For decades our definition of “smart” was tied to academic knowledge. But there is a big disconnect between what universities teach and what the real world of work demands, and individuals with high IQ can sometimes do stupid things.
Then came the notion of emotional intelligence, or EQ, which highlights the importance of social and political skills in all areas of life. Although EQ is enormously important, there is more to intelligence than social skills. Indeed, you can have great people-skills but make the wrong decisions in life, and several of the most exceptional achievers have been considered interpersonally dysfunctional and antisocial: Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Larry Ellison are just a few examples.
So what is it, then, that smart people do right? What qualities do they have that set them apart from the rest?
Mostly, they make better decisions, especially when it really matters.
As Warren Buffett recently noted after losing $1 billion from the collapse of Tesco, “In life you only need to make a few good decisions, so long as you don’t make too many bad ones.”
Although there is no universal formula for making better decisions, good judgment is key. As intelligence expert R.W. Young noted, it is “the faculty of mind by which order is perceived in a situation previously considered disordered.” Basically, good judgment translates information into knowledge, enabling you to find patterns and predict meaningful events.
Regardless of your IQ and EQ, there are three effective strategies you can adopt in order to improve your judgment:
Although human beings are capable of acting rational, most of the time their behavior is driven by emotional, spontaneous, and unconscious motives. However, once we get to the bottom of our irrationalities and are able to explain why we act the way we do, we at least become more predictable and consistent, which in turn makes us seem more rational.
Duke University professor and behavioral economics expert Dan Ariely said it best when he described people as “predictably irrational.” The key issue, then, is to understand in what precise ways we are biased. For example, do we attend more to potential threats or rewards? Are we more intuitive or data-driven? And are we more focused on short-term details or the long-term big picture? Being aware of our inner biases is the main prerequisite for overcoming them, or at least keeping them in check.
Unlike Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, people with great judgment assume responsibility for their mistakes. They are not self-deceived, nor do they seek to deceive others. Instead, they understand when they have made the wrong decision, and they are willing to take on board negative feedback.
Although this self-punitive attitude is less flattering to our egos than being in denial (e.g., blaming someone else, ignoring the facts, or distorting reality), it pays off in the long run.
They say experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. But you can make it count. And in order to make experience truly valuable, all you need to do is avoid repeating the same mistake.
This may seem easier said than done, but once you are aware of your biases and accept responsibility for your errors, it is only natural that don’t go there again. As Henri Ford noted: “Life is a series of experiences, each one of which makes us bigger, even though sometimes it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward.”
The best decision-makers in the world succeed because they have the ability to capitalize on their mistakes, keep refining their judgment, and defy their own flawed logic. This higher degree of self-awareness and coachability enables them to outperform individuals who are more rigid and set in their principles.