Have you ever been bested by a high school dropout, despite your expensive degree? Well, I sure as hell have. Imagine young me, green as a spring leaf, equipped with knowledge from prestigious schools, and completely underprepared for the real world. I was a hotshot executive, ready to take on the world. My first gig? A fast-growing startup, a jungle that abides by its own rules.

That’s when I met Dave. Dave was a scruffy 19-year-old with hair that touched his shoulders and a smirk that could rile up anyone. He never went to college; instead, he was a self-taught software developer. When it came to problem-solving, Dave was the Mozart of the startup, despite me, the ‘educated one’, being the apparent Beethoven.

During an important project, Dave found a solution to a coding problem we had been trying to solve for weeks, while I was just fumbling around like a toddler in the dark. And there it was—the revelation. All those late-night study sessions, cramming for exams, none of that mattered if I couldn’t apply what I knew to real-world problems. All my life, I believed that being smart was about having a high IQ or acing tests. But here was Dave, outsmarting everyone without breaking a sweat.

That was my first major fail wake up as a business executive and, holy cow, it was a doozy. It was also the moment that redefined my understanding of what it means to be ‘smart’. I realized that being smart is not about having a good memory or even having a lot of knowledge—it’s about having a skillset that enables you to navigate life effectively. Smartness is about having situational awareness, the ability to filter information, troubleshoot problems, have clarity of goals, possess good taste, display empathy and compassion, and make decisions that align with your goals.

Welcome, folks, to the new generation of smart. A world where your ability to think, adapt, and solve problems far outweighs your ability to recall facts and figures. A world where the Davids can outshine the Goliaths.

The Smartness Spectrum

Let’s kick things off by smashing a few myths, shall we? Like that one about how you’re only smart if you ace every test or that you’re a genius if you can recite the periodic table backward while hopping on one foot. Bullcrap, I say! If you’re thinking, “Well, duh, that’s what smart is,” allow me to introduce you to the new age definition of intelligence.

Sure, the dictionary might tell you that being smart is about having a quick-witted intellect. But if that was the case, wouldn’t we all be geniuses in the era of Google? Hell, my grandma can Google how to fix a leaky faucet faster than you can say, “Alexa, play Despacito.” Does that make her a whizz kid? Probably not. But does it make her smart in that situation? Heck, yeah!

In our fast-paced, hyper-connected world, access to information is no longer a luxury—it’s as basic as bread and butter. We live in an age where artificial intelligence can generate solutions to complex problems, and data is the new oil. So what does being smart even mean in the digital age?

Well, let me break it down for you. Being smart is not a one-trick pony. It’s a spectrum. A beautiful, multifaceted spectrum that goes beyond your ability to memorize facts or solve math problems.

On this spectrum, we have situational awareness, a trait that allows you to understand the context of your surroundings and adapt your behavior accordingly. It’s about noticing the small things and piecing them together to see the big picture.

Then comes the ability to filter information. With so much data at our fingertips, the smart ones know how to sift through the noise and extract the useful bits. It’s like panning for gold. You got to swish around a whole lot of sand (useless information) to find the nuggets of gold (useful information).

Next, we have troubleshooting. This is the skill that separates the doers from the talkers. It’s easy to point out problems, but it takes a special kind of smart to find solutions when things go awry.

Then there’s the clarity of goals. Smart people know what they want, and they’ll chase it like a dog after a Frisbee. No distractions, no dilly-dallying. Just pure, relentless pursuit of their objectives.

Being a tastemaker in your domain is another facet of this new-age smartness. This isn’t about being a fashionista or a foodie (though those are cool too). It’s about being the one who sets trends and influences others in your field of work.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, we have empathy and compassion. Being smart isn’t just about being successful—it’s also about being a decent human being. And in the world of business, empathy and compassion are what make you a leader, not just a boss.

Being smart isn’t about how much you know. It’s about how well you can navigate the world using your knowledge, skills, and abilities. So buckle up, folks, because we’re about to deep-dive into each of these facets and learn how we can become smarter in the truest sense of the word.

Situational Awareness: The Radar You Need

Let me take you on a journey into the heart of the concrete jungle—the business world, where being clueless is not an option. The first rule of this survival game: Situational awareness. You may be wondering, “What’s that? Some kind of military jargon?” Well, my friend, you’re not wrong.

Situational awareness is a concept used in fields like aviation and law enforcement to define how aware you are of your environment and the potential threats and opportunities it presents. But, just like a solid morning coffee, it’s a concept that has seeped into the business world and for a good reason.

In an office, it could mean the ability to read a room during a critical meeting. In the marketplace, it could be about understanding shifting consumer behavior. On a more personal level, it could be about recognizing your strengths and weaknesses. The point is, wherever you are, whatever you do, there’s always a situation to read, and there’s always an adjustment to be made.

