Becoming Smarter
Header image featuring woman on operating table and crazy scientist
"In a year from now, you'll wish you started today."
โ€“ Karen Lamb

Most people are not smarter than you.

Reading this handbook may be the best thing you've ever done for your intelligence.

(If you're not convinced by the end, call me a fool on Twitter.)

You likely know there's a bell curve of IQ points. Meaning, most of us have an average intelligence, and a few of us are considered either brilliant or dumb.

What you probably don't know is that as long as you're near average, having a higher IQ doesn't make you "smarter" in your everyday work or social conversations.ยน It appears to just increase the upper bound of your ability to learn and apply math. 

That's it.

This means the difference in capability between you and the author, speaker, or businessperson you admire isn't a result of having a lower IQ. (Their jobs don't in any way depend on math skills.) You'll prove this to yourself at the end of the guide.

So if they're not smarter, why do they perform better than us? Why do they write so well, persuade so well, repeatedly make good decisions, and think so clearly?

I believe it's because they're exceptionally good at critical thinking:

โ™– In large part, critical thinking is the art of constructing a good argument.

(If you're already familiar with critical thinking, this guide will explain how to make genuine everyday use of it. This is a well-researched guide, not a rambling blog post.)

Elon Musk, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos are all on record attributing their success to critical thinking โ€” not luck or gut instincts. (You'll hear from them on the next page.)

Why is that? Because constructing an argument is at the heart of all decision making, persuasion, and debate. Writing and speaking are just different mediums for communicating arguments. Everything comes down to an argument.

Yet most people can't write a persuasive email.

It's strange how little-known critical thinking is. Most of the intellectual variation across humanity seems to be the result of random chance: in part, "smarter" people merely stumbled into critical thinking before "stupid" people did. (I bet you never realized you should Google "How to be smarter" at some point in your life.)

So let's learn critical thinking. And let's make it fun. Let's watch videos of politicians making dumb arguments. Let's include audio of me practicing these skills by ripping apart friends' arguments. And let's realize half our political beliefs are flat-out wrong.

In the process, you'll witness yourself becoming a markedly better writer and speaker. 

Society is naive

Here's important context on why I wrote this guide.

When two people have equal access to data and critical thinking skills, argumentative stalemates are less common. Sound conclusions are often obvious to both of them.

In other words, many wars, divorces, and fights could have been avoided had both parties thought critically. Critical thinking is therefore the most important social skill. 

Yet, many of us have never heard of it โ€” or don't actually understand how it works.

I believe that's because we undervalue how and why people think. We care about what people say instead. And how charming they are when they say it. In fact, we routinely rely on speaking skill and domain expertise as proxies for someone's raw intelligence.

That's naive. These learned people simply had the interest to refine these two skills. 

๐Ÿค” To prove my point, there's an optional Speaking with authority tangent (below) for those who need it. And I've written a companion post on knowledge.

The better you speak, the smarter you sound, and the more seriously your arguments are considered by other smart people. So although speaking well is a shallow endeavor when decoupled from critical thinking, it is a prerequisite to arguing successfully.

If you already speak and write with an authoritative voice, you can skip the primer.

Optional: Speaking with authorityExpand

To speak with authority, compress wordsbe concise, and eliminate utterances:

(After this section, I'll show you videos of speakers using all these techniques.)

  • Compress words

    If doing so does not reduce clarity, use one word when it can replace multiple words. This is a superficial technique for sounding smart.

    For example, say "ideate" instead of "coming up with ideas," say "knowledgeable" instead of "knowing a lot," say "methodology" instead of "the way it's done," etc. 

    When you use compressor words, you reduce your word count, which gives each of your remaining words greater weight. And, when you're concise, your answers sound less like they're being made up on the spot. This makes you sound authoritative.

    A wordy person might say, "I'm careful to not engage in smack talk because I don't want to get caught up in more debates than I have to." A concise speaker may instead say, "I avoid smack talk to minimize unnecessary debate."

    (In a moment, I'll show you videos demonstrating this technique.)

    Fortunately, acquiring new words doesn't require subscribing to "word of the day" lists or using flashcards. It only requires making a note whenever someone uses a word you don't commonly hear. If you think you could speak more clearly if you used this new word, confirm its definition then sprinkle it into your sentences over the next month. It will quickly assimilate into your natural vocabulary.
  • Be concise

    Do not say more than is required to make your point. 

