3 Ways To Teach Yourself To Become Smarter

New research reinforces the idea that intelligence is not fixed—and therefore can be strengthened. Here's how to put those findings to use.

When I was a 7-year-old growing up in rural Austria, I had only one dream, one shared by probably 90% of all other boys in my home country: to become a world-class soccer player.

This is probably the equivalent of football here in the U.S. or ice hockey in Canada. And playing soccer was all I did for the next 10 years. I slowly climbed my way up, making it into football academy and playing for bigger teams. And yet, after being injured and slowly developing some doubt in my abilities, I dropped out and went to a normal school.

When I tried again to climb to the top of a different ladder, with startups (and it’s going great so far with Buffer), there was one thing I told myself that isn’t going to happen: It’s not going to come down to my character, intelligence, talent, or any personal trait that will determine whether I fail or succeed.

So, naturally, I’ve been obsessed with are things that most of us deem innate. The most common ones I’ve found are intelligence, talent, character, numerical brain, and linguistic brain. We’ve been told over and over that these are things we are born with.

But none of these are fixed. And the latest research reveals exactly why they aren’t.

Intelligence isn’t innate

When educational psychologist Lewis Terman invented the IQ test in 1916 in his publication "The Use of Intelligence Tests" at Stanford, little did he know that he would influence the thinking of many generations to come.

The one central message was: You are born with a certain level of intelligence that remains that way for the rest of your life.

In the last few decades, a few scientists have set out to question that long-standing paradigm. The most interesting one comes from Stanford researcher Carol Dweck:

Dweck took 400 7th graders and separated them into two groups. She gave each group an easy puzzle to complete. One group, after completion was praised for their innate intelligence with "You must be smart at this!" and the other group was praised with "You must have worked really hard for this!" Now, each child was given the chance to pick another puzzle to solve: Either another easy one, or a harder one that would be a great learning experience, so the teachers said.

Here are the results: More than half of the children praised for their innate intelligence chose the easy follow-up puzzle. And a staggering 90% of the kids praised for their hard work chose the difficult one.

The meaning of Dweck’s work: You can teach yourself to become smarter.

How our brain cells and genes can be changed proactively

David Shenk, in his book The Genius in All of Us is another prominent voice stressing that intelligence is not innate, but acquired. Especially concerning our genes: "Genes are constantly activated and deactivated by environmental stimuli, nutrition, hormones, nerve impulses, and other genes."

Shenk stresses that genes are not fixed, so neither is our intelligence, which can evolve over time. The fact that this especially applies to our brain cells was recently made clear by researcher Dr. Geoff Faulkner. Whilst researching how and if brain cells change over time, he made a peculiar discovery:

"This research completely overturns the belief that the genetic make-up of brain cells remains static throughout life and provides us with new information about how the brain works."

How exactly your brain cells are being altered isn’t 100% clear yet, says Faulkner. Some theories say that the above cell elements get thicker to transport more information, others assume cells are changing altogether.

The burning question remains: What can we do to make ourselves more intelligent? The simple answer both Shenk and Dweck offer is persistence. Relentless persistence is what makes us more intelligent, rewires our brains, and helps us succeed.

Persistence is the one thing we should focus on. And here are 3 of the best ways to become more persistent at anything:

  • Master the art of habits: The key to develop persistence is to make it a habit. A lot of the research on habit formation explains that you can see it as a muscle—your habit muscle. And it needs exercising to get stronger. Stanford researcher BJ Fogg developed the Tiny Habits method to achieve exactly that. Get started doing something for less than 60 seconds every day. Gradually, it will turn into a habit and ultimately changing your behavior and brain.
  • Percentage thinking (the law of averages): Say you want to get 10 customers for your business to be profitable. If you focus on 10 meetings, to get 10 customers, the first one that falls through will mean you have failed. Percentage thinking helps you to find, with whatever you want to achieve, the percentage you need to succeed. I learned the hard way that we needed 10 investor meetings to get one person to put money into Buffer. And as soon as we figured out our 10% ratio everything changed. We knew, we had to get 100 meetings (we ended up with 150) to get the number of people and raise funds successfully. Whatever you do, don’t focus on succeeding or get sidetracked by your failures; find your percentage rate first.
  • Start working out—the cornerstone habit: The last tip to get your persistence to the level of altering your brain is to start working out. If nothing has motivated you to work out yet, maybe the fact that it will make your smarter will. In The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg reveals that the habit of working out is different from any other habit, a "cornerstone habit" that can align any other habit to help you achieve the things you want.

If anything, I find it extremely comforting that intelligence is something we can alter at any time with the right amount of effort and persistence. I’m curious to see where science takes us in this field.

Are there any brain hacks you've found especially useful? Tell us about it in the comments.

[Image: Flickr user John Fowler]

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