Think of it as your radar—a soft beep here, a ping there, constantly feeding you information about what’s happening around you. A smart person keeps their radar fine-tuned and switched on at all times. They don’t just see—they observe. They don’t just hear—they listen. And they don’t just feel—they perceive. It’s not about being paranoid. It’s about being prepared.

Does it sound exhausting? Maybe. But, when you consider the advantages, it’s well worth the effort. By being aware of the intricacies in a given situation, you can predict changes, make more informed decisions, and handle complications with greater ease.

And guess what? Like any skill, it can be developed. Start small. Try to observe more about your surroundings. Next time you’re in a meeting, don’t just listen to the words—watch body language, notice the tone of voice, see who’s interacting with whom. Gradually, you’ll start to see the layers below the surface—the unspoken words, the hidden dynamics. That’s when you’re really seeing the situation.

In business, where change is the only constant, being situationally aware is more than a valuable skill—it’s a survival mechanism. It helps you stay flexible, adapt to change, and stay two steps ahead of your competition. And in a world that’s spinning faster every day, it’s the radar you need to navigate through the chaos and cut a path to success.

Filtering Information: Panning the Gold from the Sand

In the digital era, the world is drowning in information. News, tweets, posts, emails, reports, meetings – it’s like standing under an avalanche and trying not to get buried. If you’ve felt overwhelmed, congratulations, you’re a normal human living in the 21st century. But here’s the kicker: Being smart isn’t about consuming more information; it’s about consuming the right information. That’s where the art of filtering comes into play.

If information is the raw material, your mind is the filter, sifting through tons of data and panning out the nuggets of gold that can add value to your life or your work. It’s about knowing which information is worth your time and which isn’t. That, my friends, is what separates the smart ones from the rest.

Take the world of business, for example. CEOs, executives, entrepreneurs – they are all swamped with information. Market reports, consumer data, financial statistics, competitor analysis – the list is endless. And yet, every decision they make depends on their ability to filter out the noise and hone in on the signal.

But how do you do it? Here are a few tried and tested strategies:

Firstly, know your goals. Whether you’re choosing a podcast or conducting market research, clarity about what you want to achieve will act as a lighthouse guiding you through the stormy sea of data. The information that aligns with your goals is your gold; the rest is just sand.

Secondly, don’t fall into the trap of confirmation bias. That’s when you only listen to information that confirms your pre-existing beliefs. Instead, seek diverse perspectives, question your assumptions, and be willing to change your mind. That’s how you broaden your horizons and avoid blind spots.

Lastly, remember that quality trumps quantity. Instead of trying to consume all the information available, focus on finding reliable, credible sources. Expert opinions, scientific research, and well-established publications are a good place to start.

The great American author Ernest Hemingway once said, “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” I believe the same about the world of information. Despite its overwhelming nature, it’s a landscape filled with opportunities and insights, waiting to be explored by those smart enough to filter the gold from the sand.

Troubleshooting: The Art of Damage Control

No matter how well-laid your plans are, things will inevitably go awry at some point. In the world of business and life, this is a reality that we all must face. No one is immune to this. Whether you’re running a Fortune 500 company, a startup, or your personal life, the proverbial fan is bound to get hit at some point. So, what separates the smart from the not-so-smart in these situations? It’s the ability to troubleshoot and perform damage control.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not advocating for a pessimistic outlook on life, bracing yourself for disaster around every corner. What I’m suggesting is embracing a more realistic perspective, one that acknowledges that we live in a world of variables and uncertainties. It’s about expecting the best but preparing for the worst.

Troubleshooting is essentially problem-solving. It’s about identifying the issue, finding its root cause, and figuring out a way to fix it. However, in the heat of a crisis, this becomes an art more than a science. It’s a dance between logic and intuition, strategy and creativity, resilience and adaptability.

So, how does one become good at troubleshooting? Here are some thoughts:

Firstly, keep calm. Panic is your worst enemy in a crisis. It clouds judgment and hampers decision-making. One of the key attributes of a smart individual is the ability to stay composed under pressure, to maintain a clear head when everyone around you is losing theirs.

Secondly, get to the root of the problem. Often, what we see is just the symptom of a deeper issue. Smart people don’t just put out fires; they identify why the fire started in the first place and prevent it from happening again.

Thirdly, don’t be afraid to seek help. No one knows everything, and it’s okay to admit that. Engaging different perspectives and skillsets can offer new solutions and expedite the resolution process. Remember, troubleshooting is a team sport.

Lastly, learn from the experience. Every crisis is a learning opportunity in disguise. Reflect on what went wrong, what could have been done differently, and how to better prepare for similar situations in the future. That’s how you turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones.

In the grand scheme of things, troubleshooting isn’t just about damage control; it’s about damage transformation. It’s about turning a crisis into an opportunity for growth and improvement. It’s about transforming a setback into a comeback. Because in the end, it’s not the crises that define us, but how we respond to them.

Clarity of Goals: The North Star

In a world with a multitude of options and directions you could take, having clarity of goals is the equivalent of having your own personal North Star, a guiding light in the chaos of decision making. This might sound like an overstatement but trust me, it’s not.

Here’s the deal. When you’re clear about what you want, decision-making becomes a lot simpler. It’s like you’ve got a GPS system. Every decision you make is simply a question of, “Will this take me closer to my goal or not?” That’s it. It’s that simple.

This isn’t some business jargon I’m throwing at you. This is real, hardcore stuff. I’ve seen firsthand how having clarity of goals can turn around the fortunes of a floundering startup. It takes the guesswork out of the equation and streamlines efforts. Your goals become the criteria by which you measure every opportunity that comes your way.

But let’s be honest, finding your North Star, your true goals, isn’t a cakewalk. It’s more like a deep dive into your psyche. It’s about asking yourself hard questions and being brutally honest with the answers. What drives you? What keeps you up at night? What’s that one thing you’d do even if you were not getting paid for it? These questions are like beacons leading you to your true goals.

Another critical aspect to remember is that clarity of goals doesn’t mean inflexibility. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. Your goals are your guiding light, not chains that bind you. As you grow, as you experience new things, your goals might evolve, and that’s completely okay. What matters is that at any given point in time, you have clarity about what you want to achieve.

The journey towards your goals is a pursuit of mastery. Mastery over your instincts to be swayed by every shiny opportunity that crosses your path. Mastery over your fears that might deter you from your path. Mastery over your perception of success and failure.

In this sense, the pursuit of your goals isn’t just about achieving them; it’s about who you become in the process. Because here’s the bitter-sweet truth – achieving a goal isn’t the final destination; it’s just a milestone in the journey of personal growth.

So, my friends, find your North Star. Chase it relentlessly. Remember, in the quest for your goals, the journey matters just as much as the destination, if not more.

Good Taste: Being a Tastemaker in Your Domain

What’s the difference between just another player in the field and someone who really stands out? One word: taste.

Taste is about having an intuitive sense of what’s good and valuable. It’s about honing in on quality amidst a sea of mediocrity. You’ve got good taste when you can look at a cluttered landscape and pick out the gems that no one else sees.

Having good taste isn’t about being a snob or adopting elitist attitudes. It’s about understanding your domain so deeply that you can see trends before they’re trends, you can spot potential where others see nothing, and you can make decisions that seem risky but you know are right. It’s about trusting your gut because your gut is educated.

You don’t have to be born with good taste. It’s a skill you can develop, like riding a bike or coding an app. It’s about constantly engaging with your field, keeping up-to-date with developments, and having the courage to trust your instincts even when they go against conventional wisdom.

Take the example of a young intern who was thrown into the lion’s den of a dynamic, fast-paced industry. She didn’t have the experience or the credentials that her veteran colleagues had. What she had was an instinct for what worked, an unerring taste for what was good. She spotted a trend before it was a trend. She backed an idea that everyone else thought was ridiculous. And when that idea turned out to be the next big thing, suddenly, she wasn’t just an intern anymore. She was a tastemaker, a person of influence. All because she had good taste.

Having good taste isn’t just about making great decisions. It’s about becoming a leader in your field, someone who sets the tone rather than follows it. It’s about becoming the person that others look to for ideas and inspiration. It’s about transforming yourself from a follower into a pioneer.

But be warned, having good taste requires courage. It means you’ll sometimes go against the grain, pick the road less traveled, and trust your instincts even when others doubt you. It can be a solitary journey, but trust me, when you emerge on the other side, you’ll not just be another player in the field, you’ll be a tastemaker.

Empathy and Compassion: The Secret Sauce of Effective Leadership

Remember when the biggest, meanest, most ruthless wolf was considered the alpha? Yeah, me neither, because those days are over, at least in the business world. In the sphere of leadership and business today, it’s not the toughest or the most ruthless who rise to the top, but those who lead with empathy and compassion.

Empathy and compassion aren’t just fluffy, feel-good words. They’re essential elements of effective leadership. They’re about understanding the people around you – their needs, their concerns, their ambitions – and responding to them in a way that supports the collective success of the team.

Think about it, do you prefer to work with a leader who treats you like a cog in a machine, or with one who acknowledges your unique abilities, challenges, and aspirations? I bet you’d prefer the latter. That’s because we’re not machines, we’re human beings. We have feelings, we have good days and bad days, we have dreams, and we want to be seen, heard, and appreciated.

