What Does It Mean to be Smart?

By Dave Bayless

Increasingly, being smart means collaborating with others who are smart in complementary ways. By curating connections and facilitating productive conversations, we’re trying to help smart individuals become even smarter together.

The other day, my friend Tom McMakin and I had an animated coffee shop conversation about what it means to be smart. I raised the question because I believe purposeful, cognitively diverse communities can make us smarter in a complex world.

I translated the napkin sketch from our meeting into a model to better capture what I think we concluded:

The Drivers of Accumulated Knowledge

Here are the high points:

  • Useful Domain Knowledge is an accumulation over time. One’s level of Knowledge depends on the Learning rate relative to the Decaying rate over time.
  • Learning is the rate at which one adds to knowledge and is a function of Effort and Productivity. There seems to be a reinforcing relationship between Knowledge and Productivity. That is, the more you know, the easier it is for you to learn.
  • There is a Half-life of Useful Domain Knowledge. What we know today may become less useful—even irrelevant—over time. The Half-life is inversely related to the domain’s clock speed, which is positively related to our collective, shared domain knowledge. (The pace of change in human history has accelerated with the introduction of new information and communication technologies from the written word to the printed book to the internet.)
  • Praxis—engaging in the practical application of theoretical knowledge—boosts Productivity and (probably) extends the Half-life of Knowledge of an individual (at least in the short-term).

Being Smart Individually

Being smart, then, can mean different things at different times:

  • The rate at which we learn
  • The relative level of our accumulated domain knowledge
  • The degree to which we engage in praxis
  • The extent to which we accumulate knowledge across multiple domains

People early in their careers tend to be smart in the sense that a) they have the opportunity, motivation, and energy to invest a lot into learning and b) can accumulate substantial knowledge in a relatively narrow set of domains. With age comes the possibility of being smart by accumulating relative expertise in multiple domains—if we sustain our learning effort!

There is a half-life to useful knowledge. Expertise regarding vacuum tube technology in the design and manufacture of guitar amplifiers has become less relevant over time.

Being Smarter Collectively

By contributing to the shared pool of knowledge, we help accelerate the rate of change and drive down the half-life of that knowledge. Ironically, becoming smarter collectively can make us relatively less (usefully) smart as individuals. Increasingly, we must learn enough to recognize—and engage—the expertise of others. In other words, being smart means collaborating with others who are smart in complementary ways.

That’s easier said than done. We tend to connect with people like ourselves who have similar backgrounds and skills. It can be difficult to engage with others from outside our comfort zone and close-tie social networks.

That’s why we at Human Scale Business (and Tom and his colleagues at Profitable Ideas Exchange) are focused on making curated connections and facilitating productive conversations. We’re trying to help smart individuals become even smarter together.