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Ask HN: How do I become smarter?
149 points by HiroshiSan on June 10, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 88 comments
my situation:

I'm 19 years old and I go to a not so great (according to Macleans university rankings) university in Canada. I would like to make a transfer to Waterloo and then go to graduate school at Stanford or MIT. These are just some of the goals that I'd like to achieve in my academic career. I would just like to prove to myself that I have what it takes and I would like to be in that academic environment (Sorry if I worded it poorly).

At the moment I know I definitely am not trying as hard as I should..I don't remember the last time I engaged myself with hard problems or where to start. I've been feeling pretty lost in what I've wanted to do with my life so I just decided to follow Paul Grahams advice and just go with what gives me the most options (http://paulgraham.com/hs.html).

When it comes to learning new things or building off old concepts, I feel like I have a poor foundation and I just don't know where to start. How can build a great foundation where I can understand the concepts intuitively?

In short, how can I become smarter?

I have great news for you. The brain is extremely plastic. Read about neuroplasticity here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroplasticity

Rest assured that your capacity to acquire new skills and knowledge is massive.

You don't just get smarter. You get smarter at something in particular. Playing chess, doing IQ tests, running the 100m dash, programming, social skills, public speaking, etc. So you need to pick a particular skill or set of skills or vocation and decide to get smarter at that.

There are some general rules for improving brain function though. Here are a few:

1. Read books. Reading trains your brain to concentrate for long periods of time without fatigue or distraction. There is a growing school of thought that the short bursts of reading and frequent distractions we experience online are harming our ability for deep contemplation, introspection and concentration. See Nicholas Carr, The Shallows. http://n.pr/bnAfRV

2. Try to get 10 hours of sleep a night. Sleep improves mental and athletic performance. http://n.pr/9wQsXr

3. Maintain your cardiovascular fitness. I highly recommend running. After years of cycling, swimming, hiking, etc I've found that running gives my brain function the biggest boost and provides me with sustained mental energy through the day. A good cardiovascular system supplies your brain with plenty of healthy oxygen rich blood. It's like putting racing fuel in your car.

4. Eat well. Cook your own food. Avoid processed or pre-prepared foods and non-organic foods (mainly due to the pesticides). Fish is awesome, but watch out for mercury.

5. Don't drink anything stronger than wine. Don't do drugs. (just like your mom told you)

6. Watch your weight. I find the biggest source of mental fatigue is when I've gained a few pounds.

Good luck, and congratulations on making the decision at a relatively young age to focus on your mental fitness.

#2 - Some researchers think there is wide variability in the optimal amount of sleep. Some even think that you can get too much sleep. The thing to do is to pay attention and experiment. I sleep in two sessions, one 4 hours, the second three. Getting more sleep makes me feel a little worse. The good news, is that there are cheap sleep monitoring smartphone apps.

I completely agree as a bimodal sleeper myself. If I sleep over 7 hours in one session I feel terrible, much worse even than if I would have only gotten 5 hours of sleep that night. I usually sleep 5 hours a night and take 2 and half hour nap. You just have to figure out what works for you.

What has worked for me in the past was going to bed at 10:30pm and waking up at 5:30a - 6:00a. Now that summer has started I've screwed up my sleeping pattern that I'm slowly trying to get back.

+1 for a great response. I totally agree. I would like to expand upon one of the points and add a few more too.

Expanding on #3:

Team sports & activities can increase not just mental acuity, but social acuity as well. Being academically intelligent will get you far, but being socially & emotionally intelligent as well will get you even further.

Also, martial arts, dancing, and any kind of activity that requires fine coordination can significantly build new neural patterns. If you enjoy doing them, then the overall mental health you gain is a total bonus.


Learning a new language and/or travel outside of your country. Different languages and cultures can actually affect the way you perceive the world in subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) ways. They expand your understanding & view of the world, thereby allowing you to see an issue from multiple viewpoints.

A quick example is national and global politics. I don't really care for politicians, but I try to follow the shifts in the world climate as much as I can. And I'm always impressed by how my European friends seem to have such a keen understanding of US politics, while I'm scratching my head about European politics.


Foster many interests. If you have a random interest in birds, feed it. Read books on birds. Go bird watching. Join a bird watching group.

One of the reasons people are cited as geniuses is because they are able to engage in lateral thinking. They can see patterns in seemingly unrelated topics. This is a powerful mental mechanism that can help in all facets of life - especially in solving difficult problems.


Engage in critical thinking. Practice the art of asking "Why?" Don't always accept what you see and hear at face value. Question it, probe behind it, and get at the underlying truth.

The news media is a great place to practice this. I used to work in this industry and even studied subjects like communication, propaganda, and marketing in college.

Allow your curiosity to take over as you read the news or watch a TV show. If something doesn't make sense, try searching for more information about it online. Read about it until you've satisfied that itch of curiosity.

One word of caution here: this can be taken too far. I think it's a fine practice to think critically about the declarations people tend to make. I have many friends who say things that seem to be full of questionable assumptions. I want nothing more than to question their statements and challenge them. But doing so can easily cross the line into obnoxiousness. For friends who like to debate, I'll jump right into it. But I pick those battles carefully. Some can take it, some can't.

I hope this helps. It's great that you're asking this question. Wish I had asked it when I was 19. Good luck!

Upvoted for an excellent expansion on the OP's comment. I will second world travel; I backpacked through India for two months on my own (made a lot of friends though) on a budget. I've also been sent out on many survival trips, while not world travel, you see a side of life most urban dwellers never even scratch at.

I will strongly second the "no drugs" advice. I experimented and quickly stopped because I noticed - more than inhibiting my mental capacity - it ruins your life and makes you dependent (rather than autonomous). Autonomy is the watchword of an adept mind!

Read. Read. Read. But, don't believe everything you read! Part of being intelligent is knowing when to accept a piece of thinking and when to question it; when you do question it, dig into it deeply until you come out the other end with a whole new set of original conclusions that were inspired by one dubious conclusion.

