How to be smarter

I was named “brainiest” in high school. I don’t know whether it was because I had great grades or awesome 1970s mutton chops. Today, I find that intelligence isn’t as easy to define. There are people who are very smart about the technical details of their jobs but very stupid about personal matters. (The former director of the CIA comes to mind.) And there are people who seem to be short on formal education but make very smart decisions about how to run their lives. What does it really mean to be smart and how can you be smarter?

Smart People Are Fascinated by Many Things

When you’re fascinated by a subject, you desire to learn everything about it. My son is interested in hip-hop music. He can tell you everything about his favorite artists: Where they grew up, what influences their music, and what their songs mean. My daughter is a Doctor Who fan. She can tell you the differences between the different Doctors and how the Tardis changed over the years. Learning helps you enjoy your interests more, and it doesn’t feel like learning because you’re having fun doing it.

Smart people — and well-rounded people — have many interests and similar desires to learn about them. How can you find these interests? You can start with what interests you the most and find subjects related to it. If you like today’s hip-hop music, you can learn about its roots from rap, disco, and traditional African music. You can learn about the historic events that inspired and influenced the music. Soon, you’ll find that you’ve become knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects. Your interests make you smarter.

Smart People Ask Questions

How do you learn more about a subject? Do what Socrates did, ask questions.

A couple years ago, I took an assignment at work to maintain a set of files that generate user guides and help from documents writers created in XML. To maintain these files, I had to learn about DITA, XSLT, FOP, and other acronyms that most normal people don’t have to deal with. I took a few classes and read some books, but 80% of what I learned came from asking questions. I talked with others who use those technologies, posted questions on online forums, and looked at snippets of code. As I learned more, I was able to form better questions, which helped me get better answers.

Not only did I learn from the questions I asked, but I learned from the questions asked by others — including questions people asked me. The questions I was asked were especially helpful, because they required me to learn more in order to answer them.

Francis Bacon said, “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” Our questions not only guide us to the answers we seek, they spark even more insightful questions. Questions make you smarter.

Smart People Let Go of Preconceived Notions

As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Just look at the latest US election. Candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock made horribly ignorant comments that cost them the election. Those comments came from their prejudices and doctrinaire views.

If holding on to preconceived notions makes you dumber, letting them go makes you smarter. Consider that the greatest scientific achievements have come when people let go of long-cherished beliefs and faced the facts in front of them. Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler demolished the belief of the earth-centered universe. Darwin gave us the best explanation of how life formed and evolved into the living beings (including us) that exists today. (And if you still insist that evolution isn’t real, watch this.)

Smart people ask themselves, “Is what I’m thinking the truth or just what I believe is true? Am I seeing things clearly, or am I letting my prejudices and fears cloud my vision?” Smart people can remove the preconceived notions that prevent them from seeing the truth. Freeing your mind so that you can see facts clearly makes you smarter.

Smart People Have the Right Attitude

Being smart doesn’t come from having a big brain or great sideburns. It comes from attitude. Smart people find things that interest them and learn more about them by asking questions. As they uncover facts, they let go of preconceived notions that prevent them from accepting what they’ve learned. Being smart requires curiosity and openness. The right attitude makes you smarter.