“The only thing I truly know is that I know nothing”
Edited, enhanced and revised as of 11/6/2015
Please do read this whole post, but because reading is hard (and because you’re a busy person with important business to get back to) I’ve bolded and numbered some action-items below for you to get smarter ASAP. There are lovely quotes in big letters throughout, and I’ve even included a lovely TL;DR at the end. Now, then… Onward to brilliance!
How do you tell which kids in a classroom are the smart ones and which are the, *ahem*, less smart ones?
It’s easy; the smart ones sit in the front asking questions, and the stupid one sits in the back picking his nose and drawing pictures of dicks. The kids in the middle are basically the average of those two extremes.
We all like to think we’re wonderfully unique, complex intellectual individuals… In fact, we’re all pretty similar. Everybody is made of the same stuff, and although genetics do play a role, we all have the same human potential for intelligence (or lack thereof).
In the rest of this article, I’ll explain a few techniques and philosophies that will, whether you’re the booger picker, the brainiac, or the average student, help to accelerate your intellectual progress.
But first, let me share perhaps the most important aspect of gaining intelligence:
YOU MUST HAVE A REASON!
If you don’t have a good reason to learn, you won’t stick with it in the long term. Learn something that relates directly to your passion. If the thought of becoming a master in your field isn’t profoundly exciting, you’ve chosen the wrong subject. Enthusiasm is essential.
KEY POINT #1:
Reading a book is like receiving a 1-on-1 lesson from an accomplished expert in your chosen field.
Picking up a book daily is the best thing you can do for your intellect. Any nonfiction will do.
Read a paperback, a book on Kindle, or listen to an audiobook… Whichever way you prefer to take smart words and put them in your brain.
It doesn’t have to be a big deal… 15 minutes of reading before bed, 30 minutes of audio on your commute, etc… It really is that simple. This is how you slowly become smarter over the years.
You probably already know that you should be reading, but maybe, for whatever reason, you just don’t. Here is one trick to start reading more:
Surround yourself with books. If you see books all over your room, your desk, scattered around every surface… You’ll read more. At the very least, you’ll think about reading more. You will naturally do more of what you subconsciously think about. Surround yourself with good books, and set little reminders on your phone, computer, or wherever you can slap a post-it note.
Every word that enters your brain affects you. What you see on TV, hear on the radio, read on billboards… All of that soaks into your brain and influences you without you realizing it. That’s scary, but the good news is that books work the same way. Reading high quality nonfiction quietly absorbs the brilliance of great minds into your own. Blog posts are OK, too… But again, the emphasis must be on quality. If we’re going to be brainwashed either way, we might as well be brainwashed by high quality content of our own choosing. Avoid advertisements, alarmist media, and all social/sensationalist media!
Figure out who you admire. Find someone you respect who has your dream job. Read everything they’ve written, and you’ll suddenly be a little bit more like that person. Self-transformation by osmosis!
Although we used grades in school as a metric for intelligence, as adults we don’t have an easy measure to judge each other’s intelligence. IQ is fine, but most people never take a real IQ test. Facebook IQ quizzes do not count. Even if we had a concrete measure of intelligence, people would never acknowledge their own stupidity. Stupid people have chosen to lead an unenlightened life, and they will bitterly defend that decision until the day they die.
49% the population must possess below average intelligence, so why won’t a single person acknowledge their sub-par brainpower? Have you ever met a parent who honestly, truly believes that their kid is stupid? Me either.
Stupid people are not only ignorant of their own stupidity, but they actually believe they’re far above average.
This unawareness of ignorance has been named and studied:
People smarter than me discovered the Dunning-Kruger effect. Basically, unskilled people can’t tell they’re unskilled because it requires that same skill to recognize the lack of it.
Stupid people, as well as bad drivers, bad writers, and bad singers are all blissfully unaware of their lack of skill, and can even be painfully overconfident of their abilities.
Back to the kid in the classroom: why is the smart kid in front asking questions, while the stupid kid cares more about dicks and boogers than quadratic equations?
It comes down to habits:
Smart people read books, stupid people watch TV. Smart people are curious and ask questions, stupid people aren’t and don’t. Habits would take up more space than I have here, but you can check out The Power of Habit for an in-depth look at habit-building.
