How to be clever – cleverness explained

Picture by: Jack Moreh

The secret to being clever

What do prominent scientists, millionaires and an AI like Alpha Go have in common?

They are clever.

Now I am a quite intelligent person. I am not even close to being extremely intelligent; there are a lot of people around me who probably are just as bright. But I always did really well in school, I am emphatic, creative, can connect the dots and so on. I am fairly confident that I am as intelligent as many millionaires out there. I even dare to bet that I am more intelligent than at least one billionaire. (You too, dear reader, you too.) But am I more clever than any self-made millionaire out there? Doubtfully. Hardly. Nah.

So what is the secret to being clever? What does it even mean to be clever? What do famous scientists, millionaires and the AI have in common?

The answer: They find out what works and they are good at it

Clever people are good at finding out what works in the here and now. Usually the try to understand how it works as well, so they can apply this knowledge with superior skill.

Eye looking at a virtual screen in mid air, analyzing data

Millionaires do not just stroll through life and listen to conventional wisdom, waiting for experience to knock on their door one day and make them rich. They figure out exactly what works and what does not work.

  • Did they have to change their whole strategy to produce results? –> They did.
  • Were their initial expectations about the market completely wrong? –> They changed their mind without blinking.

Scientists do not fantasize about why an experiment produces such and such results, they investigate what actually happens. They don’t get creative about why an odd species of bacteria is so good at reproducing, they find out.

Googles AI Alpha Go does not ask why it is trying to beat professional Go players — or why it is playing any game at all for that matter. The “why” is part of being consciously intelligent, not clever. The AI is clever, but it is not wise in any meaningful way whatsoever. Alpha Go just studies what works and then implements it. It does this all the time. It does nothing else. That’s why it can beat world champions by now.

Defining the word itself

In my opinion you will get the best definition of the word online by just googling ‘clever meaning’. Google’s definition of the word is: quick to understand, learn, and devise or apply ideas; intelligent. 

Pay attention now. There are lots of ways to learn and lots of things to learn, but not everything is relevant for your current goal. Furthermore; although the ability to quickly absorb knowledge is a sign of intelligence, being a bookworm is not the same as devising or applying ideas. There is a big difference between learning something and using that knowledge to get granular on what actually helps you.

Educated people and clever people alike should be familiar with the conditions necessary for success in their field of interest. However, very clever people quickly find out what ideas work for meeting these conditions at the moment, and then they apply the ideas better than the people around them.

Do not be clever, do clever

Often it is hard to figure out what works and how it works. I’m not exceptionally good at this, but I understand the fundamentals.

The basics:

  1. Use your intelligence. This is the step where you think, instead of lazily pattern matching.
  2. Be proactive, not reactive. Think ahead, use your intelligence to plan for a method that works in the future, instead of coming up with a way to respond to you situation.
  3. Narrow your focus
  4. Avoid situations where factors which you can never influence play a big part. You can improve your chess game, but you can’t convince a dice to change its mind.

It is not easy. The secret is to not “be” clever, but to actually do clever.  You can’t just sit around and be super smart like Mr Spock, you need to walk around and make a mess to figure things out, like Sherlock.

But hey, if it was super easy to find useful answers, you could just type in “how to be clever” in the YouTube search bar! Like I did when I found this video:

Funny perhaps, but not so helpful, is it?

Well, jokes aside, here is what I know: Although it might help you to solve a problem if you are intelligent, it might also help if you simply spend a lot of time trying to solve the problem or if you use your time to get useful answers. The fact that two guys both solved a really hard problem, makes both of them clever by definition. People don’t care if one guy has an IQ of 105 while his rival has an IQ of 140, as long as their guy can solve the problem.

If you know a field well, it might be easier for you to figure something out than it would be for someone else. So knowledge and experience help. But if you are really good, you find solutions anyway.

Being clever is doing clever. You have to be able to implement what you have learnt.

