How to be Smart: A Simple Approach

how to be smart like einstein Smart is in…that’s intimidating. Most thinking people quietly belittle their own great brains, envying the geniuses around them. How to be smart like them?

There’s currently a lot of confusion about how to be smart, what it means to be smart, and whether being smart is even something you can learn at all. Some argue that you are born with a certain level of intelligence, and there’s not much you can do to change it. You either have it or you don’t.

Others suggest that you can be smart by training your brain. Go to the “brain gym” and do many reps of working memory exercises to boost your general mental power is the idea.

It’s not at all clear how well abstract memory exercises really work. And there’s way more to mental life than innate general intelligence. For example, grit is just as important to your long-term intellectual achievement. What, then, can we say about how to be smart?

The simplest, most direct way to be smart is to build deep knowledge about things you care about.

Building knowledge of an area improves your memory, thinking, and decisions about that topic. As you apply the principles below to acquire pockets of knowledge about various matters, you will find that you both know more and learn new things more easily. That is the real essence of being smart.

Several sites share interesting ideas about how to be smart. The first is my favorite, and the rest are in no particular order:

Although these all have useful tips, none really gives a straightforward process that’s easy to remember and follow. I offer below a simple approach for how to be smart.

1. Pick something to be smart about – follow your passions

Some will suggest that the answer to the question of how to be smart is to choose great literature, mensa puzzles, foreign languages, classic art works, or technical topics to learn about. Then force yourself to digest, just after downing your Brussels sprouts.

Any of those areas may be a great pick, just so long as you are truly eager to be smart about them. But if they are not really the kinds of things you are interested in, then you will be hard pressed to devote time and effort to learn much.

In terms of gaining smarts, your pick is really not so important. It’s what you do with it that counts. With time, your interests will shift around so that you find new topics that you’d like to be smart about. That’s just fine.

2. Read a few things slowly

One thing that most seem to agree on is that reading is near the core of how to be smart. At one point, speed reading was the hot deal. The idea was to absorb more information from the world by getting through all of it faster. The problem is you are likely to leave with a shallow and temporary grasp of what you just read.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with skimming passages. Surveying material to get the big picture or find the most relevant parts can be quite useful.

If you want to be smart on a topic, do allow yourself to read more slowly. Get more out of each passage that you take in. As related ideas spring to mind, pause and reflect on them before continuing. Look out of the window from time to time. Think through it more deeply.

3. Explain it to yourself

What does it really mean to “think through it more deeply” anyway? It can mean a few things. One important deep thinking activity is to pause periodically and explain the material to yourself. Put the book or article aside, and refashion the ideas in your own words.

With the source material close by, practice explaining your new-found knowledge for later conversation at the dinner table.

Self-explaining helps you with how to get smart.  It does a few things for you. One is that it gives you direct practice at retrieving the information from memory. Another is that putting things in your own words helps you find out what you don’t really understand.

When you skim through text or casually watch a video, you can easily feel like you just get it all. It all makes sense. Then when you try to explain it yourself….ooops.

Try explaining on your own. If you get stuck, look back at the source and try again. Get it right for showtime later.

4. Teach it to others

You’ve practiced on your own, now you are ready for the spotlight. A routine to build in to your “how to be smart” program is to tell others about what you’ve learned. Explain your new understanding in different contexts….at dinner with the family, or with friends at a bar, or in chats and comments on the web.

Try to explain in a way that’s simple, clear and interesting for the different audiences you engage. In addition to more of the same “self-explanation” benefits above, you’ll also have a chance to get outside feedback on what you’re saying.

Your kids may need the simpler story. Teaching them can force you to rephrase and rethink your understanding again. Your coworkers may challenge your explanation, bringing in other perspectives or facts you were unaware of. It may well happen the other way around, too.

Just forget about your ego here. The point is not to show off how smart you are. It’s to learn more by engaging others, share some of your interests with them, and occasionally help the people you interact with learn something new.

If you get surprised that your friend contradicts you, or your kid shares an important fact you didn’t know, don’t get upset. Try to listen carefully, embrace the surprise and ask them questions to learn more. Healthy discussion and debate will only deepen your knowledge, as long as you don’t take it too personally.

5. Make a habit of these routines

Take your time with these ideas. This is no overnight solution to the question of how to be smart. You can be smart in the long run by making a habit of following the above routines. Each is useful, engaging, and rewarding in its own right, so it doesn’t have to be a constant struggle continuing down this path.

Find other ways to elaborate and embellish your process. Drawing pictures or making graphs can be a great addition to explaining with words. In the spirit of teaching others, help your kids or friends understand and develop similar “how to be smart” habits.

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Image credit: maveric2003

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  1. Dave Visaya says

    Very good post. I find the tips quite interesting and not to brag, I think I’m practicing most of them already. But it would be interesting if anyone could cite some books that increases the ideas and artistry of someone. I think it’d be great post.

  2. Pau says

    Interesting post! Does this mean you don’t believe IQ can be increased at all? While I believe knowing more about a topic you are passionate about is a plus, being more intelligent can probably help learn those things faster and make better judgments overall (though probably that also depends on the emotional intelligence of the person).

    I do have a blog about becoming smarter myself with a couple of free very powerful techniques to increase IQ if you feel inclined to check it out. I would love that, and let me know what you think if you do :)

    • Winston Sieck says

      Yes, I believe intelligence can be changed in meaningful ways. My article on what intelligence means discusses this idea a bit more. The simple techniques described here will help you build knowledge more efficiently and effectively. Strategies like “explain it to yourself” are general cognitive skills that have been proven effective in research studies. Using them regularly will make you smarter. It’s also been shown that the more knowledge you have, the easier it is to apply cognitive skills to learn new things. So, learning & thinking skills are closely tied together with topic knowledge. Thanks, your blog sounds interesting.

  3. precious nathan says

    oh!such an interesting topic! i don’t belive that being smart is inborn , it can be learned through exercising your mind like reading books,magazines,etc.

  4. Stephen Farrington says

    Hi Winston,
    Thanks for a great article.
    I can offer anecdotal confirmation of the effectiveness of your steps from personal experience.
    I repeatedly find that explaining a subject to others seems to clarify and consolidate my own understanding of it.
    And reading slowly, out loud, is sometimes the only way new knowledge or understanding will “sink in” with me.
    I also suck at learning things in which I have no interest. Fortunately they are few. :)


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