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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  • Douglas McKee

    The sad thing about most of the comments is the posters fail to grasp one unassailable fact: the information we process changes over time, but the way the wisest among us have processed that information has not changed.

    Yes, thinking is a habit. Practicing better thinking skills changes how you process the information so you arrive at more accurate conclusions more rapidly.

    It is fairly obvious that Math, Language, and Driving are skills. We are taught how they work and we practice them until we develop a degree of competence. After some time our level of ability to use them becomes a subconscious habit and we perform the functions without even thinking about how they work.

    It may not be nearly so obvious that the following are also skills.

    • Emotions
    • Needs
    • Wants
    • Values
    • Self-esteem
    • Identity
    • Facts
    • Habits
    • Relationships
    • Parenting

    The difference between the first group of skills and this list of skills is simple. We are taught standardized rules for the first group of skills and practice them under
    supervision until we meet a recognized threshold of competence.

    For the skills on the second list we make up our own rules. We observe our parents, friends, family, teachers, preachers and television celebrities and use our conclusions about how we think they use these skills to create our own rules. We then practice the rules we have made up until they also become subconscious habits.

    Judging from the incredible numbers of problems that arise from our use or misuse of these skills, our rules are far too frequently incorrect which prevents us from developing a very high degree of competence, let alone mastery.

    There are rules for the skills on the list that empower us to attain the same quality results as we do in Math, Language, and Driving. Imagine what your life could be like if you knew how to consistently make really good choices.

    "Wisdom is the freedom and ability to make the kinds of choices that move our lives forward and benefit the planet." DM

  • 1036058482

    yeah,sometimes we need to admit that your initial intelligence is not so important as we consider,and what really counts are your habits that you acquire during your whole life.Habit is really fatal for us,including the habit of thinking,the habitt of studying,the habit of enjoying.If you are a man with ambition and great habits,i am sure you will reach your goal sooner or later.

  • Skan


  • AAKhan

    One crucial aspect of mental fitness is missing here: requirement of sleep.

    In my experience, taking enough time to rest is hugely underestimated by a lot of hard working folks who work to achieve the best. If you are going to see your brain as a type of muscle (rightly so, by the way) than you should recognize the need of the muscle to rest and recover from your last mental workout. Every new exercise (assignment, learning process, habit, etc.) requires a lot of brain activity to carve out the required 'think paths' in your existing thinking processes. While you're working or studying on something new, your brain is hard at work in setting out the right thinking process. When you're asleep, the brain has the time to recover from the exercise and adapt to the new order of mental business, something it cannot do as long as you're awake and keep your brain busy with other activities. It doesn't work that way. Ever woke up for a big exam early in the morning with a feeling that you're a little wiser than last night?

    Recently, i've read Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Foer among other things narrates a story of preparing for memory championship competitions with the coaching of experienced competitors. He ends up winning the US championship in 2006 while he started out as simply a curious rookie. His book teaches the importance of how you learn (through mnemonistic tools), more than what you learn specifically. Makes total sense, put your required bunch of knowledge in a context that suits your frame of reference. I assume one couldn't learn how to play soccer at a competitive level by studying a good book?

  • John Daly

    Persistence is bound to trump defeat every time, as long as we are persisting in pursuit of the right objective...and how do we know what the right objective is? Or does that matter?

  • Kaufman100

    The brain, being a physical entity, benefits from physical exercise the same ways in which all other parts and systems of the body benefit, including oxygenation of red blood cells, cellular mitosis/meiosis, creating more muscle tissue (which allows use to burn even more calories whilst at rest) and stoking the cellular furnaces or mitochondria which facilitates the mechanisms that continually convert our sugar/starches into energy. (Use it or lose it, eh?)

    Exercise is a critical way of setting up the requisite good health milieu for stocking our shelves of knowledge (or information) and expanding our intellect. The former can be accomplished through formal coursework, reading and empirical observations. The latter can be accomplished by solving problems. It is the exquisite manner in which to exercise our intellect, the intellectual workout, if you will.

    Solving problems not only includes the practical and necessary situations of family, business and life in general, but, also, the problems represented by games and hobbies such Bridge (the card game), woodworking or building electrical circuits. My favorite is music theory. For me, there is no more mind expanding stimulating mental activity than understanding the theoretical structure of an existing piece of music or applying my knowledge of it to create a new work of music.