Asking the right questions

Smart people ask the right questions. We already know the first one: what works? But which questions do you follow up with? It depends on the situation, but here are some suggestions:

  • What does not work?
    – Do I understand the issue well enough to recognize what works and what does not work?
  • Who knows this?
    – Who can I ask for help?
    – How can I make someone help me?
  • Where can I find good answers?
    – If I cannot ask someone, where will I find information about this?
  • What has worked before?

Side note: The most relevant questions; the “what works” and the follow up “how does it work”, are prioritized differently from field to field. For a biomedical scientist the hardest part might be to figure out how a receptor works. Then he can more easily find out what kind of drug could affect it. For an entrepreneur the hardest part might be finding out which marketing method actually works for her niche. It might be slightly easier for her to understand how it works, when he knows for sure that it works.

Why is it so hard to be clever?

For me personally, the main reason for why it is hard to be clever is because I have to let go of my own ideas.

If you want to be clever, you must be ready to change your mind. Sometimes you must realize that you were an idiot and start over. I hate this. I hate to surrender my own ideas and to actually, really listen to facts I know I won’t like.  But I have to let go of impractical ideas sometimes. No matter how much you beat a dead horse, it still won’t move.

This is why I work on my mindset! If we can stop being so negative towards realities we have to deal with anyway, we can figure things out much faster.

Scientists don’t deny the results they get, even if the results undermine their hypotheses. And it’s not like an AI ever thinks; “Shit, unless I start playing like that I will lose, but I hate playing like that!”

Now if I was close minded, I would not even realize how many different perspectives exist. If I was too proud, I would not admit that sometimes I need to listen to others because I don’t have the best solutions, or perhaps not even valid solutions, to the problems I face.

You are probably familiar with the phrase: “It’s nothing personal, just business”. Maybe it means that you have to be selfish to get rich.

No. That is a shortsighted way of thinking. The world is not a gangster movie. The saying could also be about not confusing other people’s opinions with what actually works. A business have to produce results to stay afloat.

The first step to really understanding something is assuming you don’t understand it.

You also have to be able to implement what you have learnt even when that includes doing some things you don’t want to do.

How to find out what works

The best way to find out what works, how it works and what you should do, is to find a good mentor. If you have followed me so far, you should be able to learn what you need to know from a mentor who knows the subject.

Now onto some more general advice! I am not an millionaire but I will share what advice I can with you.

Here it is:

  • Stay open minded – Read stuff and expose yourself to new things.
  • Be ready to let go of your initial ideas. Change your mind if you have to – embrace change. 
  • Ask the right questions.
  • Get someone to help you; two heads are better than one who is stuck.
  • Listen. Listen to people.
  • Network with many people – e.g. forums is one good way to find answers.
  • Analyze – divide every step into smaller steps and figure them out one at a time.
  • Find answers by studying talented peers and colleagues and see what they did in your situation. Do you know the saying “get on my level”? Well it is true. It makes sense for e.g. Bill Gates to earn money by promoting something, but he has already earned that influence. You won’t necessary learn how he got successful to start with, by looking on what he does now. He has moved on, you are not even there yet.

Don’t blame yourself if it is hard

In general you should strive to see your plans through, come hell or high water! But if you find yourself constantly depressed because you can’t figure something out, consider if you really want to do this. Maybe you don’t actually care as much as you thought about it anyway, or maybe you are actually in over your head. We can’t be good at everything.

In TV shows the clever guys are always bursting with energy and love to show off. This is because they are depicted as freaking geniuses, resulting in a slightly skewed image of how real people behave. Truth is, not everyone is a genius, but we can all get smarter.


Stay clever,


2 Replies to “How to be clever – cleverness explained”

  1. Well written!

    I must say that you are coming close to inspiring me to read more inspirational stuff, as I think it could do a lot of good if you keep sources of inspiration close at hand whenever you need them and regardless of the problem you are facing. The methods and advice you give can be applied to more than millionaires or scientist or AI, it can be applied to someone just trying to grow a garden, or for instance write more novells. I’m pleased you started this blog, as the posts really provide me with inspiration and that is something I can never get enough of. So thank you once again, for an awesome post and a reminder to stay open minded. It would be well for the world if we all got a little more clever.

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