Being Smart in the 21st Century


I think many are confused about what it means to be smart today. I hear people speaking often about others being “way smarter than them” based on this or that accomplishment, and I wonder what they mean by that. I also wonder if they know what they mean by it.

My current theory is that true intellectual accomplishment, i.e. the type that inspires people to say someone is smarter than them, is a matter of curiosity rather than aptitude. Smart people are smart because they think about problems, not because they’re necessarily better at solving them.

It’s about walking around with questions in your head–constantly. It’s about being enthralled with how things work. And it’s about using what you know from various disciplines to find answers. But 95% of it is actually being curious about something in the first place. That’s what smart is.

I’ll give an example. There was a talk recently by H.D. Moore about what he learned from scanning the internet. He did a scan of virtually everything online, and he came away with some interesting trends, e.g. if you have UPNP open on your network you probably have a number of other sensitive ports open as well. And he found some cool ways to visualize these types of patterns.

It was genius, but the implementation wasn’t difficult at all. The part that was hard was going from nothing existing to this project existing–all based on simply wondering what the hell he would find.

Another way to say this is that most non-smart people I know aren’t limited by their lack of computer or writing or English skills. They’re limited by not being fascinated by the world around them. Well, not just limited–debilitated.

We should think about smart differently, and as a result learn to cultivate it separately from growing task-oriented skills. People will always need to be skilled in certain areas, but we need to spend more most of our effort on helping them learn to be curious, and how to ask interesting questions. That’s the path to accomplishment and being…”smart” in the world we live in today.

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