The 4 Smartest Ways to Become Smarter
The fastest way to become smarter is to make learning a habit.
This may sound obvious, but it’s not about maximizing the time you spend sitting at a desk, working or studying. It’s about finding ways to integrate learning seamlessly into your day.
A quick Google search right when you bump into a word you don’t know beats your plan to read The Intelligent Investor in one sitting — because 50 searches a day add up while, most of the time, the reading never happens.
We’re all busy. We have work and to-do’s and societal obligations. If we ignore everyday life, we’ll never make a big enough commitment to learning. Instead, we must acknowledge it. Work with it. Big, deliberate study sessions are a great second step, but if we try to make them the first, we’ll likely spend our lives feeling like perpetual failures.
Your goal should be to live your everyday life while learning naturally permeates your entire day — like an undercurrent of water that keeps carrying your mind to higher heights without you feeling each bump along the way.
Here are four tiny habits to make learning feel as natural as breathing. They might not seem like much, but that’s exactly why they are so powerful and, therefore, the four smartest ways to become smarter.
1. When you feel curious, start digging
The first and most important step of becoming a learning machine is to not cut your curiosity off at the knees.
This may sound like a non-issue, but it’s actually our biggest act of self-sabotage. If you ask 100 people if they think of themselves as curios, they’ll all give you a resounding “Yes!” but many of those same people would not dare ask what the word “Gobelin” means if someone drops it in a conversation.
Pride, arrogance, fear of looking stupid or unprofessional, fear of failure, fear of change — we shove our curiosity into a dark locker in our minds for many reasons, all of which we’ve acquired through decades of conditioning.
We are all born as bundles of curiosity, but decades of exposure to societal rules, the industrial education system, and “the way things are done,” will leave their mark: The world systematically trains us out of our natural curiosity, and by the time we’re adults, most of us have shut most of it down.
You must override your anti-curiosity impulses. If you don’t learn to dig deeper every time something piques your interest, you’ll never habitually explore the things that’ll ultimately give your intelligence an edge.
The most practical way to go with rather than against your knowledge-seeking gut is to google everything.
Chances are, you’re already googling a lot. You have your smartphone with you at all times. Googling takes ten seconds, you can do it in private, and it instantly expands your knowledge or at least jogs your memory.
Googling is frictionless. Google everything. When you don’t know what a word means, google it. When you don’t know what dihydrogen monoxide is, google it. When you know that you should know something but don’t, google it. Refresh the details. There should be no shame in googling. Ever.
Every time you google, you send yourself a message: I have the right to know. I am curious, and it is awesome. I deserve to learn.
Whenever you feel curious, act on it. Don’t dismiss your natural desire to know. Embrace it. Every single time.
Confucius supposedly said: “You cannot open a book without learning something.” Actually, you can’t read a sentence without learning something.
I bet there’s something on your nasal spray package slip that you don’t know yet. Reading ad print will make you smarter. So will reading the instruction manual for a new tool at work.
Knowledge isn’t plastic. It’s a giant network of connected nodes in your mind. It’s impossible to know how which fact might become useful in what way — and how new connections might inspire you to have brilliant ideas.
Therefore, it is foolish to try and slot individual facts into one of only two buckets — “useful” or “not useful.” Just because something is of no direct relevance to you now does not preclude it from becoming important later.
Words are everywhere, especially online. We easily see half a million words each day, and the more we stop to read them, the better.
Read everything you come across in your daily life.
The idea here isn’t that the simple and mundane will be the only words you read, it’s that taking the time to do so when you bump into them will once again reaffirm your curiosity and furthermore encourage you to take even more time to read other, more valuable things, like articles and books.
Read. Read everything your eyes can spot.
One of my favorite zen stories is “the four monks:”
Four monks decided to meditate silently for two weeks. They lit a candle and began. By nightfall on the first day, the candle went out.
The first monk said: “Oh, no! The candle is out.”
The second monk said: “We’re not supposed to talk!”
The third monk said: “Why must you two break the silence?”
The fourth monk laughed and said: “Ha! I’m the only one who didn’t speak.”
They all did so for different reasons — distraction, condescendence, anger, ego — but each of the four monks shared his thoughts without filtering them, and not a single one improved the situation.
Had there been a fifth, wiser monk, he would’ve remained silent and kept meditating. In doing so, he would have pointed each of the other monks at their own mistake — without saying a single word.
The less you talk, the more you can listen. Listening always leads to learning. Listen as much as you can.
Everyone you’ll ever meet knows something you don’t. The more you talk, the more likely you are to miss it. Listening to them until you find it is a virtue.
Listening is free. Listening is kind. Listening gives you time to observe, to reflect, to hold off on judgments until you can form a better, more granular picture. Wisdom is formed in silence. Silence is your friend. Use silence.
The less you speak, the smarter you’ll get. And, maybe not quite coincidentally, the smarter you get, the less you’ll speak.
The goal of googling is acquiring facts. The goal of reading is acquiring ideas. The goal of listening is understanding humans. Thinking is how you combine all three into one coherent picture of the world.
It is also how you integrate yourself into that picture, how you reflect on who you are and what you do best, and what your contribution to this world should be, whether it’s determining the most useful course of action for today or the lifetime mission that will make you the most happy and fulfilled.
You’re already thinking around the clock. Every waking second, you’re trading one thought against another. The more of these thoughts you dedicate to what matters, the faster you’ll get smarter.
Think about what drives you. Think about what you read. Think about what you hear.
Think about everything, all the time. Use your thoughts to make sense of the world.
You can think of a brilliant idea on the toilet, and you can connect two previously misunderstood concepts while waiting in line to get your hot dog.
Thoughts are free. No one can tell you what to think about. You choose what you think about. Choose to think about what matters.
Don’t ignore five-minute breaks, what feels like dead time on a train ride, and the time while you wait to fall asleep at night. All of this is life. They’re all opportunities to think. They only become wasted if you don’t use them.
Making time to sit and just think is a wonderful aspiration, but it’s much more practical to first use all the time you already have. Think everywhere, anytime. Process everything you learn. Nothing will accelerate your intelligence as much.
Everyone can be smart. Intelligence is learned. We do have a talent for it, but our differing starting points pale in comparison to how much we can achieve if we build the right habits.
The easiest way to build these habits is to make them so small and innocuous that they seamlessly, easily integrate into our busy lives:
- Google everything. Never stunt your curiosity.
- Read everything. It’ll add up later and will inspire you to read more.
- Listen, always. You’re never done understanding others.
- Think, all the time. Use even small time blocks to exercise your mind.
If you did just these four things, you’d already learn much faster than most of the people around you. Imagine what you could do if you made time to do them deliberately — but that’s a story for another day.