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Zack Cahill Headshot

How to Be Smarter

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I am fascinated by polymathy. While modern business gurus are forever extolling the virtues of specialising and finding your niche, I have to admit I've always been more of a Jack of all trades. I tend to let my attention settle on a subject, become mildly obsessed with it and then when my attention wanders after a few weeks or months or years, move on to something else. As a result I'm probably not world class at anything, but I'm okay at a lot of stuff.

This is not polymathy. A true polymath is not just okay, not just proficient , but positively TED-talk-worthy in a number of fields.

Socrates and Plato were not just brilliant minds and orators, but also great athletes and soldiers. Leonardo Da Vinci was probably the most diversely talented human ever, excelling at painting, sculpting , architecture , mathematics , anatomy and more. He could probably even dance and cook, the bastard.

These men were undoubtedly geniuses, gifted , practically superhuman. They picked the right parents, no doubt. But while we can't exchange the numbers we drew in the genetic lottery , we can do a lot with what we've got.

The research on genius points to a few simple conclusions. You've got to be born smart, you've got to be interested in learning and you've got to be in an environment that facilitates this learning. Think The Beatles in Hamburg, gigging for hours every single day , compressing more practice into a few years than some bands get in their entire careers.

Now you can argue guys like Socrates had it easier. After all, Greek high society had the benefit of a slave class. Perhaps if you had servants looking after your every menial task you'd have time to sit around in robes pondering the nature of existence too.

We modern folk have no such luxury . And since man has yet to discover martinis that buy themselves or the self hoovering flat, we need to work and do other boring stuff not all of which is conducive to the attainment of genius.

On the plus side, information has never been as freely available in so many convenient formats. So how can we use the modern tools of learning to build deep knowledge, rather than simply becoming overloaded?

Read without restriction- read diversely, voraciously and with promiscuity. The internet's ability to build a profile of our tastes and steer us toward content we might be interested in is a double edged sword. An ever-helpful amazon account can lead us down increasingly narrow passages rather than allowing us to discover new areas of interest organically.
Above all, don't confine yourself to books or magazines that feel relevant to your profession. I've heard "experts" suggest banning fiction entirely, as if swapping War and Peace for another retread of How to win friends and influence people style cliches is going to make you a more rounded person.

Reading and research does not always have to have a direct , clear outcome. More often than not, truly creative thinking and breakthroughs come from unexpected sources. A piece of information from one field collides with a thought process from another and a new idea is synthesised. Its a form of alchemy that can't occur on an overly frugal or "specialised" information diet.

Write- nothing clarifies your thoughts more than the act of distilling them to words on paper. This can be as informal as an exchange of ideas with a friend over email, or you could write a blog or keep a journal. Its highly individual but without a doubt writing about a subject will improve your retention of information while the process itself will spark new realisations and a deeper understanding.

Take walks- "all truly great thoughts are conceived while walking" according to Nietzche, no intellectual slouch. And if that doesn't convince you here's Henry Thoreau ; "Methinks the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,"

Examples of great thinkers and artists praising the benefits of a good old wander are not hard to come by. Perhaps the removal of walls and ceilings promotes unrestrained thinking, or maybe the physiological act of walking improves brain function.

For me a walk acts as an "acceptable" break from reading, writing or other obligations. There's no nagging voice telling me I'm procrastinating, because my body is performing a task. This then frees up the parts of the mind that were preoccupied with "trying" to think , or were anxious about a lack of progress, to simply wander. Just as when the name of some obscure actor is on the tip of your tongue, often the best way to remember is to stop trying.

The point is we can't always be in gather-and-consume mode. If researching is about the acquisition of information, then walking and daydreaming is about turning that raw information into real knowledge and creating something that is specifically your own and greater than it's constituent parts.

So read, write and go for walks. Sorry if that's not particularly revolutionary, but then I never claimed to be a genius.