I will strongly second the advice to foster many interests. You interact with people that have points of view (goes with world traveling well) you would never consider. Also, don't forget, "weirdos" or "eccentrics" have much to offer - just be sure to follow your gut when interacting with them (some have misguided intentions, others are pure as gold).

I absolutely agree with reading. But I'm surprised no-one's mentioned writing. I find writing (à la pen-and-paper) to be a great way to organize one's own thoughts and opinions. It's so easy to read someone else's opinion and assimilate it implicitly into one's own view. Writing, on the other hand, seems to allow for deeper inquiry into a subject.

Ah yes, great point. The critical thinking, introspection, and analysis that goes into writing definitely strengthens neural pathways.

You just reminded me of another one: teaching.

One study showed that older siblings, on average, tend to be slightly smarter than their younger siblings. One plausible rationale may be because they spend time teaching their younger brothers & sisters. http://www.bioedonline.org/news/news.cfm?art=3401

If you've ever taught someone a subject, and found yourself walking away knowing that subject better than you did before, you're experiencing a similar phenomenon.

The act of teaching a subject requires you to understand it well enough to be able to synthesize, then explain it to someone else.

I'm very much in agreement here. Sound body, sound mind and all that.

A few comments:

Micronutrients - you should take a vitamin daily Omega 3s - these are well worth supplementing, they play a key role in brain development and I have felt an impact from them.

2) The ideal case is to let your body decide how much sleep it needs, I rarely sleep more than 8 hours.

3) I used to run, but a knee injury has taken me out of that particular hobby. What matters is that you raise your heart rate - elliptical machines do a great job, particularly if you do weights in advance. exrx.net has some great info.

5) This shows a bit of prejudice. You definitely should moderate your drug intake and bear in mind that caffeine is just as much a drug as alcohol or thc or lsd. You have to make up your own mind which drugs are acceptable and how you want to use them and in what quantities. Drinking 8oz of wine or 2 ounces of cognac are pretty well equivalent, it's the alcohol that matters. Same goes for tea vs coffee etc.

Thank you so much for the wonderful response.

out of the 6 things you've mentioned I have been doing all of them except for #2 which I have been working on slowly.

Running is absolutely amazing, I definitely agree with you that it provides the biggest boost of brain function, after a nice run a long the canal I feel like I can take on the world.

I now just need to find something I love doing, and just stick with it. I have trouble sticking with something, as soon as it gets challenging I back out...most likely a fear of failure that I need to overcome.


Regarding 4 and 5 though, will these actually improve your brain function - make you smarter? Or are they just to guard against decline?

I've heard about fish being good in the womb and good for warding off dementia, but I haven't seen anything about it actually making you smarter.

And I guess the warning on drugs doesn't include nootropics.

#4 has a tiny bit of bullshit in it. Organic produce doesn't not use pesticides, they just use older, outdated ones that are perceived as "safer" because they've been around longer. New stuff is adapted to newer plant threats and has less harmful side effects. I buy my produce non-organic when possible and my meat organic, because that actually has an appreciable benefit (less hormones and other crap being put into my food, rather than on top of it).

That said, the rest is solid. Cooking for yourself is cheaper, healthier, and tastier.

Cheaper, healthier, tastier, sure. Does it make you smarter?

If you get enough Omega-3's, then sure! Plus, you get to learn a useful skill. That should wrinkle the brain a bit.

Mens sana in corpore sano

Not enough I'm afraid. I can't help thinking of Stephen Hawking.

most of the words ending in "er" pretty much boil down to effort. Simple as that. Stronger, faster, smarter, wiser, happier, etc.

But the problem with the advice "put in more effort" is that it isn't really that helpful. But such is life. The beauty really is in figuring out answers for yourself.

When I was younger I was obsessed with finding out answers. I am very curious and like to learn things so of course I would read and ask people and go on the internet and try to figure things out - in short, I relentlessly pursued answers.

But as I grew older I came to realize that you can't always pursue answers from external sources, because they aren't really that helpful. I am not saying never learn, I am saying answers are only the beginning!

Answers are abundant. PG has all the answers about running a startup. Ask any nba player how to be good at basketball and you'll have tons of answers. The internet makes practically any answer ever recorded instantly accessable.

This probably sounds like a lot of nonsense but the point is, the answers you really care about and the answers that will shift your life and spur greatness, those answers do not exist in books - you have to figure them out yourself, relative to your self.

How do you do that? Be active. Keep trying, never stop, always appreciate, always learn, always read, always be humble, always be kind, be helpful, be aware, be open.

See there you go, I guarantee and I will stake my life on the fact that what I am saying is 100% the correct answer. But it doesn't help you much does it?

Be a happy, appreciative student of life, stop to say hi to your fellow humans along the way and work hard - you will be smarter my friend.

Take care.

1. Read. Read. Read.

2. Solve problems (anything, it can be hard or easy)

3. GOTO 1

In all seriousness though #1 is the point that will make a big difference. My friends generally mark me as the smartest person in our group (uh, there was no "nice" way to put that). They are perfectly smart individuals; but due to my old social awkwardness and slight insomnia I spent the better part of my school years reading anything I could get my hands on, and that makes a difference.

Ok, so on a public front you simply appear smart for knowing stuff about a diverse range of topics (I recall a particularly crazy conversation on a train at 1am where I met an Aussie and we discussed Scuba diving in some depth :D) - which is a bit of a fake because that is just "knowing stuff".

But knowing stuff is a path to smartness. Pick up threads you find interesting and pursue them. Teach those things to people. Find stuff that excites you and makes you want to solve it.

You mention intuitive learning too; over time you can develop great intuitive learning Just follow what feels "right" in your reading and problem solving; eventually you will find when presented with a problem you can visualize it, break it down/deconstruct it and then solve for x.

