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Why you’re not getting smarter every day

And how to fix that

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

Sometimes, we tell ourselves that we’re smarter than we were the previous day. That we’ve grown. We’ve learned something.

I doubt that. Let me explain.

There are times, when I personally, just go on YouTube binges on one topic. It could be something as large as the world of business and something as small as cold showers. I think we’ve all gone on those binges.

I’ve found that I have somewhat of a knack for finding insightful content that moves past the basic info. So, I’ll usually go to those videos, watch them, write something that struck me, and move on to the next one. Sounds perfectly fine, right?


Why? Because after any of those binges, regardless of how long they lasted, I never felt or was smarter after watching them.

At first, I was confused as to why this was the case. If I found something insightful, then my knowledge should grow, correct?

Not necessarily. I realized that there was a different problem at hand. Several, actually.

1. I was trying to understand everything they said.

If something flew over my head, I wouldn’t be okay with that. I could spend two hours or two days on just one sentence, but I had to gain some meaning from it. I had to understand it. (If this doesn’t seem like a problem to you, you’ll see why when I explain the funnel).

2. I was trying to retain everything I understood

This seems extremely unreasonable at first sight. But it’s not that far-fetched. I’ll elaborate.

Oftentimes, there’s something that I want to succeed at. And I want it badly. So, I set a goal for myself: be the smartest person in the room.

The problem? For me, that meant knowing every single little thing about the topic. But that doesn’t make you the smartest person in the room. What it does make you is a walking dictionary.

Knowing every little detail is not what makes a person smart. It can make them knowledgeable, but not smart. Those are two different things.

3. I was trying to apply everything I retained

Oftentimes, there were maybe 10 takeaways or insights that I had from content I had consumed, maybe more.

And I tried to apply each and every single one. Unsurprisingly, that failed.

That’s way too much for your brain to handle. We struggle to do two things at a time, and now I was trying to do 10.

I had failed to realize that we need to work on one thing at a time. If you try to improve everything, you’ll improve nothing.

So, I’ve explained all my problems. But how do you fix them?

Well, within these problems, there lies a fundamental funnel for learning that we conveniently forget.

  1. Understanding

You only need to understand what helps you take the next best step and what actually makes sense. I’ll say it again, in simpler words.

You only need to understand what’s relevant to you and what you’re capable of understanding.

I’ll explain the first aspect of that statement. There were times, I’d write things that weren’t even relevant to me. For example, I’d take notes about how to sell your house and still walk away with profit (keep in mind I’m in high school and currently don’t own a house).

I wrote these things out of fear. I feared that if I didn’t write it down then, I might never find that piece of advice again. Plus, if I found it, I might as well write it down.

The problem with that is that you start writing down things that aren’t useful to you right now, but maybe twenty years later. The thing is:

  1. You don’t know what you’ll be like 20 years from now
  2. That’s absurd. If I was to write down everything that I thought might be useful for me at any point in the future, I’d never stop writing. It’s an impossible task.

Now, the second aspect. Only understand what you’re capable of understanding. I’ll provide an example; Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey (which I must say, is a fabulous read) contains, for a lack of better words, ‘taglines of advice.’ These taglines often went over my head.

But instead of moving on, I spent hours, maybe days, trying to understand what some of these taglines meant. There might’ve been something useful in there, and I needed to know that.

But you really don’t. Most of the time, if you’re not understanding something, it probably won’t be useful to you for where you’re at (Disclaimer: this statement doesn’t apply to tests or quizzes. Please do and try understanding everything there).

There definitely is meaning in that tagline or phrase, but you don’t need to understand it, right that instant. Let go. When the time is right, you’ll understand the phrase.

And if that doesn’t sound appealing to you, at least give yourself and the phrase some space before you strain yourself. Ponder it, ask questions, but don’t strain yourself.

2. Retaining

After you’ve found what you understood, you need to sort through that information to figure out what you want to retain, if anything.

Now, the task itself is pretty easy; find 3 takeaways from whatever you’ve learned.

The hard part is restraining yourself to only 3 takeaways. Many times, even after having a filter for understanding, I end up writing way too many bullet points down.

That’s a problem unless you plan on using spaced repetition to remember all those bullet points. Even then, there’s no way you’re going to remember all of that. It’s pointless.

I don’t doubt there are more than three insightful things that could probably be great takeaways. But three in my experience is plenty. If you need help deciding which three takeaways, I suggest a couple of things:

  1. Retain only what’s useful to you right now
  2. Try to focus on the big ideas of the book
  3. Remember that you can always reread the book. You might find 3 different takeaways when you read it a 2nd time
  4. Most importantly, don’t spend too much time on this. Keep it simple and be efficient.

3. Application

While three takeaways are a great number, the number needs to get even smaller. Specifically, one.

Find just one thing to apply to your life. You may end up applying more, but to start out, pick just one takeaway to apply.

Trying to improve several things at once, doesn’t work. It creates messy results, on all sides.

There have been plenty of times where I’ve written down several things to apply, not realizing how hard it would be to apply just one of those. Typically, if the takeaway is good, it takes time and patience for it to be fully implemented. Then, more time and patience are required for the results to show.

The point is, don’t be overwhelmed with the number of flaws you or your project/business/etc. might have. Just pick one that you want to work with and do that. If you do that, the results will be exponential.

And maybe, if we can learn to do these things, we might actually get smarter. I say cheers to that.



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Nathan M

Nathan M

Taking from my experience, I write about productivity, enjoying life a bit more, and being a slightly less annoying human.