We live in a world of constant, unrelenting, and often unmerciful change. For most people today, especially those under the age of 50 or so, this is a normal state of existence. From a historical perspective this is not normal. The last one hundred years has been witness to unprecedented and unparalleled technological change. This technological change has driven social, cultural, and political change. Not much, if anything, has been left untouched. Even knowledge and what it means to be “smart” has foundationally changed.
Being Smart isn’t What it Used to Be
As recently as the last decade of the 20th century being “smart” meant knowing things, having information in your head. It was a considerable advantage to have knowledge in your head that you could bring to bear on the problem you were working on. If you didn’t know something the price of acquiring that knowledge was high in terms of time and effort. If you didn’t know a piece of information that you needed for whatever you wanted or needed to do then you would need to either find someone who did know that information, or acquire that information from some sort of media, most likely a book.
If you needed to acquire the information from a book you would need to drive to your local library. At the library you would need to go to the card catalog and search for the topic or book you needed. Then you would need to go to the stacks, pull that book, look at the table of contents, and then read the content to find the information you needed. This assumes, of course, that your library had a book or books on the information you needed. If they did not you would need to work with a librarian to search other libraries. If they had the book you would either need to travel there, or set up an inter-library loan and wait for the book to be delivered in the mail.
Instant Access to all Knowledge
If this process seems antiquated and quaint that’s because you live in a world where acquiring knowledge in this fashion has been obliterated. The normal process of acquiring knowledge and the benefits of being smart have been completely altered. There is no need to travel for knowledge. Most of us have a “smart” device on our person, connected to almost literally the entire sum of human knowledge. If we are not wearing such a device we are probably steps away from a computer of some sort connected to the internet. To find the information we need, or even to find a person who can teach the information we need, all we need to do is to speak or type our query and practically instantly we will receive an almost inexhaustible quantity of information on the subject.
This near instant access to the sum of human knowledge fundamentally alters what it means to be smart. Having a lot of knowledge in your head is not a particular advantage. Practical intelligence means something else now. What does it mean to be smart today? What kind of knowledge is useful? What do you need to know?
What is Being Smart Today Mean?
To be smart today means you must have the ability to ask good questions. The ability to get the answer to anything instantly comes with the problem of being able to get almost instantly sidetracked and mislead. A good question will put us on the quickest path to the best answer. A poor question can lead to the wrong answer to the problem you are trying to solve, or a longer path to the correct answer.
Technology can deliver instant answers in quantity, but it cannot verify the accuracy or the quality of those answers. Being smart today means having enough knowledge about the subject you are researching to be able to apply context to the answers you receive. You need to know enough to determine the quality and accuracy of the answers you gain.
Finally, being smart today means having enough wisdom and experience to be able to discern the knowledge you need from the knowledge you have gained. From all of the answers to your questions that you have deemed to be relevant and accurate you need to be able to focus on the answers that are the most helpful and useful. Being smart is about putting information to use.
Be a Problem Solver
What do you need to use information for? Solving problems. Problems of all kinds are one of the results of constant, unmerciful change. Each new change, especially technological changes, brings new opportunities and usually makes something obsolete. Both the opportunities and the obsolescence typically manifest themselves as problems. Simply stated, the person who is able to find and apply the correct information in a way that solves problems is a person who has practical intelligence. People with practical intelligence are people with a valuable, in demand skill.
If the purpose of education should be to learn about ideas and being able to discern good ideas from bad ideas, then the practical application of education should be the development of practical intelligence.
Practically intelligent people are the difference makers in business, in communities, and in culture. They are the first to get hired and the last to be laid off. They are the community leaders. They are the ones who are the taste makers, the creators, and the voices that shape culture.
If you want to be valuable to your company, a leader in your community, and influential in culture then you must grow and strengthen your practical intelligence. Become an expert at asking the best questions. Constantly learn and pay attention so that you have enough knowledge to discern context and accuracy in the information you gain. Learn how to figure out what information is the correct information to apply to the problem you are trying to solve.
Become a problem solver and you will never lack something to do, or have trouble finding someone who will reward you for doing it.