What is “Smart”?

Someone once asked me whether I considered myself to have many smart friends.

I didn’t know what to say at first, and the question bothered me for a long time afterwards. Besides not liking the word “smart” because I think it’s a boring version of intelligence, I found the question offensive since it implied that this person wasn’t convinced that I did indeed have many smart friends, at least by his standards. I asked him to clarify what “smart” meant to him, and he said that he saw it as someone who succeeds where they are, whether that be in school or a job, someone who can do well and move up in those places.

Hm. To do well in school, or in the traditional structures of business, you need to follow the rules. You need to perform at a decent rate, not make waves, complete tasks and get correct answers. I don’t think it is very hard to be “smart” if this is the definition.  It’s also not very interesting, and none of those things requires intelligence.  Intelligence is comprehensive.  Being “smart” in this day and age doesn’t mean much.

Many of my friends have eschewed traditional schools, jobs, and ways of living. Many of them went to art schools instead of ivy’s. They pursued their passions, they changed their minds and they tried various paths. They didn’t ever define themselves by their degree, their school, or their job. They weren’t happy with moving up in someone else’s corporation, so they started their own company.  They didn’t like the way things were done, so they did it differently. Many of them wouldn’t fit into the definition of “smart” that was given to me along with the question.

The smartest people I know – the people I am indeed surrounded by – are those who display intelligence. They don’t accept that there is only one way to do things. They are open minded towards people and experiences. They question. They create. These people don’t always find it easy to succeed in existing educational or corporate structures. They don’t color within the lines. They don’t stay in their comfort zone. They make me think about things I’ve never thought about before, and they come up with their own ideas. They don’t accept the rational, sensible path in life as their definition of success. Their head is filled with more than information memorized from books and professors.

Don’t get me wrong, education can be a great tool – but only if you apply it in broad ways to your life, to the world. If you read the book and stop there, take the test and stop there, get the job and stop there…. it all stops there. If you read the book and notice a pattern, or a metaphor, or how the same lessons learned in that story can be applied to the world around you, or it sparks a new idea… well, thats worth something. That’s intelligence. And to take that intelligence and make it work for you, to infuse it into everything you do, to continue learning and opening yourself to new things… thats smart.

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