Surround yourself with smarter people

If you find yourself realising that you’re genuinely the smartest person in the room then you need to find a new room where that’s not the case. That applies no matter who you are. Even you, Terry Tao.

In my experience, it’s crucial to put yourself into difficult mental situations with other people where your existing skills and knowledge will only get you so far. Situations where you need to learn something new from the others in order to keep going. I actively test myself in those situations so I can learn. That means asking whatever questions I want, vocalising ideas I might have instead of keeping them to myself, and debating the answers to make sure I understand. I try to think hard about everything and don’t always let my instinct lead. It effectively tests the invariant conditions I think should hold, testing the boundary conditions of my knowledge all the time.

I don’t sit there and think I know everything, because nobody does. Yes, that still applies to you, Terry. Learning from other people has been a huge win almost everywhere in my life. Much of that learning has come from just asking the simplest inquisitive question: “How does that work?”. I ask it all the time. Then I ask it some more.

‘Smarter’ often just means different depending on the social context. I try not to measure myself against other people — a base instinct that we all have subconsciously — just by raw intellect alone, but whether those other people know interesting things I want to know about but I don’t. I want to know those people.

I learned not to be scared of asking how things worked, I guess as a majority do, from my parents. My dad encouraged me to understand how to build the models of understanding and knowledge that I’ve since built on again and again. Not just in a, “you need to learn this, that and these other things”, way but rather in a, “that thing you just figured out, how does it apply to that other thing you learned last week?” way, to build my instinct for connecting the dots.

Once you have that instinct then you can go a long way just by immersing yourself in communities of people with the same interests you do. It crucial not to learn in isolation in my experience. Find a forum, club or IRC channel with likeminded souls and talk for months about the things you’re interested in. It being 2012 means that smarter people are instantly right there mere clicks, keypresses and touches away.

The key is not being scared of acting stupid in front of those peers that have the knowledge and experience that you’re looking for yourself. It’s rare that people will care as long as you’re clearly trying to learn and there’s no intellectual arrogance.

Then learn by teaching others. It sounds backwards, but there are few better ways to affirm what you know than by passing that knowledge on. Find people that want to know what you know and teach them again and again. I’ve loved doing that over the years, whether it’s on discussion forums, in person or writing online.

The best part of my job is asking someone how something works because I don’t know, because I get to learn from the smarter people and then make sure the knowledge sticks by showing others. I could even teach Terry a thing or two.