Enthusiasm for learning is a trainable habit. Passion is the key to long-term growth.
If you aren’t genuinely interested in learning anything, you will need to discover something that genuinely fascinates you.
When a smart person hears a word they don’t know, they look it up.
When a stupid person hears a string of words they don’t know, their eyes glaze over.
Smart people always want to know more. Stupid people don’t care one way or the other.
Here’s the biggest difference between smart people and stupid people:
Smart people know facts, stupid people “know” bullshit.
Smart people understand that what they know might not be accurate, and they are capable of objectively judging the merit of an idea they don’t agree with.
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it.”
KEY POINT #2:
What, exactly, is the difference between smart and stupid?
It comes down to three things:
Knowledge, skills, and wisdom.
Knowledge means knowing facts about things. For example, knowing what trains are made of and how fast various types of trains can move.
Skills are the various tasks that we’ve grown to excel at over the years. For example, running fast, engineering technology, and piloting a train are all skills that we must learn and practice over time.
Wisdom is essentially life experience. It’s commonly called “common sense”, and it is the reason why older people tend to be a little smarter than young people. More years on Earth generally means you’ve seen more shit in your life.
Knowledge is knowing what a train is made of, while wisdom is knowing to get the fuck out of the way when you hear it coming.
Based on the above definitions, we can assume two things:
First, people do naturally gain wisdom, and therefore intelligence, over time.
Second, people also gain knowledge over time, some of which is bound to be false.
Older people are naturally wiser (i.e. more experienced). But if you went to public school, you know that someone being older does not necessarily mean they’re smarter.
Here’s the real difference between smart people and stupid people:
IF YOU’RE SKIMMING, READ THIS!! This is the most essential tidbit to remember from this article:
The difference between being smart and being stupid… is the desire for TRUTH.
QUESTION WHAT YOU KNOW! Don’t believe anything you hear without questioning it. Don’t believe any “scientific” studies without first asking yourself, “does this make sense?”. Half of those studies that people love to cite are completely invalid, and statistics are often intentionally removed from context (and just plain made up) to influence your beliefs.
Don’t believe your friends who tell you about an interesting “fact’ they found on Buzzfeed. Don’t believe anything I say in this article just because I say it’s true. Do your own research.
This is the CHOICE that stupid people make. They choose not to care enough about the truth to verify it themselves. Intelligence is habitually seeking to discover the truth lying under the surface of the superficial.
Smart people understand that they very well might be wrong. Stupid people believe they’re brilliant, and they will vigorously defend their incorrect beliefs. Take it from Socrates: the only thing you can truly know is that you know nothing.
We learn naturally over time, but it takes concentrated effort to learn in the correct direction. Intelligence is made of knowledge, wisdom, and skills, but what does that mean for regular people like you and me?
It means that we have to learn intentionally.
Are you learning at work?
Robert Kiyosaki, the brilliant financial mind behind Rich Dad Poor Dad said, “When you’re young, work to learn, not to earn.” If there’s nothing more to learn at your current job, it’s time to move on to greener pastures. A huge part of learning comes from being in a rich learning environment.
After high school and/or college, people stop trying to learn. We get jobs that aren’t exactly intellectually demanding, so intelligence doesn’t increase.Try to find stimulating work, and surround yourself with people who care about educating themselves.
We humans are in a constant state of change and development, but without conscious direction we’re bound to learn the wrong things.
“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.”
It’s the Dunning-Kruger effect in action. Stupid people are so certain of their view of the world that anything outside their narrow thinking becomes a personal attack on their entire worldview. Stupid people are set in their ways, so any attempt to teach them something is often met with anger. There’s no saving those people, so don’t bother trying. Just smile, just nod. “yes yes, of course, Chester, of course I believe you saw Bigfoot”. Save yourself the mental anguish of fighting a fool’s battle. You can’t argue with those people.
But YOU! You can be saved. Here you are, READING! You’ve read over a thousand words already, so clearly you’re pretty smart! Honestly, the average person is so dimwitted that merely reading past the headline picture ranks you above average. Now, then, my brilliant reader, I ask you to make a mental commitment to becoming smarter. Decide that you will think more carefully, think more intentionally, and think about how you’re thinking. Write down your thoughts and ideas. Decide that you want to be better than you are. Our intellects will never be “good enough”. There is always room for improvement.
