To Be Smart

The other day I was conducting a training on a topic I had spent a lot of time learning and understanding. This was a speech I could do with my eyes closed, in my sleep, etc.

At one point one a trainee interrupted with: “Wow, you are so smart!

I took the compliment and chuckled, but my laughter came somewhat out of confusion. I had impressed this person with the knowledge I’d accumulated about a particular piece of software and she equated that to mean I’m “smart.”

It’s not surprising.

We often hear young children recite facts and we say ah, they are super smart! And there is skill required to memorize facts… but is that the same as being “smart?”

“Smart” is one of those words we use a lot but probably couldn’t define usefully if randomly asked. The dictionary says “having or showing quick-witted intelligence” and in the case of machines, “programmed to be capable of some independent action.”

It’s likely if I asked you what it means to be smart, you wouldn’t run to the dictionary. You’d instead espouse your own philosophy of what it truly means to be intelligent. “Smart” is a word to which we attach emotion.

Ask any elementary school teacher to define the word smart, and each one will give you a slightly different answer, if not a wildly different answer. Mine, as a third grade teacher, was that “smart” is not a quality that one has; it’s an ever-changing state of mind. To be smart is to have well-defined values and to make choices that adhere to those values, as consistently as possible. Smart is a choice, I would tell my students. Less of an adjective and more of a verb.

We’ve all had our intelligence insulted before, but most of the time it’s not that the person insulting us really thinks we’re not smart, it’s that our values don’t match theirs. To believe non-factual statements as truths doesn’t mean that we aren’t smart, because it’s likely that everyone has baseless beliefs.

But when we gossip with our co-workers about the new hire, when our values are to be kind and accepting… maybe that’s not being smart.

Or the first time we stand up for a victim of bullying because our values are to look out for the wellbeing of others… maybe that’s smart.

It’s liberating, isn’t it? Being smart isn’t about the number of books you read, or the amount of podcasts you listen to. It’s not about how many words you know or how eloquently you can speak.

It’s about the topics you speak about, eloquently or not. It’s about how you use the information you get from books and podcasts. It’s about how you use the words you do know to make change where we need change.

The person in my training who called me smart was being nice, of course. They wanted to thank me for my helpfulness.

But knowing information isn’t the same thing as being smart. And that’s a belief I will defend as long as I’m alive.