How to teach yourself to be smart?

We all think we are smart. We think intelligence is inborn and the world is divided among smart people (like us), not so smart people (others) and geniuses (above us). We find false sense of comfort in the fact that we are smarter than the average (based on what we have achieved so far) and we don’t have to worry about those geniuses who are far above us because their intelligence is already god-given, so why bother comparing.

But once in a while, an occasion hits us. We attend a meeting where someone makes a
brainremarkably smart comment that turns heads and makes us think ”I wish I said that first”. Or one of our schoolmates who was ”not so smart”  ends up in a publication with a cocky smile on his face because he just happened to come up with that golden goose start up idea. Or worst case, we make a silly mistake at work that hurts our self esteem and maybe reputation. Whatever the reason, these are the moments that we doubt our own intelligence. We ask ourselves the following question: “Am I really smart?”

I faced this question in my very first annual performance review, when my world was shuttered into pieces. Despite a very good overall evaluation mentioning my positives regarding my passion, collaboration, resilience etc, one line struck me breathless. It read something like: ”… but he needs to improve his strategic thinking skills and act through a vision of his own making…” It was a bummer. All I could read was that my ”THINKING” skills needed to be improved. So there started my journey, which led me all the way here.

Once I past through the emotional damage to my self esteem, I was ready to move on with my life. It took me very short time to figure out that I was asking the wrong question. So instead of asking ”Am I really smart?” I changed it as: ”How can I get smarter?”

Having obsessed over this question for the past 16 years, I learned a few things that might help you take a shortcut. Here are some practical tips on how to get smarter.

Learn the formula: Smartness = Thinking skills X Knowledge

We are impressed by smart people because they dive fast to the core of the issues and bring perspectives that are fresh to the others. They seem to do it effortlessly. There is no obvious explanation to how they do it, so we think that it’s their inborn ability that makes them think and talk smartly. However, the truth is different. Smartness comes from combination of two valuable factors, both of which can be improved: Thinking skills and acquired knowledge. What blows us is the multiplier effect, which differentiates smart people from the others. So here is the first lesson: If you want to be smarter, you have to work separately on these two factors.

Thinking is a skill, it can be improved. So start exercising. 

Unlike common perception, thinking is neither inborn, nor static. Did you know that Chess Grandmasters have the same IQ levels as average people? (For more on this: Talent is overrated). So what makes them so successful in their profession? Apparently, research shows that average Grandmaster analyzes the positions at the same speed as average chess players, but they win by a huge margin in terms of taking the right decisions which is a totally learned thinking ability. A Grandmaster doesn’t have a better IQ than you or me, but he simply learned how to take a chess move decision better, which sets him apart. This was proven by a Hungarian academician Laszlo Polgar, who announced through the newspaper that he’s looking for a wife to give birth to 3 kids who would be trained to be Chessmasters. The unromantic nature of the story aside, he ended up raising 3 daugthers as Grandmasters, of whom the two of them became the best and second best chess playing women in the world. His point was, geniuses are made, not born.

So let’s get back to our world. Thinking is a skill that can be developed with deliberate exercise just like any other muscle. We love to throw money for gym membership to grow our muscles, but we rarely exercise our brain which can be done for free. So once you accept this fact, you’re ready to move to the next tip. At the core of thinking, there is problem solving. So if you want to improve your thinking, you must start with it first.

First thinking exercise: Re-define the problem – Open & Close. 

Did you ever hear the cliche: Defining the problem is half of the solution? It’s a cliche because it’s true. But how do you define the problem? Here is the first practical step that will make you smarter today than yesterday.  Defining the problem is considered to be a logical process: Search for the facts and find out the reasons right? Sounds very simple. However, in fact neither life, nor nature is that simple. The problems are messy. Reasons are complex, overlapping, divergent or ambiguous. It’s hard to see the main cause. So we tend to jump to the solutions without fully identifying the potential causes, which sets us up for moderate results at best and failure at worst. Instead, we need to let go of our judgmental thinking and apply creative thinking to identify the main causes with an open mind to redefine the problem at hand. We’ll call this creative search as Open Close 1”first opening”. To do this, you need to suspend your judgement and the internal urge to define the problem as apparent to you and ask open ended, curious questions on what leads to the problem at hand. You need to be as creative as possible in uncovering as many relevant or irrelevant reasons to make sure you list all potential root causes. Despite common perception, this is a creative process. Given that you suspend your judgement about main problem, you start asking questions about what can lead to it. It’s full of discovery. So let’s get practical and take a problem that bothers many people: ”I don’t have enough time to do sports, because of my busy life full of professional and personal requirements”.  Sounds familiar? Boring but a common problem. And what do people mostly do to deal with it? They never question the problem and they jump on the solution. they buy a membership to the gym as part of new year resolution, yet they never go there, because they did not solve the underlying problem. Result is a failure. Smart people approach the problem differently. They apply a different technique almost without thinking about it. They first re-define the problem. So let’s do it.

