There’s no shortage of brain teasers, training tools, and even pills you can take that claim to improve cognitive functioning and allegedly make you “smarter.” There is a certain logic to this. For one thing, our brains operate better under some conditions than others. For another, practice really does improve our performance on just about everything, at least up to a point.
But asking whether such cognitive “improvements” actually work is missing the point. The better question is whether task-related gains in performance (for instance, at Sudoku, chess, or a video game) can carry over to another task, and other areas of life: Does becoming better at X also make us better at Y or Z?
The answer is that instead of trying to get “smarter,” you’re probably better off pursuing one of these three goals instead.
1. As You Get Older, Focus on Knowledge and Expertise
Although there’s some debate as to whether we can significantly enhance our raw mental capacity, most of the scientific evidence suggests the answer is no. Scores on fluid intelligence tests, which represent the best single measure of our abstract reasoning and learning ability, remain quite stable over our lifetimes. In fact, there’s strong evidence for age-related decreases in this form of intelligence after our late 20s, which means that even if there were some exercises to boost our brain power, the best they can do is slow our decline.
On the other hand, as we grow older we can afford to rely less on our learning potential and more on what we already know. So you may be able to stay sharp (or even get sharper) overall simply by deepening your knowledge base over time, for which age is clearly advantageous. Expertise—and therefore performance—doesn’t just depend on intelligence, it’s also a function of our curiosity and motivation, which can make up for slower brain power as we age. Unsurprisingly, age typically confers higher levels of knowledge and expertise. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman noted in the New York Times in 2011, “True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes”—which also means
remaining well aware of your limitations.
Imagine you have to pick between an experienced surgeon in her 60s who’s performed thousands of operations and a 26-year-old rising star in the same field. Or between a sharp young pilot who’s flown 20 flights and a seasoned 55-year-old pilot who’s flown thousands of times. Most people would pick the older, more experienced professionals—and rightly so. While you can become “smarter” by boosting your knowledge at any age, older individuals have an advantage simply because of the wider range of experiences and opportunities they’ve had.
2. Skip The Brain-Teasers And Practice Your People-Skills
Most real-world problems are ill-defined and require dealing effectively with other people. While the personality characteristics that determine how well you get along with others are partly a matter of genetics, there are still habits you can practice to get better at social interactions.
For example, getting feedback on how other people see you can enhance your self-awareness, which really comes down to how well you understand the way your behavior affects other people. It generally involves being more other-focused than self-focused—or at least seeming that way. As Mark Twain noted, “Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person.”
Likewise, being aware of your stress triggers can keep the dark side of your personality at bay—those less-desirable qualities that get in the way of building healthy relationships. Contrary to popular belief, the most likable people are not authentic; they just manage to come across as genuine enough, while paying close attention to how they’re perceived. In other words, they’re just expert reputation managers. This may sounds controversial, but while we tend to be wary of those who seem “fake”, the reality is that we’d much rather deal with them than with people who clearly show they don’t care about social norms and good manners.
3. Shift Your Focus From Smarts To Success
Efforts to get “smarter” often stand in for another desire—which is just to be more successful. There are millions of self-help books dedicated to this subject, and most of the strategies they lay out work better than intelligence-boosting gambits. The downside, of course, is that the glut of success formulas out there tends to inflate people’s hopes.
Perhaps the problem is that we keep searching for a simple, universal solution where none exists. If you look at the most successful people around, there aren’t too many generalizations you can draw from their experiences; those you can extract aren’t easily replicated. As academic reviews (and my latest book) point out, there are really only a few core ingredients to career success: ability, likability, and drive. More specifically, if you can persuade other influential people—those who make decisions that affect your career—that you possess those qualities (whether or not you actually do), you’ll probably be successful.
The problem, though, is that—like intelligence—ability, likability, and drive aren’t all that easy to fake. It’s hard to fool all the people who matter, all the time. Likewise, if you’re obsessed with chasing success, others will catch on (Henry David Thoreau was right to say that “success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it”). Still, it might make more sense to take a broader view of what’ll make you succeed, and fixate a little less on how smart you are, or would like to become.
In the grand scheme, it’s one of the smartest things you can do.