(always seek an answer)

I would add that if you are the smartest person amongst your friends, try to find new friends that are even smarter that you.

That's why he is here, I would assume.

Just in case it looks like I was being big headed (the above is good advice anyway!); I'm probably not the smartest in the group.

But anb ability to retain random pieces of information is often confused for intelligence :D

I'd think a bit more about what your actual goals are. To me, going to an renowned school like MIT is a means to an end not a goal. Depending on what you want to do after, it may or may not be a wise decision.

From your post, it sounds like intelligence isn't the problem, but rather one of motivation. While doing well academically does require a baseline intelligence, the more important thing (like most things in life) is a matter of effort. Perhaps this comes from your lack of any concrete goals.

I found myself similarly lost when I first started my university education. Actually, I started off by going to a community college, and while at first that was disappointing, it also gave me the chance to sample a wide variety of subjects, and eventually finding out CS was what I was passionate about. By finding my passion, I was able to overcome my previous motivation problems. Perhaps if you try new things as well, you might find something that sparks your drive.

Completely agree here. Passion is what drives motivation. Paul Graham wrote extensively about that in one of his essays (Do what you love).

So I'd say :

1. Try to figure out what you'd love to do 2. Do it, and enjoy everyday of your life :)

The problem is, it's not always easy to find answer to point 1. To find, you must try a lot of different options, until you find what you really want to do. That's why I would suggest :

1. Try to work as an intern in small companies (startups). You'll get a very good contact with the founders, who are usually very smart guys. In other words : find a mentor

2. Try to be friends with people that have a passion for something, and see if you can share their passion

3. Be curious, go out, speak with people. And travel. Travel a lot.

Passion triumphs everything.

Just remember this all times.

I'm sympathetic to the idea of a goal-driven life and higher education as merely a means towards achieving those goals. But the fact of the matter is that goals are hard. Hard to achieve, surely, if ambitious enough, but more importantly, hard to conceive and define. The belief that action shouldn't be taken until a goal for that action is defined can be overwhelming and petrifying. Moving to an environment where many smart people are thinking about many hard problems can certainly be a worthwhile step towards the definition of goals, and should not be self-limited to people who already know what they want to be when they grow up.

Don't see 'reading' as the end of studying. You have to exercise your brain and do stuff, too (work through problems, proofs etc.). Only reading is often too passive to really learn things well.

Attributed to Einstein: "Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking."

Awesome quote, never heard that before, I'm sure my brain will be in use thinking about it for awhile (how meta!). I think the key here is the difference between passive and active reading. It seems like reading passively is the default for most people, probably because it can be so darn enjoyable, but training yourself to read actively can result in even more enjoyment but, more significantly, will result in expanded brain use. Text is just a series of questions awaiting your own individual answers.

'Smart' is a very loosely defined concept. Let's assume for the time being that by smart, you mean, 'being able to creatively solve problems.' This, fortunately, is a skill you can learn. Here are some pointers you might find useful.

(1) Get rid if your TV. Dumping my TV probably had the single largest impact on the effective use of my time. You will be amazed at how much more creative you can be when you no longer have an excuse to lounge about for an hour or so at a time.

(2) Don't 'study' your academics. Ignore the marks altogether and learn stuff for the sake of it being interesting to you. Study chapters outside the syllabus and ignore ones in it that might be boring. You may sacrifice results in the short run but your long term understanding and passion for the subject will be of great benefit in the long run.

(3) Be endlessly curious. Make an effort to figure out how things around you work, or why they work that way. Seriously, take a cigarette lighter apart from time to time just for the sake of solving the how. Drive a different route home just to see where it goes and why.

(4) Don't be afraid to fix things that break. Always make an effort to fix some or other mechanical thing that breaks around the house. You'll be surprised how this improves your patience and problem solving skills.

(5) Spend time with smart people. Watching them solve problems and how they think will give you something to work towards.

Being 19, you still have a lot of time to get smart - so put in the effort now and by the time you're finished college, you'll probably be nicely along the road to better, more creative, problem solving.

The name of the school you go to means nothing. You need to figure out what you actually want to achieve. You want to be smarter, why? You want to go to a "better" school, why?

Going there will offer you nothing if you don't know what you're looking for. What is it that you love doing in life and how can you build on that?

Don't try to go to a better school. Try to work well with good people.

> I don't remember the last time I engaged myself with hard problems

Do that. Forget about some impossible to quantify long term goal about being smarter and set a goal of solving a hard problem that should take you a few hours.

When you solved it, do another one.


Also, when taking on a problem, it helps if you break it down into smaller, shorter, quantifiable targets. This single approach alone will help you see impossible problems as being a set of smaller, difficult ones.

I think your assumption that you should start with a foundation is wrong. Foundation is good, but the best way to it is to focus on other things.

If you have a discipline A and a discipline B, and knowing A will help you a great deal with B, but B is totally unnecessary for A, it's natural to want to study A first. But this ignores the most important factor: everyday motivation. This is a much fuzzier thing than the dependency tree model, and it's natural to find it less attractive to think about. But it's real, and it's important. It's not enough to like the idea of conquering A. You have to find the process itself satisfying enough that it perpetuates itself. In practice, this often means learning B, being frustrated by your ignorance of A, but also excited enough to keep going. Then learning A once your studies of B have shown you the power and value of A.

If there isn't anything that excites you enough to study it without putting in inordinate amount of willpower, don't feel bad. It's entirely the fault of institutions that educated you. The trick is to start with some real world problem that doesn't even seem respectable, but is exciting because it's real, and in the course of solving which you'll come in contact with other, "deeper" areas of knowledge.

As an engineering student at Waterloo, I'll tell you something: While UWaterloo is definitely golden in the eyes of a lot of technical employers, there's nothing I've seen inherently special in this school. If switching is not easy for you, doing well in your particular school could serve you better. I don't think Waterloo professors or classes are any more rigorous or better than other Canadian schools. Out of curiosity, what school do you go to?

