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

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smart woman standing in an office, brown hair and white blouse

If you look up the meaning of the word "smart," Merriam-Webster provides a wealth of definitions and synonyms. 

It's 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).

Synonyms include clever, dapper, modish, agile, astute and, yes, brainy. 

So, we know what "smart" is. But how do we know it when we see it?

I’ll give you my idea of three characteristics "smart" people display on a regular basis.

I know they're smart because I can see it in action. 

In other words, "smart" is what you do — not who you are.  

RELATED: The Smartest People Possess These 4 Traits Of Emotional Intelligence

What people see when you act 'smart'

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

Specific opportunities for acting smart show that you possess: 

  • "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.

Following are suggestions for your renewal to use as you adapt and activate the three smart behaviors mentioned above.   

RELATED: 8 Unusual Personality Traits Of Highly Intelligent People —​ Backed By Scientific Studies

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. 

No doubt unsurprising to you, this is also a worthwhile, challenging process. So, 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.

RELATED: The 3 Different Types Of Empathy — And How To Express Each One

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?

RELATED: 6 Science-Backed Techniques To Help You Make Difficult Decisions Without Regrets

Academic knowledge — book learning & more

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.

RELATED: How The Smartest People Make Great Choices On The Fly — And Don't Look Back

Moving 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?

RELATED: 9 Lessons To Teach Kids Now — That Help Them Make Good Decisions Later

Ruth Schimel Ph.D. is a career and life management consultant and author of the Choose Courage series on Amazon. She guides clients in accessing their strengths and making viable visions for current and future work. Request the first chapter of her seventh book Happiness and Joy in Work: Preparing for Your Future and benefit from your invitation to a free consultation on her website.


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