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Last Updated on March 17, 2020

How to Think Smart (If You Think You’re Not Smart Enough)

How to Think Smart (If You Think You’re Not Smart Enough)

If you’re reading this and you don’t think you’re smart, I definitely want you to reframe how you’re thinking about intelligence.

Being smart is about much more than acing an IQ test or being the valedictorian. Those are both great things, but they have more to do with being book smart.

In our modern society, it’s arguably more important to know how to think smart (to know how to critically think about things and be open to new ideas).

Here’re 9 strategies for how to think smart:

1. Be Open to Different Perspectives

Thinking smart means being open to new ideas. When we hold on too dearly to what we currently think, we are actually closing ourselves off to new ideas. And thinking smart is all about considering, evaluating, and analyzing new ideas.

For example, when I was in fifth grade, I wrote a journal entry about how amazing President George H. W. Bush was. I didn’t write it because I had critically thought about politics. I wrote it because my dad really liked George H. W. Bush. Therefore, I did too.

If I had known how to think smart as a fifth grader, I might be more inclined to consider the pros and cons of both parties.

Be very suspicious of an argument that only considers one side of an argument and doesn’t consider any negative points of that side.

That is the opposite of thinking smart.

2. Seriously Consider the Counterargument

It’s not enough to just be open to both sides of an argument; real critical thinking requires you to dig deeply into the other side.

I might have a hunch that Chinese herbs will be good for my winter cough, but I’m not thinking smart until I do extensive research that doesn’t just confirm my initial bias.

I need to find reputable sources (think academic journals and peer-reviewed studies) that pertain to my topic: Chinese medicine and cough. I can’t cherry pick and only include the ones that say Chinese herbs will help my cough.

I have to read and seriously consider the other side. I have to be genuinely open to being wrong.

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That’s a tough pill for a lot of people to swallow.

When we only look at evidence that proves what we already think, that’s called a confirmation bias.[1] It’s a great way to feel confident that you’re always right, but it’s a terrible way to learn anything new.

So if you want to start thinking smart, avoid confirmation bias and be truly open to the counterargument and to being wrong.

3. Ask Questions and Listen to the Answers

Thinking smart also means being curious.[2] Smart people are inquisitive about how the world works, what makes people tick, and what it all means.

So another trick for how to think smart is to ask lots of questions.[3]

Surround yourself with people you think are intelligent. Again, avoid confirmation bias here too. If you only surround yourself with smart people who think just like you, you’re not going to learn much.

My college experience was great because I didn’t go to a school where everyone was liberal or conservative. There was a big mix of perspectives, and this deepened our classroom discussions and thinking.

Once you have your smart people crew, you need to ask questions. Keep a list of things you’re genuinely curious about. For example, I’m curious about parenting, politics, education, creativity, psychology, healthcare, other cultures, religion, philosophy… The list goes on.

But don’t fake the funk; if you’re asking questions just to ask them, you’re not going to learn much. You need to be genuinely interested in the answers. Learn how to ask questions skilfully: How to Be Amazingly Good at Asking Questions

Then, the second step is to really listen to the answer. Don’t just listen in order to respond. Listen to hear the other person. Don’t listen to confirm your bias either. You’re going to need to do some sincere deep listening in order to learn new things.

4. Read

For my money, smart thinking requires a lot of reading.

It all comes down to collecting more and more information from more and more perspectives. Read a wide-range of materials on a wide-range of topics.

I like to switch up and read informational books that relate to my work: psychology, education, theatre. Then, I read a novel or something not so directly related to my day-to-day hustle.

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Read multiple newspapers, not just the one that most closely mirrors how you already think. Go for breadth.

Read up on all sorts of topics.

Read, read, read.

Then read some more.

Watch out for disreputable sources though. There are a lot of self-proclaimed experts out there nowadays, especially online.

If you want to learn how to evaluate your sources and distinguish a reputable from a disreputable source, go to your local library and ask a friendly librarian. They would love to teach you all about evaluating sources to help you become a more-informed consumer of information.

