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What Does It Mean to Be Smart?

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I’m sure that at some point in your life that you’ve been told ‘you’re pretty smart’ by someone, whether it was a parent, a teacher or a colleague. But what does it actually mean to be told that you’re smart?

On a literal level, the dictionary defines ‘smart’ as ‘having or showing a quick-witted intelligence‘, and intelligence is defined as ‘the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills’. But who is measuring our ability to apply knowledge and skills, and how are we measuring it? How we’re measuring being ‘smart’ seems a bit ambiguous, so is it all based on your individual perspective? Is it based on using previous comparisons? Who really has the ability to decide who’s smart and who’s not smart? How do we decide who to label as being ‘really smart?’ Are IQ tests enough?

I was curious to know the answers to these questions, so I did what any curious person would do in 2019 – I grabbed my smartphone and I googled ‘what does it mean to be smart?’ Fortunately, I found tons of readily available articles about the topic ‘what does it means to be smart?’.

So, I started reading about what it means to be smart. Or more specifically, I started reading and I looked for patterns, to see what sort of principles popped up on a consistent basis, and what the general consensus on the matter is.

Not surprisingly, different articles on the topic gave me different perspectives. But there were a few attributes that I consistently found across several articles, such as:

  • Being smart, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder
  • Being smart is something that you can be in one domain, but not in another domain, similar to how you can be confident in your professional life but not in your dating life
  • Being smart is something that’s grown and cultivated, often by being curious enough to seek out new information and by recognising what you don’t already know
  • Being smart is the ability to put ideas together, and create solutions to problems
  • Being smart is the ability to focus, concentrate, and communicate

So, it appears that being smart is something that depends on your perspective of what realm you’re talking about it in. For myself, I can be smart in things such as psychology and the history of some sports, but I’m definitely not smart when it comes to discussing palaeontology because I admittedly know about as little about the topic as a human can.

Nonetheless, ‘smart’ is a vague term and it depends on your perspective. Some people define ‘being smart’ as the ability to regurgitate random facts about a variety of subjects, while others may attribute smartness to an individual who understands business, politics and how the world works. You may be smart, but if you are introverted and shy socially, you may not be able to convey your smartness. According to Ana Ro at Top Trends Guide, a great way to show how smart you are can be to ask someone you’re dating insightful and thoughtful questions since many people perceive great listeners to be excellent conversationalists.

So for anyone who wants to be ‘smart’, or to even be ‘smarter’ than you already are, I suggest this: Be curious, and have a desire to continuously evolve. Continue to learn more, take the knowledge that you have, be willing to make it your own, and be able to communicate what you see with your unique set of knowledge and experiences to others. Because when it comes down to it, what I think makes someone smart is their desire to learn more, and their desire to use what they’ve learned to solve problems moving forward.

Matthew Buckley is an organisational psychologist. He holds a master’s degree in organisational psychology from the University of New Haven.

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