I go to Carleton University. It's a wonderful school don't get me wrong, but I would love to be in the environment that Waterloo provides. This takes me back to Paul Graham's Cities and Ambition essay. My best friend who goes to Waterloo recently wrote a blog post on what type of message she thinks Waterloo sends: http://itsallinu.com/?p=165

Hey, I know Ashley :)

Take a look at some of Rajesh Kumar's (Nanotech Engineering 2010) essays: http://rajesh.rapidtech.ca/archive_2009_08.html#the-case-for...

small world haha. Neat blog I like his writing style. Catch 22 is one of my favourite effects that he talks about.

There is one preeminent technique shared by both students in the top programs and auto-didacts of all ages: intensive reading.

Longer-form materials that require deep concentration are best. On hard topics, go as slow as necessary but don't change tasks looking for the quick hit of some lighter reading/interaction.

You could fight your way through a textbook, going more slowly (and doing side research or seeking others' help) on the parts that are most difficult. Or grab research papers of interest, and when you hit things you don't know take detours only to fill those gaps.

One tool I wish I would have known about in college is Anki. Spaced repetition lets you memorize stuff a lot faster than flashcards. http://ichi2.net/anki/

FYI, I'm 26; anyway here is my advice.

* Don't focus on the goal: You might set some big goals, but don't focus on them too much (focus on the process instead and probably you'll be happy with the outcome).

* Change slowly: Monitor yourself, summarize what you did each day and try to change things one at a time. Changes that need time to take effect cannot be made quickly (the same way it's not a good idea to adjust water temperature quickly while you're showering).

* Know yourself: Know your limits, and what makes you tick. Monitor yourself and your friends. Figure out why those people are your friends. (It helps to understand yourself better). What are your weaknesses, what are strengths? Hint: what are the things you enjoyed doing when you were a little kid? Try to find activities / work that's similar to that.

* Learn from others: Get to know people, who you respect, and are smarter than you; learn from them. (Also a great way to keep your ego checked)

* Remember to spend time with your loved ones. Do it for them, and for you.

Excuse yourself from the search for hard problems and pursue your interests. Build a foundation in subjects that captivate you.

You'll never be smarter, but that's a meaningless term anyway. You are inclined to learn more about things that matter to you. And because these concepts are fascinating your focus will exceed that of any disinterested person with a natural aptitude.

Not long from now you'll be discussing entomology or artificial intelligence or interior design with an uncommon passion and someone will wish they were as smart as you.

My entire life I've know what I wanted to do. I've never been in your situation. At first I assumed that everyone was like me and that everyone has a strong direction/motivation. I was wrong, most people have no idea at 19 where they want to be. So firstly don't worry about it.

You'll get out of University what you put in and at 19 not everyone is in a position to put a lot in. I certainly wasn't. I went to a top University in the UK and basically wasted four years. I came out a lot better off but I didn't milk it for all it was worth. You may consider a gap year but that can be expensive. Taking a year out to work for charity can help you mature and see the world a little. Gap years are no panacea though.

Since you don't know your story yet I recommend that you read other people's stories. You can read Founders at Work or something by Bill Gates but first I'd recommend reading Cherry-Garrard's account of Scott's attempt on the South Pole "The Worst Journey in the World". It changed my whole perception of life. Scott's team knew there was a good chance they would die. They knew they didn't know HOW to get to the pole. They knew they didn't know how to survive at -60c. It's an amazing story and has inspired me for 10 years now. Most things in life are a mystery but that shouldn't stop you reaching the south pole. Cherry-Garrard himself was too weak and short sited for the trip but showed so much determination and courage that Scott let him join the team.

Hopefully you'll find something inspiring. From inspiration comes drive and from drive comes a determination to do something. Since most of the world is a mystery you'll have to look for that something to do but it's out there, somewhere.

Anyway, I've prattled on a little like the old fart I am :)

Good luck.

"Brain Workshop is a free open-source version of the Dual N-Back mental exercise."

"A recent study published in PNAS, an important scientific journal, shows that a particular memory task called Dual N-Back may actually improve working memory (short term memory) and fluid intelligence. ...." http://brainworkshop.sourceforge.net/

when you're passionate about a topic, want to know the answer to a question or need to solve a problem, your brain is primed to learn. Encounter the same material in a different situation and you're far less likely to learn.

And it doesn't matter how many different topics you cover. What matters is how deep you go into the topics that matter to you. You have more of a chance of actually coming up with some new and useful, instead of merely rediscovering or relearning what others already came up with.

1. Find some people who are smarter than you and know the type of stuff you want to know.

2. Get to a point where they see you as a peer (by reading, discussing, solving problems etc.)

3. Go to #1

The most important factor to success is hard work. It applies to starting companies as much as it applies to getting into college. You can apply to Stanford and MIT with perfect grades and a perfect SAT score, and they'll still reject you! There are more people with perfect SAT scores than there are admission spots. To trim down the pool, the college has to look outside of schoolwork. That's where the extracurriculars come into play. In most cases, whether you have something to write on that list is determined by how hard-working you are, not by how smart you are. And once they see that you spent your time doing something great outside of school, the admissions people will forgive your less-than-stellar grades. An added benefit to the school that comes from choosing hard-working people over bookworms is that once the students graduate, the hard working people will go on to build great businesses and ... wait for it ... donate to the school!

Spend a few minutes putting yourself in the admission officer's spot and think about how you'd choose the next round of students.

Personally, I recommend focusing on your perseverance first, social smarts second, and book smarts third.

PS: I guarantee you that girl on the news getting fished out of the Indian Ocean right now will be attending Stanford when she turns 18.

Strictly speaking, you can't get smarter; you only gain greater knowledge.

That being said, there are numerous ways to gain more knowledge in whatever you chose. The resources are there — you just have to seek them out.