5. Know What You Don’t Know

Truly brilliant people know what they don’t know. They don’t pretend to know everything. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know.

The world is incredibly complex, and there is an almost infinite number of perspectives from which to analyze that world. So, it doesn’t make any sense when I meet someone who acts like they know everything about everything.

It’s just not possible.

The smartest people I know definitely know what they don’t know. And they’re not shy about admitting it. Those smart people are also curious and eager to learn more about what they don’t know.

I think Socrates said it best when he said,

“True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.”

In other words, if you’re truly smart, you know that there’s a whole lot that you are really dumb about.

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Okay, maybe Socrates said it better.

6. Put Your Smartphone Down

Our smartphones give us access to a lot of instant information. But that doesn’t mean they’re making us smarter.

Studies show that we need to put our phones down, mix and mingle with the masses, get out and enjoy nature, and just generally exist sans smartphones in order to bump up our brain power.[4]

The problem has a lot to do with focus. Just having their smartphones in the same room as them made participants perform more poorly on cognitive tests.

Smartphones are addictive. Think about those alluring push notifications. When we hear the chime, we drop everything and mindlessly pick up our phone.

Yeah, take a break from that.

If we want to beef up our focus on other things, it makes a lot of sense to put the phones down and put all our attention on other things for a moment.

Try these 5 Simple Ways to Unplug and Be More Mindful In Your Life.

7. Go for Depth

I know I’ve already told you that one strategy for how to think smart is to read up on a wide-range of topics. Well, it’s also important to go for depth.

Another trick for how to get smart is to dig deeply into a topic. Try to learn as much as you can about one narrow topic. Interested in the history of pants? Well, start doing your research and see where it takes you.

A lot of people already do this when they get sucked down a YouTube or Wikipedia rabbit hole. They start by clicking on one page, maybe all the people who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award (EGOTs). Before you know it, it’s four in the morning and you’re watching a black and white film about a donkey befriending a mouse. How in the world did you get here?

This is what I’m proposing you do with your pants research. Only try to stick more closely to the topic at hand: pants. Read something about pants. Then see what sources that book or article used. Then read some of those. And so on and so on.

I think you’ll find that the more you learn, the more you’ll realize just how much you still don’t know.

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That’s the kind of smart thinking we’re going for.

8. Challenge Your Mind—Learn Another Language

Use it or lose it. That’s really the mantra when it comes to our brains.

So, if you want to think smarter, challenge your brain.

One way is to learn another language. Now, I’m a notoriously slow language learner, but I still find that the process helps my brain immensely.

And studies back this up,[5] learning another language helps our concentration and focus.

So if you want to think smarter, think in another language. Push your brain and really challenge yourself.

The added bonus is that you’ll know another language.

9. Get Out There and See the World

Finally, the last strategy for how to think smart is to get out there and see the world — See and experience new people and places.

Research has shown that becoming truly immersed in new cultures boosts our brain’s ability to consider multiple perspectives at once.[6]

This goes back to what we were talking about before. Seriously considering multiple, diverse points of view is, simply put, smart thinking. It’s critical thinking where you don’t just assume you are right. It’s the kind of thinking that honors the complexity of the world and is open to learning new things.

Final Thoughts

Thinking smart is about knowing what we don’t know. It’s about seeing all sides of an argument, or problem and honoring all perspectives. It’s also about being genuinely curious about different people, places, and ideas.

Thinking smart isn’t just about acing a test. It’s really a state of mind. It’s about approaching interactions with the desire to really listen and learn. And it’s definitely not about proving you’re right or about cherry picking sources that prove what you already thought.

So, admit that you don’t know that much. And that’s the first step to knowing a whole lot.