    After all, what is intellect other than our ability to process the data stored in our brain and applying it to the solution of a problem. The more we do of that (intellectually working out) the better we become at it.

    Thus the term "mental gymnastics"?

  • Caroline Bodolec

    Interesting thoughts Leo, thank you!
    I would add that QI measures only one type of intelligence (verbal, numerical and spatial intelligence). But there other kinds of intelligence (see Howard Gardner about that). You can train on each one of them. What I wonder is whether being able to adapt and to create habits isn't also some kind of intelligence. Some people are more eager to learn and to change their habits than other. 

    (Sorry my thoughts are not really clear this morning and my post either!)

  • Bhavana Bhagat

    Brilliant article compunded with established citations; absolute fun to read,
    especially to those who war around "being intelligent versus being smart"!!! The only constraint I see here is the "Industry of application", for example
    Management roles/career profiles, versus "innovation/research" and or "scholastic academicians"!!! The end user needs to understand and pre-define on his needed skill/capability; accordingly customize and march on towards the tenacity of their self evolvement ;)
    All in all a good read with super comments too!

  • Pete R.

    Hey Leo,

    You are totally right about working out. If you are able to maintain the persistence to work out regularly, you can make anything a habit. :)

    Thanks for the great write up.

  • Billzybach

    Dudester, the universe is about adaptability, and those of us exploring the esoteric world for the real world - agree and concur - based on very ancient sciences - and are really glad that the new sciences are catching up.  I am delighted, as a person who sees the good and the bad in the world as necessitiies of our evolution, that folks like you are utilizing these platforms to help expand consciousness - in practical ways.  Don't get thrown off by the critics - in the digital universe, it is all about this or that choice - and you are helping folks to let go of the "critical self" that focuses on good/bad, right/wrong - those voices have a place until we are 6 years old and 80% of our personality is formed - but they don't help - intrinsically or extrinsically, once we develop the capability to think/feel/experience for ourselves uniquely.  However, in my generation (Baby Boomers), we were drug through that sludge and for many of us it has taken years to clean it off, and recognize that it is not what others say, but the choices we make.  Thanks for the liberating perspective.  Best Wishes, Bill 

  • Susanna Kirk

    I'm a big fan of Carol Dweck's work, and also of the more recent research concerning the positive impact that exercise has on the brain. I think that the 3 bullet point take-aways in this article are great suggestions, but I agree that it's tough to follow the overall structure of the argument. 

    What Carol Dweck's work really did was to help us gain a deeper understanding of phenomena of "learned mastery" and "learned helplessness" in school children, and it especially helps us see why it's not great even to TALK about the IDEA of intelligence with children, because if kids believe that they have an innate quality which is being measured (IQ) they draw conclusions about their innate ability, in the face of failure. Whereas, if they learn that by trying harder, they can succeed, and that there is virtue in effort, they tend to succeed. 

    The example provided in the article didn't clarify this, but what Dweck and her colleagues found was that kids who later appeared to be more "intelligent" over time, were often those who simply were more consistent in their efforts. They were not defeated in the face of failure. When they faced a challenging puzzle, kids who believed that they were "innately" smart were more likely to give up (that is, there self-talk was something like, "I'm smart, but I guess I'm not smart enough for this one), whereas the kids who believed they were "hard working" were more likely to stick it out for a longer period of time -- often until they got the answer. Over time, this resilient attitude toward challenging work makes the "learned mastery" kids perform better in school. 

    So.... the article take-away DOES have to do with habits, and with "percentage thinking" in a sense (it's another way of talking about resilient attitude). But, how this follows is not quite clear without a little extra background on Dweck's work.

    What I find helpful to understand is that you can't simply measure IQ in the same way that you measure height. It's a complex phenomenon. When you measure a baby's length, there is a very strong correlation between that measurement and what you later observe in the size of the grown human. There, we know how environment will alter the phenotype over time. Intelligence morphs in even more complex ways, in response to environmental stimuli, BELIEFS, ATTITUDES and EXPECTATIONS, which in turn affect BEHAVIORS, which further alter environmental stimuli, and so on. 