My advice: be an effective gatekeeper. You can't do everything. You can't know everything. Don't even try. Instead, select the areas that are most valuable to you personally and focus on those. Hone what you're good at; progress at what you're bad at.

One particular area to focus on is communication. Being able to effectively communicate verbally and in written form is very important. If you can speak and write eloquently, no matter the audience, you're well on you're way to becoming more academically rounded. Plus, it makes you a better human being. If nothing else, it makes you sound smarter too ;)

Also: getting into good schools is often less about your grade point average and more about you're overall resume. I'd focus less on a perfect gpa and more on building a solid resume. It's also a good idea to get involved with the school. Connect with key people and alumni. That'll definitely help your chances.

Good luck!

1. Build stuff - start small, you need incremental achievements and 'wins' to keep motivated. It's a very long road where the highs can be really high ands the lows can be really low.

2. Take stuff apart - its okay if it cost you 100 bucks. It's in the name of science. See how other people built it.

3. There is art and humility in how one asks a question. Learn it and use it. It'll carry you through conversations with interesting people, where, earlier you may have gotten lost and spent a lot of time nodding your head.

4. Learn about finance and money and economics. Most of it isn't that complicated. It's the framework on which the history of nearly everything is constructed and it will enable you to answer a lot of question on your own. History isn't a collection of unrelated random facts that they teach you in high school. History is fascinating and understanding how money travels illuminates connections between seemingly unrelated events.

5. Remind yourself that you're living through one of the most amazing periods in the history of the world. Really. The tools at your disposal are extremely enabling.

You asked how you can become smarter, but I think what you really mean is "How do I find the thing I'm passionate about?" (as some others have mentioned) When you have passion for a particular topic or field of study, learning about it very deeply won't feel like work and you'll naturally learn as much as possible. Provided you have the aptitude to actually digest and act on the information. Are you not trying as hard as you think you should because you're lazy or because you aren't studying the right thing for you? It's an important question to ask yourself. Or are you simply not smart enough to master the fields you think you want to be in? Not everyone has what it takes to be at the top of a field. When you find something you're passionate about, the intuitive understanding of how that thing/field/career works comes along with it (in my experience anyway).

Being a self-taught (or to be fair, more self-taught than the average of my schoolmates); like not enrolling in private courses to understand the course, helped me a lot now.

I'm 19, just like you and the difference between me and my peers is that I'm able to understand things on my own, a lot faster and solve related problems that I encounter for the first time.

This made me smarter and more intelligent than the average. Focus on auto-learning. It worked for me well. I don't attend classes at university and instead study the subjects all myself.

I run an online business and do freelance work in the same time and my marks for this year are above the average and quite satisfying for the work I have put into (I study medicine).

The question that you should ask yourself again is: What's the advantage of MIT or Standford? (I'll appreciate if fellow HNers put their thoughts about these two universities so we have a deeper idea).

1. Read everything you can.

2. Show, don't tell

3. Take advice from smart people

4. Trust your instincts

5. Listen

I like how most of the answers here relate to effort, rather than the idea of 'born with talent'.

I'm of the same camp. Every effort you make into knowing, thinking, and processing is an accuring investment. Background knowledge that seems useless will often become relevant in some way.

The more I've learned, the more I've seen that every subject is connected in some way. There are only 'majors' and 'subjects' in school, because it's easier to learn things in isolation at first.

Be broad at lots of things, but dig deep into one or two things at a time.

Someone once asked me how Michael Phelps was so good at swimming. I answered, sure, being tall and genes was a good start. But he swims for hours a day. While you and I are eating, pooping, and watching funny videos, he's probably swimming.

I have many friends who are much less intelligent than I who are attending "better" schools for infuriatingly trivial reasons. Getting good grades has as much to do with intelligence as it does with your ability to take tests--unless you come across a really good teacher. Forget about dreams of elitist schools (for now) and find/start a project to build a knowledge base around. Make sure it's something you have the resources for and also is big enough to require you to learn new subjects. This project will serve as your point of reference for "building" new learning habits quite organically around. It will tell you what, how, why, and with whom you will learn with versus vague ideals and arbitrary academia romanticism dictating your future. However, realize the project itself is merely a crutch for your brain to grow stronger on--you will eventually outgrow it and require a new one. Walk into a professor's office, they are very lonely and love attention, and I guarantee you they are working on something you could define as a "project" and would love to point you in the right direction. Most have to in order to keep their jobs. Undergraduate students have a hard time understanding that they need some sort of internal locus and not their friends and teachers in order to be intelligent--but they eventually catch on to this like you have just now. The hardest part will be the sacrifices you'll have to make and endure in every imaginable facet of your life; you'll have to cut a lot of loose ends (bad habits/routines) off from your life. Eventually, though, you'll find your path to enlightenment and it's always one with heart and is rarely found but more so stumbled upon (hint: always within close proximity of powerful computers and by path I mean nerd and by stumbled upon I mean HN). Only then, once found, will you know if you will need to attend a particular school or not. (good music helps to rewire your brain and the subsequent lonely spells; cats are smart because they're curious, not the other way around; also, the smarter you get the more you laugh...muhahahah)

...sooner or later you're going to realize just as I did that there's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path. - Morpheus

I feel I'm becoming smarter from reading Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach.

It's a good, gentle introduction to some maths and logic topics that I really ought to learn about. It's also very artistic and touches on many different intellectual matters (music, painting, language...). Very thought provoking, and has already given me some good ideas for projects. Also pretty inspiring in that it shows what even a very young person can/could achieve by putting their mind to something, thinking systematically and writing expressively.

Of course the central premise of the book ("how does a mind/self/consciousness arise from inanimate matter?") is profound... and great fodder for dinner parties! (ie. showing off)

The first thing you have to have in mind is being very motivated and consistent in your learning, never stop questioning, and love the details that come with your particular work.

To take someone elses opinions is mostly ok in this world, but You will start to see that your experience in a field is growing, or experience in general, and that will hopefully lead you to the fact that experience is the only teacher.

I'm doing currently an science article about semantic web data and news, for a while I felt stupid in that particular field. But as research comes along, and practice in that particular field I'm starting to feel far more confident about that then I was in the begining.

Don't get too caught up in being "smart". I think the hacker community and HN overvalues this idea of inborn differences or raw brain capacity.

Clearly it matters, but for almost any real-world measure, focus, hard work and moderate brainpower will leave lazy, unfocused, and brilliant in the dust. Not only in achievements like earnings, but even in intellectual pursuits.

So, my advice is to do something hard, or something that scares you, or something that just seems creative and fun. Anything that stretches your abilities in any direction is a plus, as long as you give it your full attention.

Like others said, current research suggests that being good or even expert in something is the result of the right kind of practice and lots of it.

Here are two good books about it: The Talent Code: http://thetalentcode.com/book/

Pragmatic Thinking and Learning by the Pragmatic Programmers: http://www.pragprog.com/titles/ahptl/pragmatic-thinking-and-...

Thanks for the second book. Just got into programming this year and the book seems like a perfect read. I'm reading a book that's just like The Talent Code now, Talent Is Overrated.

Find people who are engaged in things you like. Get into discussions/debates/arguments with them. Afterwards, you'll feel the need to read about the topic.

Its great for everyone involved because you all improve from this.

If you can find a discussion group in college, that might help... but its better if you can do this with friends. Sitting around with a few beers and arguing about computer science, math, philosophy, history, current events, etc... is a lot of fun and you can joke around a bit too.

1) Read a lot in an area you're really interested in.

2) Learn something interesting

3) Teach it to someone else (write something about what you've learned, sit a friend down, ring up your mum)


My problem is that now that I work in the area I'm interested in, and by the time I'm done with my work day my brain is completely exhausted, so all I want to do is lounge in front of the telly or similar instead of getting more into the field other than what I'm working on :( (I'm a philosophy post-doc.)

Build a great foundation for learning by improving your memory. No matter how great you think your memory is today, it can still benefit from a conscious effort to improve it.

The Mentat wiki is an amazing resource for improving memory, I would recommend picking one or two of their easier methods for working on your memory as a start - you can start seeing results today.


In short: Do stuff just at the edge of your capability.

There's a lot of wisdom wrapped up in this small statement.

I went to Carleton for engineering which isn't exactly the highest ranking school. 6 years in the workforce, I found I am no less capable than any Waterloo graduate. In fact, I have hired as many bad Waterloo co-op students as I have good ones.

Make the effort to learn, and it can't be as bad as you think it is. Coming from a brand name school certainly helps, but it's not the end of the world if you don't.

As a current Waterloo eng student, I fully endorse this student. I've had the unique chance to hire students and I've seen both very bright and very substandard people from the likes of Stanford and Waterloo. It's about how well the individual applies himself, more than the school. This is especially true in Canada where almost all accredited universities are on par with each other in terms of teaching standards.

Hangout with smarter people.

Good schools can be very useful for this. Personally, I know at MIT, most of what I took away didn't come from a classroom (of course, some of that's my fault). The community around a school can make all the difference.

> In short, how can I become smarter?

Work thoughtfully and hard, and take nothing for granted. That's it.

> How can build a great foundation where I can understand the concepts intuitively?

You're lucky, because you're in college. It's the best place to do it.

Know the material. If you can't draw a picture in 1 minute that would get the idea across to your grandmother, you don't understand it. Every time it says "Clearly," you prove whatever comes next. You close the book and put it away, and come back the next day and do the same thing.

Do all the problems. especially the hard ones at the end. You never look at your notes or your book when doing them. That's the difference between getting an A on the exam, and being able to teach someone that topic five years later. Your study time (at least of fundamentals, which is most of university) should consist ~70% sitting in front of a knotty problem, with no books in sight. It's recommended to do mainly hard problems, and it's absolutely OK to take several days to do them. If you don't make progress for more than 20 minutes, stop and come back a few hours later or the next day. But make sure you come back!

Now, here's the key: you do all this before the lecture on that topic. When you show up to lecture, you already know it cold. Except that you'll have so many questions. Most of your questions will start with "Why." They will be the questions that the other kids will find annoying. If you want to be smart, you need to be that guy.

Teach. It's trite but true. Teach people who seem smarter than you but don't know about this topic yet. They'll help you understand what you don't know properly. Also, our retention of information processed in a live setting is roughly 9x that from just reading.

Be curious. Our brains are wired for stories rather than abstractions, and even technical fields have a narrative. Who came up with this algorithm? How or why did it follow logically from what came before? What came next? By learning these things (the best way is to chat about it during office hours with professors, or with other smart students), you'll also be getting an informal education in what smartness and creativity look like in the real world.

Focus. Do not do what's above for every class, or every topic. Do it for only one topic at a time, that you're really interested in, exclusively.

Form a team. This is probably the most difficult (at least for shy people like me), but the most rewarding. If you know some other people who are also serious, and can get together and work with them in the fashion above, you will all progress much, much faster. Try to have some and discipline: you meet twice a week for two hours and work like crazy, and then go to the pub afterward and wind down (just like a sports team). If you can find a grad student or prof who's interested in "coaching" you, that will help even more. This is what grad school has that college doesn't. Create grad school for yourself in college, and you'll get smart much faster.

Play. Creativity emerges most spontaneously during play. Play means pet projects, hackathons, competitions, etc. Research projects during the summer are perfect (choose them based on coolness and/or fun). And play in completely unrelated areas, too (music is fantastic). Non-academic recreation (e.g. lots of sex) is quite important.

> .. go to graduate school at Stanford or MIT

Question: why do you want to go to grad school at Stanford or MIT?

