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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 Theatrical Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition.

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Published on July 7, 2020

Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts

Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts

Exercise isn’t just for your body. Just as important is keeping your mind strong by training your brain with fun mental workouts.

Think of your mental and physical fitness the same way: you don’t need to be an Olympian, but you do need to stay in shape if you want to live well. A few cognitive workouts per week can make a major difference in your life.

The Skinny on Mental Workouts

Physical fitness boosts your stamina and increases your muscular strength. The benefits of working up a mental sweat and brain training, however, might not be so obvious.

Research suggests that cognitive training has short- and long-term benefits, including:

1. Improved Memory

After eight weeks of cognitive training, 19 arithmetic students showed a larger and more active hippocampus than their peers.[1] The hippocampus is associated with learning and memory.

2. Reduced Stress Levels

Mastering new tasks more quickly makes the work of learning less stressful. A stronger memory can call information to mind with less effort.

3. Improved Work Performance

Learning quickly and remembering key details can lead to a better career. Employers are increasingly hiring for soft skills, such as trainability and attention to detail.

4. Delayed Cognitive Decline

As we age, we experience cognitive decline. A study published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that 10 one-hour sessions of cognitive training boosted reasoning and information processing speed in adults between the ages of 65 and 94.[2]

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Just like in physical exercise, what’s important isn’t the specific workout. To be sustainable, cognitive workouts need to be easy and fun. Otherwise, it’s too easy to throw in the towel.

Fun Brain Training Exercises for Everyone

The best about fun mental workouts? There’s no need to head to a gym. Feel free to mix and match the following activities for daily brain training:

1. Brainstorming

One of the simplest, easiest ways to engage your brain? Coming up with solutions to a challenge you’re facing.

If you aren’t good at solo ideation, ask a partner to join you. When I’m struggling to come up with topics to write about, I call up my editors to bat ideas around. Friends or co-workers are usually happy to help.

2. Dancing

Isn’t dancing a physical workout? Yes, but the coordination it requires is also great for training your brain. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

Studies suggest that dance boosts multiple cognitive skills.[3] Planning, memorizing, organizing, and creativity all seem to benefit from a few fancy steps.

3. Learning a New Language

Learning a new language takes time. But if you split it up into small, daily lessons, it’s easier than you might think.

With language learning, every lesson builds on the last. When I was learning Spanish, I used a tool called Guru for knowledge management.[4] Every time I’d learn a verb tense, I’d create a new card to give me a quick refresh before moving on.

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4. Developing a Hobby

Like languages, hobbies take time to develop. But that’s the fun of them: you get a little better—both at the hobby and in terms of brain function—each time you do them.

If you’re trying to train your brain and improve a certain cognitive skill, choose a hobby that aligns with it.

For example:

  • Attention to detail: Pick a hobby that requires you to work patiently with small features. Woodworking, model-building, sketching, and painting are all good choices.
  • Learning and memory: Choose an activity that requires you to remember lots of details. Your best bets are hobbies that require lots of categorization, such as collecting stamps or coins.
  • Motor function: For this brain function, physical activities can double as fun mental workouts. Sports like soccer and basketball build gross motor functions. Fine motor functions are better trained through activities like table tennis or even playing video games.
  • Problem-solving: Most hobbies require you to problem-solve in one way or another. The ones that test your problem-solving skills the most, however, take some investigation.

Geocaching is a good example: Using a combination of clues and GPS readings, geocaching involves finding and re-hiding containers. Typically done in a wooded area, geocaching is a fun way to put your problem-solving skills to the test.

5. Board Games

Playing a board game might not be much of a physical workout, but it does make for a fun mental workout. With that said, not all board games work equally well for cognitive training.

Avoid “no brainer” board games, like Candy Land. Opt for strategy-focused ones, such as Risk or Settlers of Catan. Remember to ask other players for their input.

6. Card Games

Card games build cognitive skills in much the same way board games do. They have a few extra advantages, though, that make them worthy of special attention.

A deck of cards is inexpensive and can be played anywhere, from a kitchen to an airplane. More importantly, a deck of cards opens the door to dozens of different games. Challenge yourself to learn a few in an afternoon.

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7. Puzzles

Puzzles are great tools for building a specific cognitive skill: visuospatial function. Visuospatial function is important to train because it’s one of the first abilities to slip in people struggling with cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.[5]

Choose a puzzle you’ll stick with. There’s no shame in starting with a 500-piece puzzle or choosing one that makes a childish image.

8. Playing Music

Listening to music is a great way to unwind. But playing music goes one step further. On top of entertaining you, it makes for a fun mental workout.

Again, choose an instrument you know you’ll stick with. If you’ve always wanted to learn the violin, don’t get a guitar because it’s less expensive or easier to pick up.

What if you can’t afford an instrument? Sing. Learning to control your voice is every bit as challenging as making a set of keys or strings sound good.

9. Meditating

Not all cognitive exercises are loud, in-your-face activities. Some of the most fun mental workouts, in fact, are quiet, solo activities. Meditating can help you focus, especially if you have pre-existing attention issues.

Don’t be intimidated if you’ve never meditated before. It’s easy:

  • Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down.
  • Set a timer for 10 minutes, or for however long you have to meditate.
  • Close your eyes or turn off the lights.
  • Focus on your breathing. Do not try to control it.
  • If your thoughts wander, gently bring them back to your breath.
  • When the timer goes off, wiggle your fingers and toes for a minute. Slowly bring yourself back to reality. Remember the sense of serenity you found.

10. Deep Conversation

There’s nothing more mentally stimulating than a good, long conversation. The key is depth: surface-level chatter doesn’t get the mind’s wheels spinning like a thoughtful, authentic conversation. This type of conversation helps in training your brain to think more deeply and reflect.

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Choose your partner carefully. You’re looking for someone who’ll challenge your ideas without being confrontational. Stress isn’t good for brain health, but there’s value in coming up with creative arguments.

11. Cooking

When you think about it, cooking requires an impressive array of cognitive skills. Developing a cook’s intuition requires a good memory. Making sure flavors are balanced takes attention to detail. When something goes wrong in the kitchen, problem-solving skills come into play. Motor control is required to stir, flip, and whisk.

If you’re going to cook, you might as well make enough for everyone. Invite them into the kitchen as well: coordinating with other chefs adds an extra layer of challenge to this fun mental workout.

12. Mentorship

Whether you’re the mentee or the mentor, mentorship is an incredible mental workout. Learning from someone you look up to combines the benefits of deep conversation with skill-building. Teaching someone else forces you to put yourself in their shoes, which requires empathy and problem-solving skills.

Put yourself in both situations. Being a student makes you a better teacher, and teaching others gives you insight into how you, yourself, learn.

Final Thoughts

Your mind is your most important possession, and training your brain is needed to maintain its health. Don’t let it get soft.

To keep those neurons firing at full speed, add a few fun mental workouts to your schedule. And if you’re still struggling to get your brain in gear, remember: there’s an app for that.

More Tips for Training Your Brain

Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

Reference

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