First we open up creatively by suspending our judgement and ask questions to find out what are the underlying causes: Long commuting distance? Poor time management? Not enough resources at work? Lack of delegation? The sports require too much preparation which is time consuming? (i.e. Hockey, skiing etc)? Too much travel? Do we have too many professional requirements? Or too many personal requirements?

As you see the problem is seemingly simple but the root causes could be many. Almost none of them can be solved by buying a gym membership which explains why average thinkers fail in solving this problem.  Let’s assume that we did plenty of creative thinking to discover many potential reasons. Now we need to stop being creative (open) and start being judgmental (close). Which reasons are the main reasons? While there are plenty of techniques such as (Fishbone etc) or for the sake of simplicity, let’s use our own judgement and conclude that we have too long commuting distance and poor time management. Now Let’s redefine the problem: ”I have too long commuting distance and poor agenda management to do sports”.

Second thinking exercise: Find a solution – Open & Close. 

Now you are much more clear about the problem to solve. It’s again the time to open and start finding creative solutions. Let’s stick to the example: You have a long commuting problem. So obviously one solution is to change your job or move your house. Either of which maybe unpractical, but as you recall, we’re not judging here.Open Close 2 Any solution, needs to be listed, however difficult or impossible. Now let’s provoke further by attacking the main issues and turn them upside down to be creative: Provocation: What if there was no commuting needed for sports? Idea: Can you exercise at home by buying sports equipment? Provocation: What if you could exercise at work? Idea: Is there a gym nearby the office which you can go at lunch time? What if you exercise while commuting to work? Idea: Riding a bike to the office. There are many techniques to deliberately suspend our judgement and be creative (for more on this technique, read: How to have a beautiful mind by Edward De Bono). The other issue was the poor agenda management: Can you improve your time management by attending a seminar? You obviously prioritize your work over personal life, so can you treat sports as part of your work life i.e. just like a regular meeting you can’t skip? Can you re-arrange your working hours with your boss (i.e. coming to work at 9 am instead of 8 am)? Do you see the beauty of opening yourself up to creative solutions,  once you suspend your judgment? However, not all of them are realistic, so once you feel like you have listed adequate list of solutions which could work, it’s time to evaluate the best ones (Close) by applying judgmental thinking. Which solutions require the least effort for the best result? Maybe starting home exercises is the easiest solution if you have the discipline to do it. In order to make it fun, you can try to do it with your kids (remember demanding family requirements?) Which solution fit with your other goals in life? Maybe you were tired of your job and now it’s time to change it while choosing an office location with a shorter commuting distance. Maybe you decided to attend a time management seminar and your boss welcomes this idea as he agrees that you need to improve your productivity. Whatever the solutions, you need to decide a few of them to execute with excellence. To conclude the method, let’s say you decided to go to gym during lunch time in the office and attend time management courses. So now let’s look at the final result, before and after we apply the open-close, open-close method:table

Do you realize the beauty of this method? Redefining the problem gives you a clear direction to use your creative energy to find alternative solutions. The rest is easy, because you need to find the most optimal solution(s) among alternatives. I guess, by now, the difference is clear between poor thinkers who bought a gym membership which they don’t use and smart thinkers who decided to solve the underlying problems such as poor time management or find a shortcut to negate the long distance commute issue by going to sports during lunch.

Unfortunately, the business world is full of poor thinkers. How many times have you seen people throwing ”promotion” as the first idea to drive the sales, where they miss the fact that the underlying problem is related with the product or the service. Therefore, by repeating this technique over and over, your brain will become a natural maestro in problem solving and decision making.