Empathy allows you to connect with your team on a deeper level. It allows you to understand their perspectives, which in turn helps you make better decisions, resolve conflicts more effectively, and build a stronger, more cohesive team.

Compassion, on the other hand, is about caring for the well-being of others. It’s about creating a supportive environment where everyone feels valued and respected. It’s about recognizing that your success as a leader is directly tied to the success of your team.

In the early days of my leadership journey, I used to think that being a leader meant being tough, making hard decisions, and keeping a distance from your team. But as I grew into the role, I realized that my greatest moments of leadership didn’t come from being tough or distant, but from being empathetic and compassionate. I realized that when my team felt understood and cared for, they performed better, they were more engaged, and they were more likely to stick around even when things got tough.

Leading with empathy and compassion doesn’t mean being soft or avoiding hard decisions. It means approaching those decisions with a deeper understanding and care for the people they affect. It’s about recognizing that your team isn’t just a group of employees, but a group of individuals, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and personal circumstances.

So if you want to be a leader in this new age of business, don’t try to be the biggest, meanest wolf in the pack. Instead, be the leader who leads with empathy and compassion. Trust me, your team – and your bottom line – will thank you for it.

Making Decisions that Further Your Goals: Be the Chess Player, not the Chess Piece

In this wild, ever-changing business landscape, it’s easy to get swept along in the flow of events, to react rather than act, to become a chess piece rather than the player. But here’s the thing, kids: if you want to get ahead, you need to start making strategic decisions that further your goals, not just react to what life throws at you.

Now, I know this might sound like an uphill task. After all, making decisions is hard, isn’t it? Especially when there’s so much at stake. But it’s precisely this difficulty, this risk, that separates the players from the pieces.

Let’s take a leaf out of the chess grandmaster’s book. When they sit down at the chessboard, they’re not thinking about their next move; they’re thinking about their next ten moves. They’re strategizing, planning, predicting their opponent’s actions, and aligning each move to their overall game plan.

The same goes for business. When you make decisions, don’t just think about the immediate impact. Think about how this decision aligns with your overall goals. How does it take you closer to where you want to be? How does it fit into the larger picture?

And it’s not just about your decisions. It’s also about understanding that every choice you make has a ripple effect. Just as in chess, each move you make influences the state of the board, each decision you make changes the landscape of your business and personal life.

Take the story of my first startup. We were at a crossroads, caught between sticking to our initial plan or pivoting in response to market changes. It was a tough decision, one that had significant implications for the future of our company. After much deliberation, we chose to pivot. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was a strategic one, one that aligned with our goals of long-term growth and sustainability.

In retrospect, that strategic decision was the turning point for our startup. It led us down a path of growth that we hadn’t anticipated, but one that ultimately led to our success.

Remember, it’s your game. It’s your chessboard. Don’t let circumstances or other people dictate your moves. Be the chess player, not the chess piece. Make conscious, goal-oriented decisions that take you where you want to go. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about the moves you have, but how you use them that makes all the difference.

Conclusion: Your Smartness, Your Choice

So, there you have it, folks—the new age definition of intelligence. No more simply measuring your worth by your GPA or your SAT score. It’s not about how many facts you can regurgitate or how many calculus problems you can solve. Today’s intelligence, or ‘smartness’ as we’ve been calling it, is a combination of situational awareness, filtering information, troubleshooting, having clarity of goals, good taste, empathy and compassion, and the ability to make decisions that further your goals.

Look, being smart is not some inborn trait, handed down from generation to generation through your DNA. It’s not a club where you’re either in or out. Smartness, as we’ve defined it, is a choice. It’s a set of skills that you can develop, hone, and use to navigate this crazy world of ours. And the best part is that everyone, regardless of background, education, or experience, can choose to be smart.

We’ve explored how you can level up in each area, using real-world examples, practical strategies, and a healthy dose of humor. Now, it’s up to you to take these tools and put them to use. You’re the artist and the art, the chef and the dish, the player and the game.

Remember, it’s not just about surviving in this fast-paced, ever-changing world. It’s about thriving, about making a mark, about being a player, not just a chess piece. It’s about taking control of your destiny and shaping it in your image.

So, here’s my final piece of advice for you: redefine your understanding of being smart. Step out of the confines of conventional intelligence and step into the broader, more holistic view of smartness. Develop these skills, make them a part of who you are, and see how it changes your game.

Because, at the end of the day, you’re not just smart—you’re bloody brilliant. Now, go out there and show the world just how brilliant you can be.

About the Author: Geoffrey Byers
Geoffrey is one of the world's foremost Designers. He is also a Serial Entrepreneur, Author, Speaker, and Mad Scientist. Hypothesis-Driven experimentation is his love language.