More Tips for Thinking Smarter

Featured photo credit: Anthony Tran via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Psychology Today: What is confirmation bias?
[2] Play Your Way Sane: Curious detective
[3] Play Your Way Sane: Just Ask
[4] Psychology Today: Are smartphones making us stupid?
[5] Live Science: Learning a new language at any age helps the brain
[6] Forbes: Science says travel makes you smarter

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Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of PLAY YOUR WAY SANE (January 2021 Simon & Schuster)

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Published on November 23, 2020

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

Your neighbors downstairs are playing loud music. Again. How do they not get tired of partying? And why do they choose songs with such a heavy downbeat that the glass in your cupboard is vibrating every two seconds? What can you do to get some peace that you deserve? What should you?

Human mind tends to go in circles whenever faced with a problem without a clear solution. It becomes easy to forget the big picture and get lost in anger and self-pity, wasting our precious time, energy and enthusiasm.

Would it not be nice if we always remembered to put things in perspective?

Would it not be more efficient to face all kinds of problems, from tiny annoyances to life-changing emergencies, with a calm demeanor, sharp focus and fearless determination to promptly take the most efficient action possible?

Alas, humans are not like that. All too often we let anxiety or greed get the best of us and make a rushed or shortsighted decision that we quickly come to regret. Other times, we spend weeks or months at an impasse, rehashing the exact same arguments, unable to accept the compromise required to move forward with any of the available options.

Buddhists talk about getting lost in the “small self.” In this state of mind, we literally forget the big picture and focus on the small one. We start taking our daily problems too personally and, paradoxically, becomes less capable of solving them in an efficient manner. And this is the opposite of big picture thinking.

Let me share with you a story related to big picture thinking…

In 1812, the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia.[1] After a decisive Battle of Borodino, the capture of Moscow and therefore Napoleon’s victory in the war seemed inevitable.

Unexpectedly, the Russian Commander-in-Chief Mikhail Kutuzov made a highly controversial decision of retreating and allowing the French to capture Moscow. Much of the population had been evacuated taking supplies with them. The city itself was set on fire and large parts of it burned into the ground.

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After waiting in vain for Russia to capitulate, Napoleon had to retreat in the middle of a bitterly cold winter. He won the battle but lost the war. The campaign ended in a disaster and the near destruction of the French army.

What can we learn from this historical lesson?

1. Focus on the Consequences

Napoleon focused on the important part: capturing Moscow. Nobody could accuse him of thinking small. Yet he overlooked that the Russian army could still fight even after giving up the country’s most important city.

So was Moscow not an important target after all?

Success expert Brian Tracy has a litmus test: things are important to the extent that they have important consequences. Things are unimportant to the extent that they have no important consequences.[2]

When faced with a choice, ask yourself, what would be the consequences of each option?

  • Want to spend an hour studying or watching the new series on Netflix? What would be the consequences of each option? Netflix can sometimes be a better choice, but it helps to put things in perspective.
  • Want to maintain your apartment by yourself or to pay a cleaning service? Would would be the consequences of each option?
  • Want to meet up for coffee with this acquaintance of yours or catch up on your work instead? What would be the consequences of each option?

The choice can be different for different people. An aspiring filmmaker may have a legitimate reason for choosing Netflix. Personally, cleaning your own apartment can be relaxing and nourishing even if the economics of hiring a cleaner looks compelling because you are earning a high hourly rate.

This is where you will need a basic idea of who you are — what are your goals, values and aspirations.

2. Flip Defeat Into Victory

Kutuzov managed to turn Russia’s defeat into a historic victory by recasting the problem in a wider context: losing Moscow need not mean losing the war.

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Despite the symbolic meaning attached to the Kremlin, the churches, the priceless treasures that had been stored in the city for centuries, the outcome of the campaign was ultimately determined by the strength of the remaining armies.

If you can adopt this result-oriented perspective, many of your personal defeats may be flipped into victories as well. Few events in a human life are absolutely good or absolutely bad, and it usually takes many years to recognize in retrospect, what role a particular encounter did play in your story.

Therefore we have every reason to look for the good in the things that happen to us.

This is a very practical attitude, far from baseless “positive thinking.” After all, if something unfortunate has happened to you and you find good sides in this circumstance, you will then be better positioned to take advantage of those good sides.