Learn the common pitfalls of poor logical thinking

Big companies are full of supposedly smart people, but they also make big mistakes. They launch faulty products, do poor marketing, fail in service and make bad financial decisions. Why? It’s because smart people can do stupid mistakes. Therefore, one of the key lessons on your journey to make your self smarter is to learn common thinking errors so you can avoid them.

Let’s start with the most common error, False Dilemma. It’s a forced choice between two unsatisfactory options. Volume vs profit margin, aesthetics vs functionality, price vs quality, beautiful vs smart etc. Whatever the dilemma, you are provided two options to choose as if they are mutually exclusive. Having to choose between two unsatisfactory options leads us to poor thinking because the best solutions come from multiplication effect of maximization of both factors. Let’s take the volume vs profit example. Which one grows your business further? Increasing volume & profit margin each by 10% or increasing either volume or margin by 20% alone? Mathematically, the first option gives you 21% growth and the second one 20%. But what’s more important than the first point is that you need to think harder to come up with a solution to drive your profit margin and volume up at the same time. You need to design a better product at a lower cost. You need to innovate. Better paying job vs meaningful job? Why do you have to choose? Go for the job you love and get so good at it that you get paid very well. Career growth or family life? Learn to smartly manage not only your work time but also your family time together. Pay the same attention to planning your agenda with your kids and wife, as if you’re planning your next board meeting. So the antidote of False Dilemma is the power of ”And”. F. Scott Fitzgerald saw “The ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function” as the sign of a truly intelligent individual. It’s also written in the article (How successful leaders think) by Harvard Business Review that the best leaders have the ability to integrate opposing thoughts while looking for a solution. So next time you are faced with two bad options, remember to attack them with the power of ”AND”.

Another common thinking error is the correlation vs causation. High brand sales correlate with high marketing spending so we tend to conclude that high marketing spending drives the sales. However, the reality is that brands with high sales spend more on marketing because they allocate their marketing budget as percentage of their sales. So there is correlation but one can’t conclude causation based on this data. How many brands do you know who made a huge launch by spending and failed into irrelevance after. Therefore, discovering causation is more valuable than correlation as you can take clear decisive action based on causation as you are sure that the conclusion of your action will be reached.

Third error: Looking for reasons of failure instead of success. At work, how much time do you spend to understand the failures vs successes? Business world is programmed to analyse failures to avoid future mistakes. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with that, however people often take the success drivers for granted and never bother to understand them better. I was surprised so many times when I asked the following question: Why do consumers choose us over competition? And how can we double down on these factors? Instead of trying to fix your negatives, you should improve your existing advantage. Because, eventually, this is a better use of your time. It’s also valid for your personal strengths and weaknesses. All we hear after a performance evaluation are the negatives, yet, what makes us unique and valuable are our strengths. So why not talk about our strengths and how to improve them further as the main topic instead of fixing our small mistakes?

Analyzing trends and ignoring outliers: I loved the best seller by Malcolm Gladwell which is a discovery of the reasons that shape the outstandingly successful people (Outliers), it makes a great case at the beginning why we can learn more from analyzing the outliers instead of regulars and trends. So let’s think about it for a second. Trends are easy. It gives us a correlation. It’s easy to read and conclude (also wrongly). Yet it doesn’t give us insights. The insights come from unique cases. It’s very common to see supposedly smart people analyzing trends and driving obvious conclusions which are questionably useful. Yet, I like to focus on outliers. If our sales trends are down, I pick the store which has a positive sales trend and start rigorously identifying the reasons to discover a golden nugget that we can replicate elsewhere. For more on the application on this technique, please read my other article, ”How to turnaround any business”. Net, breakthrough hardly comes from analyzing regular trends, but outliers.

There are so many common thinking errors, that I can’t list all here. Therefore, I definitely recommend you to read this brilliant, award winning article by Omar Mahmoud (Operation was successful but the patient died) if you’d like to learn more about a comprehensive list of thinking mistakes.

