounced, the reaction more intensified, the repercussions more severe.

By no means, should we avoid telling one another to perform at the highest level. Inevitably, we must do so in order to compete in a system that privileges others. However, being prepared for the backlash associated with greatness is critical to the success of our community. Let us better prepare one another for the tough roads ahead.