What’s the Best Way to Become Smarter?

People browse for books at the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch in 2011.

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Answer by Nicolas Cole, writer, fitness model, entrepreneur, self-development coach:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about intelligence, it’s that very few people are born extremely smart. The extremely smart people are better named as “people who work really, really hard.” So, how do you become extremely smart?

Smart people read. Very few things we say are things that come solely from our brains only. Think about it: We share what we know, and what we know we’ve somehow learned, and what we learn comes from experience, yes, but a lot of it comes from knowledge sources—reading being a primary one.

Extremely smart people read a lot, but they also read quality stuff. Extremely smart people don’t care which friend from high school (whom they haven’t said a word to for more than 10 years) is getting married. Extremely smart people don’t read those magazines next to the candy bars in the checkout lines at grocery stores. Extremely smart people don’t watch much TV, don’t spend all day scrolling through Facebook, and don’t bother with the same repetitive material the rest of the world ingests on a daily basis.

Extremely smart people read about what they want to know about, from people smarter than them. They then acquire the knowledge of those wiser, and when they share it you, you stand there and think, “Wow! That person is extremely smart!”

Smart people surround themselves with smarter people. Think about the five people you spend the most time with. Are at least three of them smarter than you? No?  Keep your top two and replace the other three. I’m not saying don’t be friends with them anymore, but if you want to become extremely smart, you have to invest your time wisely—and that means investing it with people who will push you to be better.

I’m 25 years old. I’ve gotten to do some pretty cool things at 25. As a result, a lot of people think I’m extremely smart, that I’m successful in some way. To tell you the truth, I’m not really that smart—in comparison to the people I spend the most time with. The five people I spend the most time with are a successful business owner and entrepreneur, a business manager of several world-renowned music artists, a college professor and spiritual guru, an extremely successful stock trader, and (my best friend of seven years) a doctorate student studying clinical psychology.

I’m not rambling these people off to make myself seem cool—that’s just the truth of it. I spend my time with extremely smart people and hope that I can offer them something of value. They teach me a lot and show me just by being who they are what I still need to learn so that I, too, can become as smart as them. If you want to be extremely smart, spend time with extremely smart people.

Make lots of mistakes. Smart people regurgitate knowledge; extremely smart people acquire knowledge, test it, and then transmute that knowledge into extremely powerful knowledge. 

You know when you’re talking to people whether they are repeating what someone has told them, or if they’re talking from experience. And who do you believe more? The person who has lived it, has endured it, has learned something and then sought to know it deeper.

Everything I read, I test. If I read a book about time management and I like the idea of it, I’ll try structuring my days that way for two weeks just to see how it works out. If I read about a new marketing strategy that’s interesting, I’ll launch something of my own to play around with the concept. If I don’t know how something works, I’ll go try it for myself. And what usually happens? I make lots and lots of mistakes—and I learn a ton.

Know a little bit of everything. Being extremely smart is more of a perception thing than anything else. I’m extremely knowledgeable about music, but I know close to nothing about geography or history. If someone asked me at a party who the fifth president of the United States was, I would have no answer. In this moment, then, I would appear very not-smart. 

The people who come off as extremely smart are the ones who have a little bit of knowledge about everything. No matter where the conversation goes, they can add something of value—or at the very least, contribute a fun fact here or there. Not to mention, the more you know about lots of things, the more you can apply to one thing. 

Whatever your primary knowledge bases are, great, keep those, but supplement them with the fun, random stuff too. Trust me: If two equally capable scientists are standing next to each other, but one of them knows how to dress well, plays the guitar, and knows who won the World Series last year, that person isn’t seen as just extremely smart; he’s practically seen as a genius.

Work hard. We as a human race love to believe that some people are born smart and some people aren’t. But the truth is that 99 percent of the extremely smart people in the world weren’t born extremely smart—they just have the drive and commitment to learn and learn and learn. 

If you really want to become extremely smart, you can. You will! But you have to be prepared to spend a lot of time by yourself—working on your craft, studying, reading. You have to be prepared to treat your time wisely and primarily spend it with people who are worthwhile. You have to be prepared to take risks, to live life outside your comfort zone, and constantly put new ideas to the test. You have to always keep the mentality that you know what you don’t know and then spend the time working on what you don’t know—instead of reinforcing what you already know. You have to work really hard, every single day, because being extremely smart isn’t easy. However, it is possible.

What are some of the best ways to become extremely smart? originally appeared on Quora. More questions on Quora: