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Ask HN: How to become smarter?
51 points by shire on Sept 22, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 57 comments
This might sound like a silly question but I want to increase my knowledge and awareness of everything.

I've been taking courses on https://www.coursera.org/ and reading ton of books.

Can anyone recommend what they've done to get smarter? perhaps books, classes they've taken. I have a lot of free time and want to learn anything.

Its not just about reading, its about thinking on your feet and being able to find solutions to problems.

Spend time around a lot of different people from different fields and always ask questions. They have alot to teach you, but you wont learn anything from them if you dont give them a chance to talk.

You'll be surprised how much stuff "ordinary people" know if you give them a chance to talk.

Do a lot of Math and calculus and try to solve complex coding problems.

Build things, release, get feedback and repeat. The experience will surely increase your intelligence understanding, awareness and your ability to recognise patterns.

Good Luck.

Mindfulness meditation (see e.g. http://siyli.org) has improved my ability to focus on problems and increased my self-awareness, making me more effective both in business situations and personal ones.

I don't think it's improved my raw ability to think, but it definitely helps me step outside situations, think about thinking, and do meta-reasoning. Sometimes the best way to get more done is to think of a way to do less work :)

This looks really interesting. I'll check this out.

I highly recommend reading Power of Now (terrible title) but one of the best books I've found on the topic, more about awareness then practical guide into meditation.

In my opinion, "being smart" is not exactly the same thing as "having much knowledge". Given a problem to solve, knowledge helps you make an informed decision, while smartness helps you find a hack. Of course, they're not totally unrelated.

I mention this because I believe it'd be helpful for you to consider which of the two you want to improve in more. Knowledge can come from books and courses, like many people are recommending. I wish I knew how to become smart (perhaps if I was smart, I'd find a hack for it...), but I suspect it might help to get into the habit of questioning everything, and practicing lateral thinking. Perhaps it would also help to try and find abstract similarities between situations from very different contexts - often new insights can come from combining knowledge from different fields, and this will probably help you get used to seeing things in different contexts.

Considering the (no doubt intentional) vagueness of the question, I'm guessing you'd be interested in both. I think a good way to improve both at the same time is to often read, and then try and find something to read that says the opposite. That way you get a lot of knowledge, often from various sides, and it invites you to think about it more and question the assumptions.

I hope that helps.

One interesting, high quality source I've used for exploring new areas is the Introducing series of graphic novels [1]. The main topics covered are science, philosophy and psychology. I've gone through the majority of the philosophy ones. My favorite is Introducing Nietszche. It gives an overview of his life, major works, and impact. Another good one is Introducing Postmodernism.

In general, these books are quick to read and act as a good launching point for a deep dive into any topics you find interesting.



Thanks I'll check this out.

I would strongly recommend learning new languages--both human languages and computer languages. The most beneficial ones will be the most different from what you already know, so if you know English and one or two European languages, try learning something like Chinese or Japanese. It's especially helpful if you can immerse yourself in the other language's environment for some period of time so that your brain is forced to start thinking in the other language. Language and culture shape how you think, and there is no substitute for learning a very different language and being immersed in a very different culture if you want to see how your thoughts and the thoughts of others are affected by those things. I think this exercise is one of the few in this thread that will actually challenge your brain sufficiently to make you significantly smarter as opposed to improving your mental toolset for thinking about the world.

I'd also recommend reading up on behavioral economics, marketing, and design. This is more along the "toolset" line, but understanding why people make the decisions they do and how other people try to exploit those decision-making processes helps to understand a significant amount of otherwise relatively impenetrable behavior.

Oh, and read How to Win Friends and Influence People if you haven't already. As someone else suggested, talking to people can yield a great deal of knowledge, but trying to think from the other person's perspective (a major theme in the book) can yield a great deal more understanding of people in general.

I came here to recommend http://lesswrong.com/, but then I saw that you want to become more knowledgable, not smarter. In that case, your current strategy sounds right to me!

I would really recommend reading LessWrong to pretty much anyone who is able to absorb the material (and willing to put in the time. It's not greatly organised at the moment).

It is, quite literally, life-altering stuff when internalised. At least it was for me.

An unorthodox method: study for the LSAT exam

I'm an LSAT instructor. I'm convinced that for a couple of the sections the only way to become better is to improve how you think. No shortcuts.

Send me an email if you want some guidance on how to use the materials.

I'd like to propose a slightly refined version of this question. If you wanted to select the best-of-breed books on a wide range of technical topics, math, physics, practical skills, survival, etc. what would they be? Which ones would be good to go into a time capsule to preserve modern knowledge in an end-of-civilization setting?

The types of books I'm looking for would include the Feynman Lectures, SICP, Art of Computer Programming, etc. What would be a good book series (preferably a classic one that's stood the test of time) on math (Algebra, various Calculus topics, Statistics, etc)? Principia Mathematica should go in here, but it would be nice to have something that includes modern notation. For general on-your-own in a cabin in the woods setting, I've been impressed with the topics covered in the Foxfire books. So what else? I'd like a good world history book, that ties in how everything is related to everything else (i.e, not just cover each civilization in isolation). Also, something covering Western and Eastern philosophy.

What would be a good book series (preferably a classic one that's stood the test of time) on math (Algebra, various Calculus topics, Statistics, etc)?

I'd like to edit this some more during the edit window for this comment. To start, the books by Israel M. Gelfand, originally written for correspondence study.



An acclaimed calculus book is Calculus by Michael Spivak.


Also very good is the two-volume set by Tom Apostol.



Those are all lovely, interesting books. A good bridge to mathematics beyond those is Vector Calculus, Linear Algebra, and Differential Forms: A Unified Approach by Hubbard and Hubbard.


A very good book series on more advanced mathematics is the Princeton University Press series by Elias Stein.


Is this the kind of thing you are looking for? Maybe I can think of some more titles, and especially series, while I am still able to edit this comment.

That depends on why you want to become smarter. Personal growth & development? Impressing your friends at cocktail parties? Worldly rewards and money? Ability to accomplish an objective in the future?

Because he can?

That depends on his answer. I'm asking because the paths to becoming "smarter" as defined by each of those objectives differ from each other. Reading a whole lot of Wikipedia tangents will make you seem smart at cocktail parties, but it's unlikely to lead to wealth & fame, nor does it contribute to much personal development. Learning, say, Foucault's theories on power may contribute to personal development, but they won't make you seem all that smart at cocktail parties nor get you a job.

All of the above sounds good.

If you want personal development, the best way to do that is to seek out the things that you believe you are no good at, and do them. For example, if you've always identified as a shy, introverted kid, the best thing you can do is to talk to strangers, make some friends, organize some events, and generally become the life of the party. If you've always identified as a learner and not a doer, the best thing you can do is take on a task that seems both pointless and challenging, do it to the best of your ability, and see what you learn from it. The way you phrase your question makes me think that you identify success with knowing things, rather than experiencing things or doing things. So if you want to grow as a person, the most productive things you could be doing are to get way out of that comfort zone and see what happens if, say, you traveled to another country where you don't know anyone, or if you took on a highly-visible project where you might fail.

If you want to seem smart at cocktail parties, the best way to do that is to know just slightly more than your friends at all the things they care about. Some resources for that: Wikipedia, pop science magazines like Discover or Popular Science, Mythbusters, Science Reddit, and all the stuff linked from there. Also stay up to date on your celebrity gossip, pop culture, and sports scores.

If you want to make money, the way to do that is to pick an area that is currently in demand in the economy, specialize in that, and go deep, enough that you have more knowledge than anyone else. Computers are hot right now, as is SEO and online marketing. Biotech may be hot in the near future, as is clean tech. You basically want to deepen your knowledge as opposed to broadening it. Whenever there's something you don't understand - and I mean don't fully understand, it's easy to have a superficial understanding of things - go seek it out and learn as much as possible about it.

Learning about something for achieving an objective is similar, but the objective is chosen by you instead of by the economy.

Being smart is very subjective.

I know someone who is very skilled at retaining large amounts of detailed information and he works as a high profile lawyer. However, he wasn't capable of figuring out how to change the battery in his remote control, let alone set up the TV channels on his newly bought TV. He reminds me of a lot of politicians I see on television; perceived as smart but actually quite dumb.

Then I know plenty of people who aren't highly educated at all but they are some of the most creative thinkers I have come across in my life.

I'm sure that reading a lot of books will broaden your horizon and awareness of one's "lack" of knowledge will put you into a good position since you're willing to learn and you're not assuming you know it all. That's good.

Try to be skeptical without being cynical.

Remember that you are not your ideas or beliefs. At most those things are you at a specific point in time.

Being shown to be wrong about something does not make you a lesser or bad person. Merely wrong, and you can change that.

I think this seems to be my biggest problem, the older I get the more cynical I'm becoming, and I hate it. Any tips on looking at ideas through the lens of curiosity rather then cynicism?

i saw the same thing happening to me, and i really didn't like it. the best way i found around this was identification and practice.

the first thing is to look at how you think and act. you said, "I hate it". that's a very strong emotion, and a very strong idea. and it indicates you've already become negative. try turning it around ... realize that you've already identified a problem, and now have an opportunity to work on changing it.

once i started doing this, my next reaction was that this is positive thinking bullshit. which it seems like. but i'm using it to change myself, which works ... not effect change in the external world through positive thinking, which doesn't necesarily work all that well.

etc, etc.

if you start softening your words, your thoughts follow (and vice versa). you can regain an objective and thoughtful outlook on life and experiences, instead of short-circuiting your through process by relying on pre-disgested, ready-made thought patterns.

Learning new skill will make you smarter. Something completely different from what you usually up to. If you spend most of the time reading books try tennis or dancing lessons. This will give you a new perspective.

Traveling is very useful due to the all the same reasons. You learn a lot of new things and getting a new perspective.

Being physically fit plays a huge role in your mental abilities and it's proven by many researchers.

To sum it up, the more diverse is your experience and the more things you try the better. 

I haven't tried that physically fit part I should try that I get lazy sometimes but I do want to get buff.

"Smarter" has many different meanings.

-> It could mean "more working memory", in which case games of various kinds are helpful. Anything that requires maintaining a set of values or decisions in your head for a while: bridge & hearts (count cards) or poker, go (weiqi / baduk).

-> It could mean "more mindful", i.e., being more observant and aware of yourself and your surroundings. A lot of people today claim that meditation is good for this. I find that not owning a smartphone is helpful. Reading a hefty dead-tree book can be a good antidote for "Goldfish Attention Span Syndrome".

-> It could mean "better at reasoning", in which case some courses on philosophy would help (logic, epistemology).

-> It could mean "more domain expertise", in which case you should spend some time taking courses or experimenting in some area of expertise.

-> It could mean "broadening your experiences", in which case you should go out and start something completely new, preferably something which is a little bit intimidating.

-> It could mean "being more healthy", because poor sleep habits, poor nutrition, and poverty all effectively lower IQ and general intelligence. Fix some things in your life, get more exercise, learn to cook / eat better.

edit: get in touch with HN user tokenadult (https://news.ycombinator.com/user?id=tokenadult); he studies and works in the field of intelligence and education (and frequently writes very informative posts on the subject); I'm just a dabbler.

Make things. Music, art, stories, games, movies, buildings, robots, etc. Pick something you don't know how to do and figure out how to do it.

Read good books -- the classics will do (I'd say this list is pretty good, until the 75 number: http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/449.Must_Read_Classics). This is a reasonably good list of nonfiction books: http://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/non-fiction. If you have trouble reading through it all try looking into audiobooks (or better yet, listen to the audiobooks while reading it). If you can't afford audiobooks, get them from your local library.

Consume good media -- FoxNews is bad, MSNBC is bad. PBS Newshour is good, BBC is generally pretty good.

Don't spend your time on inconsequential things (this can be difficult to do -- e.g., news media is all about pandering and sensationalizing things, you'll see everyone partake in it and you'll find it difficult to stay out of it). I think a good way to keep yourself from getting sucked into that trap -- of keeping up with latest Miley Cyrus scandal or whatever, is to just stay away from the crowd that spends too much time on it. So no more Reddit frontpage (at least the default one), instead go to nytimes.com (or HN! :-) my favorite commenters are rayiner, tptacek, potatolicious, and some others -- reading their thoughts will probably do you good).

Keep on taking those coursera courses, do projects in areas that interest you. Along the way you'll start picking up more specific interests and feel compelled to explore specific directions. Hopefully then you can even become a community leader in some area... and then you can start showing the light to other guys newcomers in that area.

Have fun while you're doing all of this!

All great advise. One thing about reddit that many may not realize, did you know that you can subscribe to specific subreddit groups? And your front page is customized to you, based on your subscriptions.

Since smartness happens in the brain mostly, specifically neocortex, brain, memory, analitical thinking concepts are good places to start, So that you can understand why most of the advices are good. In order to give you a list.

Social skills:

- Learn to really listen other people. - Learn to ask correct questions - Body language, gestures - Meeting new people from different cultures, especially people don't believe in prophets and hell and heaven stories

Improving brain:

- Playing a musical instrument - Learning another spoken language - No TV, no football, soccer bullshit, not too much porn, talking about girls & boys or cars& houses, celebrity etc.

Gaining Knowledge: - Mathematics, Physics, Programming, Astronomy, Biology, Paleontology, Evolution, any science branch you are interested.

- On the other hand, i personally think, the best way to learn about a different culture is to travel whether it is local or not.

Some good resources:

- Here of course - wikipedia - documentaries - coursera - youtube, if you can avoid stupid girl podcasts, otw you will end up with bad recommendations. - Follow inspiring people on twitter

I will stop know, i also want to learn what other sugesstions are :)

I think that how smart you are is influenced a lot by inner psychological traits, specifically:

1) How rewarding and enjoyful you find learning new things. I don't mean learning pi to one 1000 digits, but higher level concepts like learning macroeconomics.

2) Generally enjoying thinking.

3) Being a perfectionist. For example, when I see some corner case problem in one of my "theories" of something (usually related to computers, economics or philosophy), it really bothers me (i.e. it has nothing to do with being smart, it's personality trait).

So perhaps if you try to nurture these traits, it could make you smarter, but that's just a speculation :)

More practical advice: read quora.com. There is a lot of really high-quality, interesting and thought-provoking content there, written by some incredibly smart people.

@shire - Personal development and every day learning is something which excites me so let me give you an answer from own experience and what I do.

1. Have awareness - smartness is nothing but being aware of yourself, your knowledge and surroundings. Way too many of us are living a routine life and we have trained our minds to keep working at certain optimum level. People who are aware often looks smart and more importantly make smarter decisions.

2. Read and Learn - your smartness and decision making skills is directly proportional on how much you know, people who knows more will always look and make smarter decisions.

Btw, one thing I can assure you, smartness can not be taught through books and classes, be your own teacher, make your own lessons.

Interesting, thank you.

Spend time around the people you want to be.

or just spend more time around different people?

Fluid or crystallized intelligence ?


and check : http://brainworkshop.sourceforge.net/

"A recent study published in PNAS, an important scientific journal, shows that a memory task called dual n-back improves working memory (short term memory) and fluid intelligence. These findings are important because fluid intelligence was previously thought to be unchangeable"

Sleep another couple of hours each night - stop when you get to nine consistent hours of sleep a night. Melatonin can help tremendously. It makes everything and anything else much easier.

I'm not particularly smart. But I am resilient and will keep trying until I figure it out. Books and classes are great, but you can't depend on theory alone. Practice makes perfect. When you do, you understand why things are done a given way.

If I could go back in time, I would tell myself to stop reading so many programming books. I'd make myself write the code everyday. Rather than read about it. Figure out what it is that you want to learn. Then start practicing and learning the theory.

How you can write code if you don't know what you're writing. Reading those programming books perhaps gave you the idea of what to write about right?

Depend how you define being smarter. Being aware of your bias is a possible initial approach. For a list try start reading from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases (some of them have nicer explanation in i.e. http://youarenotsosmart.com/ )

Read more. Pick up a magazine on a topic you know nothing about. Ask people what they do and how they do it. Try your hand at a new craft/art. Learn from all the above. Write more. Go to the library and take out a book from each section. Seek out music you've never heard before. Learn something new every day. Ditch the TV/Netflix. Surround yourself with people substantially smarter than yourself.

Thanks everyone you guys are all very helpful. All the information in this thread should keep me busy for a long time. Exactly what I was looking for!

How about studying the Bible?

"All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness, that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work." - 2 Timothy 3:16-17

Incorporate diversity into your learnings. Different courses, different approaches, different viewpoints, different news outlets, different acquaintances, and even different Twitter followers. It will help instill a more well rounded perspective.

Read more, read more things that make you think and that wow you, learn new skills, expose yourself to new forms of expression, meditate, try nootropics (Cerebrolysin, noopept, pramiracetam, etc), push your boundaries, watch videos on YouTube.

Dual N-Back: improves your working memory, hence fluid intelligence

here's a great introduction: http://www.gwern.net/DNB%20FAQ

Stop watching tv, reading blogs, or using facebook.

For awareness of politics and current events try reading The Economist on the bus/train or listening to NPR when driving.

Oof, The Economist is awful. I should know, I read the damn thing cover to cover for 15 years. Here's the short version: markets good, sarcastic captions.

Dive into Wikipedia. It's probably the broadest, most agenda-free, no-nonsense resource out there.

The only way to get smarter is by playing a smarter oponent (The fundamental of chess - 1885)

Read Books, Travel a lot and Meet People from various backgrounds.

the first thing that i think you should do is to define clearly what do you mean by smart.

What about drugs? Are there any?



Write a schedule and set tangible goals to keep track of progress and measure it. Read 40 pages today, finish course by end of month, write a program this week etc. It's the same as physical training, just keep going.

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