> I would just like to prove to myself that I have what it takes

That is probably not a good enough reason. It's easy to become enamored with the idea of a thing. Spending all day wrestling with deep problems, letting your mind course over the beautiful edifice of ideas erected by those who came before. Unless you actually enjoy doing spending most of your day and most of your nights alone working, usually in a library or cramped office - then, perhaps there are other forms of "smartness" worth pursuing.

It's a decision only you can make - but if it's just about pride, I'll save you a lot of trouble and tell you it's not worth it.

> I've been feeling pretty lost in what I've wanted to do with my life

Most people feel the same way. It will not stop you from living a worthwhile life. The majority of interesting events and true life experiences you have will be unplanned - so don't take "want to do with your life" too seriously.

Have you ever seen the movie "Yes man" (Jim Carrey)? Whatever happens, he just says yes. As far as I can tell (at the tender age of 24) this is a good strategy for a successful, rewarding life. It may sound at odds with the "Focus" paragraph above, but it's not. You focus to improve yourself - and you say "yes" when serendipity comes knocking, often disguised as drudgery.

Good luck :)

Proving myself that I have what it takes was not my only reason, I apologize for making it seem like that I just want to go there because its prestigious. I stumbled upon a book that sums it up nicely. Its called The Idea Factory by Pepper White. Just a little summary of the back cover: "When Pepper White enters MIT, one of his professors tells him that it does not much matter what he studies there. What MIT will do is teach him how to think."

I want to learn how to think. For some reason this reminds me of Richard Feynman..he had such clarity in his explanations that came from a deep understanding of things. I want to try and reach that level of understanding and clarity. The way he told stories just kept me wanting more. I want to have people at the edge of their seats wanting more, I would love to teach anyone the most complex of subjects, and have them getting an a-ha! moment and just having as much fun as Richard Feynman did. You could see the joy in his face when he explained how certain things worked.

If your goal is to go to a prestigious school then I'm not so sure you're going to make it. The only way you're going to succeed in something that takes a lot of effort is if you find doing it fun! If you are not genuinely curious about the subject you're studying then it's not going to work.

You need to define what "smarter" means to you - and also recognise that no-one is a top performer in every field. So step one is to pick an area where you want to improve.

If you don't know where to start then just start anywhere - come up with one or two concrete objectives to work towards. The most important thing is to start. Pick something that looks achievable over 2-3 months and go for it. By the time you have achieved those objectives you will have built up some momentum and also learnt a bit more, so you'll be in a slightly better place to pick your next objectives. As you get better at this you can start picking bigger targets and doing it over longer time frames.

If you're really stuck then try picking an open source project at random and commiting yourself to contributing something to that project in the next two months. That could be programming, it could be documentation, it could be something else. If you're not physically active, then pick some kind of physical challenge too. Completing a 5 kilometre/3 mile run/walk is achievable for most people in that time frame.

The more you do, the more you'll know what to do (and the more you'll realise how much is still undone).

And on a more specific level - if you want to get into a top grad school you will most like have to do well academically. Depending on your course, exams are likely to be a major factor in your grades, so learn how to be good at exams - it is a skill and if you are staying in academia for a while it is one worth learning. What follows is old advice, but not many people seem to follow it. If you're studying a technical subject, then make sure your maths is up to speed. If you are bad at maths it will make any kind of numerical/equation type of exam much harder (and also many things in the real world). During the exam, do three passes through the paper - on the first pass just read it, look for easy questions. On the second just answer stuff that you know reasonably well, don't waste time on difficult stuff. On the third pass go back to the questions you couldn't do and do as much as you can. Even if you can't answer the question write down stuff that you think is relevant, you might pick up a mark or two here and there (but don't go overboard writing down irrelevant stuff, your marker won't thank you for that). And practice, practice, practice. Get hold of old exam papers and do them (timed). Get hold of the answers to the old exams if you can and study them. Often the questions are set by the same person each year and often they aren't very imaginative at coming up with new variations.

Reading "You and Your Research" (http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html) by Richard Hamming might also give you some ideas about what to do. It's an inspiring read.

I'm 24 and graduating with a MSCS from Stanford this week. The last two years have made me much smarter and more comfortable with theory than I was two years ago. Of course, I also worked far harder here than I ever have in my life. Highly recommend the experience.

When you say "much smarter and more comfortable with theory", what do you mean exactly? Smarter how? Also, how are you more comfortable with theory and what does that comfort do for you? What type of role in society/IT would you say the education prepared you for? I hope you don't mind my curiosity.

>Smarter how?

I've really learned what people mean when they say that the mind is a muscle. You know when you first start working out, you can't lift that much and everything hurts, but after, say, two years you've built up some muscle and maybe you can bench your bodyweight? Well, it was a bit like that. Stanford was a very challenging environment for me at first. I feel like I get things more quickly, have more ideas, and think faster in general now than I did two years ago...to a greater degree than I could reasonably expect just from aging two years.

>how are you more comfortable with theory

I did my undergrad at Georgetown...fine school, and not totally devoid of theory classes, but the philosophy there is that you learn by implementing (which I did). But I never did a CS problem set in four years there. I could still understand theory and reproduce it on exams etc, but if you asked me to read an academic paper it would have been pretty painful. That's no longer the case, despite the fact that I've only read 1-2 papers here. If you want something more concrete - I took 224M and 225B my first quarter, and they were waaay harder for me then that taking a similar class would be now (especially 224M - http://cs224m.stanford.edu).

>what does that comfort do for you?

Hmmm, good question. I don't know if there's any direct, tangible benefit that I can point to.

>What type of role in society/IT would you say the education prepared you for?

Just about anything. I'm CTO of a NY startup, and will finally be full time on it once I graduate, but I could have gone on to be a PM or dev at pretty much any company of my choice, or gone to Wall St, or just about anything else you can think of. Oh, that reminds me of another benefit of being here...you'll regularly get Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, etc. emailing you and asking you to interview. Plus, Stanford is ridiculous for credibility...if you play the S-card, as some call it, people are often more conducive to your requests. That can even just mean sending an email from your @cs.stanford.edu address instead of GMail. Not sure how that is at other schools but it's a nice change from Gtown, whose CS dept is so small most people never think of it.