Say your noisy neighbors are affecting your productivity. What if it is a blessing in disguise? How can you turn this defeat into a victory?

  • Perhaps you are too serious about life and could learn how to have more fun. Join your neighbors or go out for a walk instead of working;
  • Perhaps you only wanted to be productive while instead procrastinated on social media. Now that your procrastination has been interrupted, stop and acknowledge this much greater obstacle to your productivity;
  • Perhaps you are too sensitive to interference. Take this opportunity to practice ignoring the noise and doing your best anyway;
  • Perhaps you have a victim mentality and the feeling of unfairness drains you more than any actual nuisance your neighbors might have caused. Try accepting this lapse in your productivity the way you would accept bad weather.

Get used to finding opportunities in your problems. This is the quintessential big picture thinking.

3. Ask for Advice

Both Napoleon and Kutuzov had trusted advisers to discuss their affairs with. In general, getting a different perspective — or several — can only help inform your understanding and lead to better decisions. Just ensure that the people giving you advice are competent in the particular area where experience is needed.

Paying money for advice can also be a wise investment. Lawyers, tax accountants, medical doctors spend years learning how to assist people like yourself in living more successful, more fulfilling lives.

A quick legal consultation can save you a fortune down the line or even keep you out of big trouble. A medical check-up can uncover potential issues and help keep you healthy and active for years to come.

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Even big, complex dilemmas at your job or in your romantic relationship can be tackled more effectively by partnering up with a coach or a therapist or, of course, with the help of a wise friend.

4. Beware of Biased Advice

Many imperfect decisions occur in response to an imperfect piece of advice that you choose to act on. This advice often comes from a biased party.

For example, we are often encouraged to buy something that we supposedly need:

  • Protect your skin from harmful UV rays by using a special lotion.
  • Fortify your health by taking multivitamins.
  • Connect with your friends by sending them elaborate gifts.
  • Brighten your weekend by consuming a delicious pastry.
  • Become more productive by getting a faster computer.

However, most purchases are unnecessary.

Some, such as the sunscreen, do have legitimate benefits when used properly.[3] Others, such as multivitamins, only make a difference for a small group of people.[4]

Advertisers of those benefits inevitably want to narrow your focus in order to overstate the importance of their product. They frequently present it as the only solution to your problem, whether real or imaginary.

After all,

  • Skin can also be protected from the sun by wearing appropriate clothing.
  • Health can be better fortified by consuming a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
  • Spending time or talking on the phone with your friends is the foremost way of connecting with them, and it is virtually free.
  • Your weekend can be brightened by doing something that you love.
  • You can become more productive by focusing on the tasks that have the most important consequences. A faster computer can, in fact, decrease productivity by making it easier to multitask and by enabling your favorite distractions.

There are other sources of imperfect advice. Politicians also frequently want us to focus on a particular “big picture,” to the exclusion of the alternatives.

Even loving parents can be guilty of the same. They can advise their children to pick a career path that is safe and respectable, based on their “big picture” that in life one has to make a living. A child may disagree, however, based on another “big picture” that one’s life has to have meaning and fulfillment.

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Bottom Line

It is human nature to make rushed, emotional decisions based on incomplete information, then regret those decisions later on.

You can protect yourself from poor judgment by striving to attain the big picture when careful consideration is called for.

Focus on the consequences of your decision before considering how you feel about it.

Play with the cards you’ve been dealt, but look for opportunities in each situation and you will find them.

Ask knowledgeable mentors for advice, but beware of biased people who have an opinion, but do not necessarily have your best interest in mind.

Yet remember, true big picture thinking comes from hard-won experience. Legendary military commanders Napoleon Bonaparte and Mikhail Kutuzov were both injured on the battlefield.

Clear thinking comes from putting your big picture to the test of reality.

More Tips on Thinking Clearly

Featured photo credit: Haneen Krimly via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Wikipedia: French invasion of Russia
[2] Brian Tracy: No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline
[3] American Academy of Dermatology: Say Yes to Sun Protection
[4] Harvard Medical School: Do multivitamins make you healthier?

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