    Regarding exercise: 1&3 aren't redundant. What we know about the exercise effect is that exercise BOOSTS the impact of anything right you're doing with your brain habits. Exercise is a different KIND of habit. By exercising in the hour before you learn, you are more focused, and you have generated a bunch of free baby brain cells which are available for turning into specific brain cell types. If you don't learn anything (or if you go out drinking) those new baby brain cells will be wasted. So the best thing to do is exercise in the morning, get your brain cell genesis on, and then go get your french tapes on, or whatever other habit you want. All in all --- great article. I'm happy to have been reminded of all this important stuff. Off to dust off my gym membership....

  • Endthereign

    People can get smarter by not relying on technology for functions the brain used to do. Math skills suffer because of calculators, memories suffer because of google and contact lists in cell phones, attention spans suffer because of tivo, and spelling has suffered because of spell check and autocorrect (which has funny consequences: http://www.bofads.com/stories/... ). Like if you've found these parts of your brain have died. Dislike if you've overcome technology and preserved your brain power. 

  • Bradford

    #'s 1, and 3 are hardly "redundant"...done properly, even randomly-scheduled gym visits/workouts will benefit...physically, with mental / emotional, etc., spin-off benefits...
    Developing routines, and habits, is a way of forming behavioral bases for more exploratory activities...
    When you're charting new territory, if you can't get back to where you started from, that's called LOST...
    The benefits of  regular, DAILY, physical exercise are obvious to those of us who do so...
    If you don't exercise, feel free to remain oblivious, and die young...
    But, "gym" workouts, for all their physical health benefits, really don't do too much for intelligence,
    simply because they are too "routine"...Any "habit" - such as that favorite weight machine, is limited in range of benefits...
    Yoga, and Tai Chi, are 2 of the BEST examples of intelligence-augmenting physical exercise...
    Yes, they both DO involve "routines", but there is far more emphasis on the MENTAL aspects...
    And, the WHOLE body is more engaged in a holistic fashion...
    I've been developing "Tai Chi Beaver Yoga Dance Therapy", for over 20 years now...
    It's exactly what it sounds like- combining elements of both Tai Chi & Yoga, using beaver sticks as exercise equipment...HUH...???... I can hear you all asking....
    Beaver sticks, chewed by actual beavers to eat the bark & leaves, are in fact ENGINEERED by the beaver for use in constructing dams, lodges, etc...
    But, I don't want to give away too much too fast...
    Any exercise done in NATURE, will always yield more better benefits, than when done indoors...
    The greatest factor in the "dumbing down" of America's schoolkids is indeed "Nature Deficit Disorder", but that's another intro treatise....
    Remember "K.B.E.inc.", and "Tai Chi Beaver Yoga Dance Therapy"...
    You might have heard it here first, but this WILL NOT be the LAST you hear of us!...   

  • Sylvain M

    I'm struggling a bit with "the master the art of habits" point. To me this is not making you smarter. What it does is that it is conditioning your brain to use and re-use the same neuronal path - that would be indeed getting better, but to the detriment of other paths. So this may be convenient if your everyday job consists in making the same task again and again, as it may result in a gain of time. But then you're conditioned to think in the same way again and again, which is a real problem if you're working in innovation role, or need to find different approaches to problem solving. So to me ultimately "mastering the art of habits" may make you "quicker" but will also make you dumber rather than more intelligent

  • Acoli

    Well I kind of agree with you. One can see it also the in the concept of artificial intelligence that distraction makes the machine smarter. Noting that many of this studies were performed on the machines with neuronal networks  core, one can find the analogy to human brain as well. So maybe to be more innovative, we need to have proper distraction (or anomalies) that redirect the way we think. 

  • Joel Gunz

    By working out, are you talking about physical workouts, or mental ones? Thanks for a great article.  

  • LeoWid

    Hi Joel,

    Regarding working out, in this case I mean physical work-outs. The reason is that they can become an incredibly central and solid part of your life. So if you have a daily work-out routine, you can start to align all other habits you have around it and so work on achieving true persistence.

    Here is also another article on this: http://blog.bufferapp.com/why-...

    Hope that helps, and thanks for stopping by Joel! :) 

  • Carol Johnson

    Dear Leo,

    You may be "a super nice guy" as you tout in your bio but your reasoning skills are absurdly poor.

    You wrote: "The meaning of Dweck’s work: You can teach yourself to become smarter." This conclusion is in no way supported by Dweck's study.

    Did you miss the classes on Critical Thinking at school?