Learn to acquire knowledge instead of information

So far, we focused on the first part of the equation of smartness: thinking skills. Now, we’re moving to the second part: how to acquire knowledge. Having great thinking skills give you the power to analyze, redefine and solve problems however, it’s not enough to take decisions on subjects that are unfamiliar to you. Our professional and private life changes so fast that the information becomes useless in very short time. Therefore, it’s critical to learn the ability to acquire knowledge at very fast speed. In our example above, we talked about poor time management. So what can we do to learn about time management? Let’s list some options: 1) Attending a seminar 2) Reading a book 3) Talking to a mentor 4) Reading tips on Google 5) Watching videos on TED.com 6) Talking to a person who is great in time management 7) Buying a time management software etc. Here is the part where we need to do some self-discovery before we proceed further. What is the best way to learn for yourself? Learning process requires lowering down your ego shield and opening up yourself to new knowledge. That’s why, husbands struggle to teach driving to their wives, because it’s difficult for the spouse to accept the other as an authority figure. So if you have any emotional barrier such as ego problem, you might struggle to ask help from someone else. In this case attending a seminar or reading a book might be a good start. It is now a common fact that dyslexic people turn into great entrepreneurs because they struggle to read. So they end up being great listeners and develop good social skills which help them to acquire knowledge quickly and act fast. I love reading. Moreover, I can read fast thanks to my training when I was a teenager. So I acquired volumes of knowledge since I started my journey. Here are a few examples: I wanted to improve my time management and I read a book that changed my life. I wanted to increase my Financial IQ and I read a book that led me to invest into my own business without leaving my regular job. When I started to lose satisfaction at work, I read a book which taught me how to live my life to the fullest. When I was changing my job, I read a book about how to find my dream job. When I got stuck in my career, I read a book about how to get promoted faster (for more on this, read my article: How to get promoted despite crisis). As a result, I landed a CEO job before my 40. And yes, back to the beginning of my story, I turned around strategic thinking into my strength with a healthy obsession. I know that my story is absolutely not unique, because I met so many people with self awareness to identify their knowledge gap and passion to find it somewhere. Now, thanks to internet, almost all knowledge is available for both professional or personal problems. So identify the most comfortable but effective way of learning for yourself. Then, go for the knowledge gap you want to close. You will see, in no time, you’ll become the expert on the area, given your motivation on the subject.

To know and not to do is not to know (Buddha). 

Now we have a better idea about how to improve our thinking skills and acquire knowledge to be smart. But all this knowledge is useless if it’s not put into good use. We don’t only want to be smart for admiration. Yes, there is a certain satisfaction to it when you become the person making the smartest comment in the meeting room instead of hearing it. Yet, there is much more to it when smart thinking is coupled with motivation to live your life to the fullest. What’s the use of smartness, if there is no action behind it. The difference between the schoolmate who thrived with his start-up idea and you is that he acted on his idea. How many smart people do you know with a miserable life? Yet, if they were so smart, they would identify their knowledge gap about living a happy life, so they would google it. By the way, here is the link if you want to live your life happily. It takes 5 seconds to type and find it. Another 5 minutes to read it. Satisfaction guaranteed. The irony is that, we can’t believe that the secret of life can be summarized in 11 simple bullet points. So instead of giving it a try, most of us live a life of inertia with a smartphone on the couch, where recurring problems are well accepted, false dilemmas are rule of life, long commuting distance is a valid excuse to come home tired to the family. I reject and challenge such limits and paradigms given that it is not our inborn intelligence, but our actions that make us be smart, act smart and live smart to the fullest. I wish that you do the same, if you were patient enough to read till the end.

Recommended reading

  1. How to have a beautiful mind (Book, Edward De Bono)
  2. Thinking strategically (Book, Avinash K. Dixit)
  3. Talent is overrated (Book, Geoff Colvin)
  4. How leaders think? (Article, Harvard Business Review)
  5. Outliers (Book, Malcolm Gladwell)
  6. Did you spot the gorilla? (Book, Richard Wiseman)
  7. 4 hour work week (Book, Tim Ferris)
  8. The operation was successful but the patient died (Article, Omar Mahmoud)
  9. How to turnaround any business? (Article, starbrandmanager.com –  Guvenc Donmez)
This entry was posted in Career, Leadership, Marketing, Productivity, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How to teach yourself to be smart?

  1. Denis says:

    Great article

  2. Pingback: Are you a 40 year old mediocre? | STAR BRAND MANAGER

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