Rather than, “You’re stupid, go get smarter”, I’ll say “Everybody is stupid, and people who don’t try to get smarter don’t get smarter“. So if you want to be smarter, which you should, all you have to do is try.
So you’ve decided to become smarter. Now what? Here are 3 core principles to clarify your learning direction and harden your focus:
#1: Make a list of what you’d like to learn more about. Right now I’m most interested in Japanese, social dynamics, and the nerdy sciences of cosmology, quantum mechanics, and exponential computing. I study a wide range of other fields also, and everything I study intrigues me on a deep, personal level. Write down interesting stuff that pops into your head that you’d like to explore more deeply. There are thousands of books out there covering every conceivable field of study, so it’ll be easy to find at least a few nonfiction books to pique your interest.
#1B: Teach someone! Teaching is actually a great way to learn. Find someone enthusiastic who’s just starting out, and teach them what you know. Educating an enthusiastic pupil will motivate you to improve, lest they surpass you! You’ll be more motivated to learn, so you can teach more effectively, and you’ll wind up learning much more than you would alone. Two minds are better than one, and teaching can be a shockingly educational experience.
#2: Read something! The best way to get smarter is to read books. Read books every single day. Practice reading faster, too.
#2B: Reading books is too hard. Listen to them instead! If you don’t naturally enjoy reading, try listening to an audiobook. Listen to Audible in your car… Use this free trial link to show your support for my blog – Try Audible and Get Two Free Audiobooks. Check out this post for more free educational resources and study hacks.
#3: Begin with the end in mind.
What skills would you like to have in a year’s time? What knowledge would benefit your social life and career the most? There are millions of options for meaningful learning, but it’s best to focus on one or two skills/subjects at a time. The key is to pick something useful that you’re genuinely enthusiastic about. Here are some skills that anyone can learn that will benefit your daily life.
- Voice training. Your voice is a huge part of how people perceive you, and studies have shown that deep-voiced men and women are seen as stronger, more competent, and more trustworthy than their high-pitched peers. Vocal control is learnable, and with regular practice any voice can be refined to be wonderfully easy on the ear. One quick trick is to say “me” at the lowest pitch you can, and hold that note. See how low you can get it without your voice cracking. Before long you’ll notice your voice becoming richer and more resonant.
- A Foreign Language. Wherever you live, there are definitely some people nearby that speak a different language. Learning a new language will open opportunities to meet new people, experience new cultures, will improve your overall mental strength and will even increase comprehension of your native tongue. Becoming bilingual is one of the true marks of an intelligent person.
- Play an instrument. Take those guitar lessons you always said you wanted to. Learn piano, or accordion, or whatever instrument makes you feel something when you hear it. Jazz drums are my jam, what’s yours? Listen to a wide variety of music until you discover something that gives you tinglies in your gut.
Playing music strengthens your brain muscles, and listening to music has positive effects on a wide range of brain functions (see graphic).
Be curious. Ask questions. Practice skills daily.
Learning is all about connecting the known to the unknown. The more interconnections your brain makes, the smarter you become. Our brains NEVER stop learning, and they are capable of incredible, exponential improvements. Our minds can always begin learning anew, even after many years of intellectual neglect. Because we’re always learning, it’s easy to slide into a period of negative learning… But by having a good reason for learning, and by approaching it one little step at a time, learning will gradually become easier, more enjoyable, and ultimately massively fulfilling.
\Imagine your amazing future self, and figure out what that person will need to know to succeed. Maybe it’s a language, or an instrument, or maybe it’s social skills… Whatever it is, read about it. Immerse yourself in it. Become the person you see in your future, one day at a time.
But above all, the most important factor in learning is to have a good reason for it. Without a concrete reason, a reason that your future self will absolutely need to know the material you’re studying… without that, you will fail. Every single time.
I’ll leave you with one more thought…
The best feeling in the world is the fulfillment from moving in the right direction. It’s always a challenge, and at times it feels like an impossible task, but the feeling of satisfaction that comes after a day spent the right way… That feeling makes it all worth it.
Have a good reason for learning.
Read authors you admire.
Make time for what matters.
Set clear priorities and achievable learning goals
Watch less TV and ignore mainstream media