Get to know your cognitive biases: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

"You are a product of your environment." --Clement Stone

I'd recommend a couple of books:

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck,

What Is Intelligence?, by James Flynn.

Thanks I'll definitely check them out.

when i was 19 even i used to contemplate on how to get smarter but ended up becoming a piece of rotten vegetable.now at the age of 25 i believe in doing volumes of work and imagining things.that's the only way of becomming smart.

I'm 22 and recently graduated with a degree in Computer Science from a second-rate Canadian University. Two years into my program I went through this same phase but my GPA has never been very strong and transferring was just not a realistic option.

Actually ~10 hours ago I was just reminiscing/reflecting on the experience and my achievements of the last 4 years. It's been 3 days after convocation and one of my good buddies is continuing on with his studies while I am diving into the wonderful world of work. I woke up and read this thread during breakfast so this a happy coincidence. I hope that someone can benefit from my experience/mistakes.

If your goal is to get into a prestigious University then I have some bad news. It is much easier, (less competitive) and cheaper (courses cost money) to get your foot in the door through high school than it is to transfer in. That being said, if you are highly determined and put in the effort you will find a way to get in. *

Yesterday evening I was fiddling around with http://www.cs.utep.edu/admissions/ . Graduate school has never been a priority for me so I would recommend doing your own research but understand that you -need- a strong GPA, especially in your CS courses. Normally I don't recommend comparing your personal development with that of your peers but it's a competitive world and a 3.3+ GPA, high GRE scores, and research experience seems to be the prerequisite for any respectable CS school these days.

As for grades I share the same sentiment as the fellow here. http://www.stanford.edu/~pgbovine/grades.htm Looking at the graduating class and having worked with many of my peers directly I will tell you now that there is a very strong correlation between those with strong mathematical ability and good grades. But even if you don't have the aptitude * grades reflect how well you perform what is required for a class so hard work, collaboration, and even collusion can skew results significantly. Research experience is easy to get because professors are always looking for bright students. The pay will not be very good (it's typically minimum wage where I studied) but it's more for the experience and now you can double dip and add two bullet points for your resume: One for work experience and another for a scholarship. Once again, GPA is one of the prime determinant for these research programs. (the other is finding a professor to sponsor you)

I would have liked to keep the door to graduate studies open, but I failed 3 courses in a 40 course program which is pretty devastating to anybody's GPA. (I used up nearly all my withdrawals in my first year after a stint in another faculty, but that's another story) A cumulative total of 2.99998 is not competitive for CS graduate studies. I've secured a fairly plum job which is my motivation for getting a degree but obviously I've burned some bridges. I try not to look back but for now I wonder how my life would be different if I spent more time on my studies and less programming.

tl;dr You know where you want to go. Find out how to get there. Put in the effort and you will likely achieve your goal. I'll be happy to elaborate more on my experience if you are interested but I recommend speaking with your TA's and professors. They've been there, done that and will be able to offer sound advice. Phil also has more to say about grad school but Stanford is probably more selective than most. http://www.stanford.edu/~pgbovine/grad-school-app-tips.htm

* A disproportionately large proportion of freshman think they are going to get double degrees, get into graduate studies or whatever. Most inevitably end up changing their minds.

* You'll know when you expend three times as much effort/time in Graphics programming than your friend, brilliant as he may be. Also many of the "distinguished" students that graduated with honors have minors in general or pure mathematics.

EDIT: Edited for grammar and coherency.

Simple: Read HN every day and take fish oil pills.

Others have pointed out that you need to read, challenge yourself and work hard. I'd add that this is a lifestyle change, not a quick fix - you need to treat it accordingly, or accept that this is not something you can do indefinitely.

You know those people who say "I used to ..., but then I realised that ... and now I'm much happier"? You're either one of them just on the cusp of your epiphany, or you're just wishing really hard for a silver bullet. The latter is a waste of your time.

(Mine was putting the blame for my lack of achievements anywhere but my own procrastination. I realised what I was doing, and stopped by imposing deadlines on myself, and penalties for missing them. "I'm not allowed to go to that party at the weekend unless this project is finished, completely. Either that, or accept that I'll never achieve anything because I don't put in the time". Treating myself like the naughty child I was, basically.)


ADHD drugs are some crazy stuff.

"The most important principle on HN, though, is to make thoughtful comments. Thoughtful in both senses: both civil and substantial."

Considering that you "Migrated from reddit" because the "quality of the comments declined way too fast.", you'll probably be interested in (re)reading the HN guidelines.


Can you show me where the guidelines relate to my comment? I'm not sure if things are different here, but in most other places, bringing up the rules of a place by telling the person they'll be 'interested in (re)reading' them is what could be considered "introducing classic flamewar topics".

Of course we can now also discuss what is thoughtful, civil, and substantial. From my understanding of the word civil, your comment is questionable. I may be too sensitive, but your comment strikes me as one that attempted to show no respect and even try to hurt my feelings. This thought process has even more grounding with the appearance of your account being made only for this one comment. I'm saddened that you couldn't show me the respect and common courtesy of using an active account.

On to my actual comment. Your first quote is from the welcome page. The same page that appears to be quite lax and from my (admittedly biased) reading, doesn't seem to be too against my comment. The one mistake I admit to is the wording. It should have been worded better.

On the other hand, I was the first and only person to bring up 'brain-enhancing' drugs. I decided to keep my comment short so if anyone actually cared about the topic, they could reply and then I could expand. Otherwise I feared I would possibly invoke negativity from people that don't like the idea of people taking certain drugs. Negativity (not necessarily for what I had in mind) occured anyway so that reasoning is moot I guess.

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