    If compressors are micro-level brevity, conciseness is macro-level brevity. In other words, leave out unnecessary details. If the car was blue and the day was hot, but that doesn't lend value to your narrative, exclude it.

    Ask yourself, If I don't introduce this new thought into the conversation, would everyone still get the point? Even if it's an interesting thought, is it needed?

    Good communicators don't ramble because they know each additional word further divides a listener's attention. In other words, conciseness is the art of tailoring your message to the audience you're currently talking to. Be aware of the room. 
  • Eliminate utterances

    Get rid of "uhms/ahh" and "ya know?/right?/look..." 

    Consider this sentence: "Look, uhm, I avoid smack talk to minimize unnecessary debate โ€” okay?" These utterances undermine the confidence in your word choice.

    To prevent "uhms/ahhs," pause before opening your mouth so you can form at least half of your sentence in your head before speaking it aloud. Then go ahead and speak it, and notice how your brain automatically avoids utterances!

    It's that simple, because utterances are just your brain signalling that it needs time to choose the next word. And now you've given your brain a multi-word headstart.

    Poor speakers mistake the speed at which their brain can formulate thoughts for the speed at which they can turn those thoughts into a spoken sentence. But this process incurs a delay, and rushing out sentences before the delay is complete causes utterances. Stop shortchanging your brain.

    It's much harder to stop saying "ya know?/right?" at the very end of sentences because it's deeply habitual. Unfortunately, a dependence on these will cause some of your listeners to subconsciously interpret you as saying, "Please validate my thoughts because I'm not fully sure what I mean / I lack confidence I'm right." 

    Your best shot at prevention is practicing literally holding your tongue still right when you've finished a sentence. This may prevent you from trailing off with needless filler.

Lastly, make sure your physical skills complement your spoken skills: maintain eye contact and good posture when speaking. It reliably helps project authority.

Even if you don't consciously implement any of this advice, just by being made aware of it, you're likely employ it to some small extent over the next week. 

But if you want to take this material seriously, keep these reminders within view: 

  • Listen for new words to use.
  • Don't use more words than needed.
  • Pause to plan half your sentence before speaking.

How to write better

This section's advice equally applies to writing well โ€” with three caveats:

  1. Writing well is not about style. It's about thinking well. Faulty logic is easier to spot in written arguments because readers can slowly comb through your words. So you'll need the upcoming critical thinking skills to propose foolproof conclusions. 
  2. You have to be exceptionally concise. Consider this: When talking in person, no one is going to walk away mid-sentence if you bore them. But when someone reads your online writing, they won't think twice before closing the tab. Readers are actively looking for red flags (like you rambling) to quit reading. Don't give them any red flags. Allow them to maintain a flow state. Get to your points quickly.
  3. To help be clearly understood and considered authoritative, punctuate properly.

Examples of good speakers

First, below is an example of Marco Rubio (an American politician) speaking well.

For every video in this guide, I've hardcoded beginning and end times. So just hit play and let them run until they pause โ€” don't view them on YouTube.com.

Recognize that Marco isn't necessarily smarter than you because he speaks well. He simply happened to have the desire and/or upbringing to hone his speaking skills. 

If you already speak as well as Rubio, one level higher is Sam Harris (an American author). Every word Sam chooses is intentionally and accurately used:

Note that neither speaker is being pretentious. Neither is using more words than needed, nor using more sophisticated vocabulary than needed. Their primary goal is not to impress you; their goal is to accurately and clearly communicate the entirety of what's in their head so that a productive debate can ensue.

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About Julian

I spend months researching topics so I can write concise, book-quality guides.

I release them online and for free because books must hit high page counts, which results in filler content that annoys readers.

Previously, I was a startup founder. My work has been profiled in Forbes, Iโ€™ve written a book, Iโ€™ve built a popular open source library, and Iโ€™ve started and sold a company.

If you were impressed with the quality of my Build Muscle and Startup Growth handbooks, you know I deliver when I make lofty claims about quality!

Come say hello on Twitter!

โ€”โ€”โ€”  Contents
โ€”โ€”  Intro
โ€”โ€”  Prep Week
โ€”โ€”  The Program
โ€”โ€”  Fat Loss
โ€”โ€”  Cheat Sheets