3 Characteristics Of The Smartest, Most Competent People (That You Can Master, Too)

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If you look up the meaning of the word "smart," the Merriam-Webster dictionary provides a wealth of definitions and synonyms, including clever, dapper, modish, agile, astute and, yes, brainy.

Smart can be an adjective (intelligent, neat or brisk), a verb (relating to pain), a noun (again, relating to pain), and an adverb (describing a manner of conducting oneself with style).

So, we know what being "smart" means in a technical sense, but do we really know how to tell if someone, including ourselves, fits the criteria?

I know someone is smart when I can see it in action. In other words, being "smart" is something you do — not something you are.

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In my experience, there are three characteristics "smart" people possess and put on display on a regular basis:

  • "People sense," or an understanding of others.
  • Common sense or sound judgment on practical matters.
  • Book learning or academic knowledge, study and practice.

All of these characteristics are fed by an innate sense of curiosity, nurtured early in life, and cultivated over a lifetime.

Instead of labeling yourself smart or not, consider being smart a process that is accessible to almost anyone willing to learn and act effectively.

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How to cultivate each of the three characteristics the smartest people share

1. People sense: understanding others

The smartest people have learned that understanding others depends on understanding themselves first. That includes your emotions, assumptions, needs and preferences.

It will no doubt be unsurprising to you that this is a worthwhile, yet challenging process.

Notice what your actions tell you about yourself — why and how you do things, for example. Your curiosity about yourself contributes to awareness and commitment to acting in your interest. It generates continuing sources of insight and foresight that will help you avoid mistakes and detours.

Add to that a kinder sense of humor about yourself.

It will also allow you to notice patterns in your actions and situations that bring joy and energy as well as those that flatten, drain, distract or just bore you.

To assist with that self-analysis, develop trusting relationships that encourage mutual feedback and growth.

Because there are multitudes of books, courses and processes for understanding yourself, create a balance between curiosity about yourself and constant navel gazing — eventually, all you’ll see there is fuzz or maybe a ”black hole” anyway.

Your insight and foresight also prepare you for understanding and appreciating others: their concerns, fears, anxieties as well as their interests and desires.

When you don’t already discern what motivates and appeals to others, asking open-ended questions starting with “what” and “how” may elicit useful information.

Also, pay attention to their choices and regrets.

Listening well and sharing opinions and ideas avoids falling into the cycle of babbling through self-absorbed monologues that don’t go anywhere. Pick up on leads for exploring what you’re each curious about.

Give and take, whether in conversation, use of time or material matters is another foundation for developing mutual understanding and empathy.

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2. Common sense: sound judgment on practical matters

Embedded in understanding yourself and others is information and direction for further developing your common sense. Add your intuition, thoughtful perspective and balanced conclusions.

Hunches and guesses are as important as rational assessment, just as emotion informs reason.

In fact, according to psychologist Lisa Barrett Feldman, they are the basis for your emotions and therefore many choices.

With this understanding in mind, here are some questions to encourage your own exploration and curiosity for key aspects of practical matters in your life:

  • How safe, supported and engaged are you in each major relationship?
  • How specifically do you contribute to your own immediate and longer-term wellness?
  • What is the quality of the match between who you are, what you want and how earn your living for pay or not?
  • How well-organized and adequate are the main tangible and intangible financial resources for your current and expected goals and needs?
  • Do you give yourself the time and type of play with meaning to you?
  • How consistent and adequate is your sleep cycle?

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3. Book learning: academic knowledge, study and practice

Much education and learning is based on what and how others think you should know and learn.

While common sense suggests some attention to such requirements is valuable, you’ll probably have improved outcomes to the degree that you can weave in your own interests and needs.

People sense also weaves into learning as I experienced when I applied for my master’s degree and was rejected because my undergraduate grades did not meet the university’s standard.

Not to be dissuaded, I negotiated in person, offering to take two graduate courses. If I got A's, they would let me re-submit my application.

The same eventually successful process related to interpersonal relationships helped me when I applied for and obtained my Ph.D.

Throughout, I developed effective relationships with my professors and colleagues, avoiding problematic ones and designing my program and applied learning to reflect my interests and interdisciplinary goals.

I believed that understanding and encouraging complex human potential and behavior would benefit from avoiding overly focused silos of knowledge and simplistic applications.

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Move ahead with curiosity.

I hope you will choose, use and adapt any suggestions here. It will not only bring pleasure but also keep your brain vital and your life full.

Ultimately, you’ll be better prepared to contribute to others through understanding them, using sound judgment and continuing to learn and practice to benefit everyone possible.

What better gifts could you give them — as well as to yourself?

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Ruth Schimel, Ph.D. is a career and life management consultant and the author of Happiness and Joy in Work: Preparing for Your Future. She guides clients in accessing their strengths and making viable visions for current and future work.