Cultivate a strong sense of curiosity.
When people ask me why I am so lucky, and when I contemplate why I’ve managed to find some level of success in my life despite making almost every single wrong decision you can make as a young person, it feels like the truest and most honest answer is simply: I am a curious person.
A lot of people get to know me and land at a very simple reduction: “Brad is a smart person!” But that’s not true. I’m not a smart person by objective measure. I probably wouldn’t score highly on an IQ test. I’ve made a lot of very questionable decisions in my life, and not just in regard to common sense and critical thinking, but also moral and ethical decisions. I dropped out of both high school and college, so my only real academic credential is a GED–and the GED exam was so easy that it’s hard to believe it’s designed so that 40% of recent high school graduates will fail.
When I meet people that I think are smart, it’s usually because they know a lot about various things, and I assume that is probably why people think I am smart. I can sit around and talk about all sorts of things, but the only reason I can do that is because I know those things, because I read about those things, because I was curious about those things. That’s it. It’s not like I came out of the womb with a bunch of mostly useless trivia in my head, I had to read about that stuff.
The most concrete and familiar bit of advice related to this that most people hear as a software engineer is the idea that a software engineer should be a “life-long learner”. This is important for SDEs specifically because technology is always progressing, and you never know when you might find yourself facing an entirely new paradigm at a new position or with a new project. But, deep down, “life-long learner” is just another way to describe curiosity. Someone who is always learning is just someone who is continuously pursuing things that pique their curiosity. I had to use my own curiosity right now to google “peak your curiosity” ’cause I knew that couldn’t be right.
People also tend to think I am very charismatic and funny, a real pleasure to talk to. I think some of this is luck, as I’ve always thought of myself as an introvert who doesn’t really play well with others, but somehow I’ve got the right mix of personal trauma that makes me a pretty funny person without the alcoholism necessary for a career in standup comedy. But what really sets me apart from a lot of other people is that I am a good listener, and I demonstrate a genuine interest in what the other person is saying (usually, unless they are very boring or stupid).
If you look at any guide, written at any point in history, on how to make people like you (aka “make new friends” if you’re not a sociopath), the same thing always appears at the very top: Ask people questions about themselves. Now, this can be a chore you force yourself into doing as a form of social manipulation, and that’s okay too (you socio), but if you manage to foster an internal sense of curiosity, you should want to ask people about themselves.
So, there you go, your one quick trick to making people think you are smart and making them like you: be curious about things and people. Easy!
If you don’t know how to do this, here’s some tips and things that I do.
When something interests you, anything, even in the most vague way, go read about it–you can usually start and end with Wikipedia on most subjects, but never stop yourself from scratching an itch, no matter how minor, dig in if you feel the urge. Wikipedia should link to sources, check out those sources.
If you hear a song you like, go listen to the album it came from; then go listen to all of the albums by that band or artist. Go read about the band online. Read interviews with the band. Check out side projects by all the members of that band, there might be more music you like in there (although, often not, sadly–I’m looking at you, Paul McCartney). Musicians sometimes make other forms of art too; they write, paint, speak publicly, and all that is worth seeking out as well.1
If you see a movie you like, it’s always worth it to watch other films by that director. Watch all of them! If you really enjoyed a certain actor’s performance, go watch more films with that actor in it. Keep in mind, the look and feel of a film is (often) mostly the work of the cinematographer, and cinematographers can hop directors, so be sure to scope out the cinematographer in some of your favorite movies and see if they did other work. If you’re really into movies, you could follow editors and screenwriters around…
When you are meeting someone new, it can mean a lot to them when you pick out some little thing they talked about and say, “Hey, can you tell me more about this?” Another way of putting it is this: there is nothing anyone likes more than talking about themselves, so do your best to get your guest talking, and they’ll think they had an amazing time hanging out with you and always remember you fondly.2
The nice thing about this is that there are so many people in the world, and they are so different from each other, that almost everyone has knowledge of, or insight into, something you’ve never experienced and maybe never will. People who’ve worked different jobs, who’ve lived in different places, who are entirely different races and from entirely different cultures, may have entirely different perspectives on familiar topics, or have opinions on things you’ve never even had to think about yourself. If you are a curious person, then everyone you meet can be a fount of wisdom, you just have to find that thing they are passionate about and get them talking.
That’s about it. I didn’t really plan this post out very well, and it’s been sitting in my drafts forever, but I wanted to get it out into the world and I can always update it later or structure it out a bit more. The advice is too simple, not really much else to say here in the end. Just… you know… be interested in things. Don’t spend all your time just consuming content passively, take an active role in finding things (and people!) that interest you and pursue them diligently. I promise you, it pays off in the long run.
- But never, ever, ever meet the people who make the art you enjoy. Don’t do it! You can buy merch from them at their concerts, shake their hand if you see them at an art showing, but for the love of all that is good and holy in this world, do not have a conversation with them. That is one area that curiosity has almost always burned me. Don’t meet your heroes. They’re just normal people, and you could be hearing / seeing / enjoying something in their art that they are not at all aware of, and whatever connection you may think you have with that person because of their art may be a total misconception. Fair warning… ↩︎
- This can also be an extremely good way at detecting people you should not spend time with. The more they talk about themselves, the better you get an idea of the kind of person they are, so you should be able to more easily detect red flags. Even better: if they spend the entire time talking about themselves, and show absolutely no interest in asking you any questions whatsoever, you know that person has no genuine interest in you and you can act accordingly. ↩︎