Seeming Smarter

Consider spending lots of time with people who are one notch above you.

Posted Aug 27, 2018

MaxPixels, CC0
Source: MaxPixels, CC0

Everyone wants to be smarter, and advertisers know it. So, many items are branded “smart:” for example, smartphone, smart homes, the Smart car, and smart-growth cities. UPS offers “Smart Pickup.” Even psychology has jumped on board. A national chain of substance-abuse groups is called, you guessed it, SmartRecovery.

Defining “smart” may be a bit like the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography: “I know it when I see it.”  But for purposes of this article, we'll define “smart” as the ability to, with above-average speed and depth, learn difficult things, understand complexity, and solve problems. 

Becoming smarter is no mean feat. Intelligence, at least as measured by intelligence tests, is notoriously resistant to improvement. For example, definitive studies of Head Start, whose original purpose was to raise cognitive functioning has, now 55 years after inception, been unable to produce enduring gains. See, for example, the discouraging review of 90 evaluations of Head Start in U.S. News: "Scant Scientific Evidence for Head Start Programs' Effectiveness." 

But logically at least, it would seem that doing the following could make you appear, if not actually become, smarter.


Appropriately using a $10 word is a fast way to convey intelligence. And indeed, vocabulary is a key part of most intelligence tests because it measures the ability to learn abstractions on the fly:  inferring a word’s meaning from context and remembering it. That said, it takes an awfully long time to improve your vocabulary through day-to-day conversation and reading, so here is a list of a few hundred words that are difficult yet have frequent-enough use in speaking or writing.  You might enter the words from that list that you’d like to learn into, which will pleasantly test you on them.

And here is a list of words and phrases that demonstrate the kind of nuanced, analytic thinking that’s emblematic of intelligent people.

It's at least as important to avoid language that makes many people perceive you as a dim bulb. Here's a list of words, phrases, and behaviors to avoid.

Ask curiosity-driven questions.  In conversation, really listen to what's being said. That can trigger questions you're curious to ask about.

Tell your tried-and-trues. Over your lifetime, you may have some well-honed anecdotes, arguments, and riffs. List your favorites and consult the list before attending social gatherings so, at the right moment, you can trot one out. That needn’t be limited to conversation. Consider giving talks, for example, at a professional conference or meeting of a hobbyist organization. You’ll have time to assemble and organize plenty of smart thoughts. Plus, you can have note cards with you so you’ll remember everything.


Do work that uses your well-acquired knowledge. The novelty of switching into a new field is tempting, but you’ll appear more intelligent and likely create better work products if you leverage what you know.

Take on supervisory and mentoring work. That appears to require a high level of intelligence but supervisors and mentors often can be effective mainly by being supportive: listening, helping to obtain resources, etc. 

Facilitate groups. Moderating a panel at a professional meeting or with a group of colleagues in your field can convey intelligence without unduly taxing brainpower. Again, caring, listening, and question-asking can go a long way.


In company, yelling at the refs while watching a game, gushing or screaming about some politician, or swooning when a performer sings, will, except for fellow fanatics, tend to downgrade people's perception of your intelligence.

Similarly, while some intelligent people are religious, few are extremely so. Most thoughtful people have significant doubts about the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, loving God. They reason that if one existed, why would, for example, countless babies be born with devastating diseases, screaming in agony only to soon die leaving bereft parents. Or why would such a God allow countless people to die or lose everything in earthquakes, droughts, and other natural disasters.  So if you’re interested in appearing intelligent, you might discuss your extreme religiosity only with kindred spirits. That’s doubly true regarding other faith-based beliefs: astrology, angels, UFOs, horoscopes, crystals, superstitions, success being caused mainly by luck, vaccinations causing autism, etc.

Moderation is demonstrated also by eschewing all-or-nothing positions. The intelligent person realizes there almost always are exceptions to black-and-white positions. So, you’ll appear more intelligent if your statements are couched, for example, using terms such as “usually, “often,” and “Most of me believes that...”  For instance, if you lean liberal, you might say, “I believe that progressive principles tend to lead to a better society but there certainly are conservative and libertarian perspectives worth considering.”

Demeanor and appearance

We’re a visual species, so how you come across can make a stronger impression even than what you say. For example, think of admired celebrities, from elected officials to TV anchors. Disproportionately they’re conventionally attractive and have a moderate demeanor: moderately energetic yet calm, confident yet not hubristic, erect yet relaxed posture, dressing well but in the mainstream lest it appear they’re trying to stand out with their veneer than with their substance. Of course, it’s sad that to be viewed as credible and intelligent so depends on treading that middle ground. But in this article, we’re dealing with humankind as-is, not attempting the Herculean task of changing its predilections. 

There’s a little-noticed but powerful component of the demeanor that conveys intelligence as well as charisma and likeability. It’s oft warned that interrupting a person is rude and signals that you think that what you’ll say is so much worthier of the person’s time that you chose to cut them off. That warning is correct but it has an underdiscussed corollary: Wait a half or even a full second before responding. Doing that implies that you want to be sure they’re finished, that you were eager to hear all they’re saying and not just waiting for them to shut up before you launch in to your more important words. A full-second pause signals additionally that you are reflecting on what they were saying.

Ways to actually get smarter

The following would likely seem—and I’m relying here not on empiricism but on a priori reasoning—to potentially improve your real-world smarts.

Spend time with people moderately smarter than you. The more time you spend around people who are one notch smarter than you, the more likely their intellectual skills will rub off. That's analogous to playing a sport: If you play with people who are moderately better than you, you’re observing skills that are somewhat beyond you but still within reach. Also, you’re spending much of your playing time stretching yourself so you can stand a chance. Yet you aren’t playing against someone so superior that their play is beyond your ken or where even your best efforts will fail, so you'll more likely give up. So, within your workplace, see if you can do projects with people who are one notch brighter. If you’re looking for a new workplace, it’s often worth taking a lower-level job at an organization known for hiring bright people. For example, it might be worth being an HR assistant at Google than HR manager at the Ace Widget Company. Outside of work, also consider spending lots of time, platonically and romantically, with people who are one notch above.

Likely as important as who you interact with is what you do with them. At work, if you’re just licking envelopes for some bright person, you'll grow little. But even if it’s just taking notes for a group of smart people, you get a window into the way they think. Of course, better still is getting to engage with them on a thinking-centric  part of a project, for example, brainstorming, winnowing, developing the plan, or troubleshooting it.

The takeaway

In our ever more knowledge- and thinking-centric society, appearing and being intelligent is central to getting and staying well-employed, and in having sustainable personal relationships. One or more of the suggestions in this article should help, perhaps just in how you’re perceived but hopefully also in substance.

I read this aloud on YouTube.