Being a natural genius is overrated.
This isn’t to say I don’t value the contributions of great men and women.
But hear me out: I’d much rather be a cultivated learner — someone who reads because of their curiosity, rather than because I was born with some supreme innate knowledge.
Even Albert Einstein — one of the greatest physicists of all time — advocated for the same:
The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.
Not all of us will have the scientific rigor as Einstein (which is an understatement), but we are all able to pursue our curiosity and acquire more wisdom every day, if we make up our minds to.
Why reading is the catalyst for becoming smarter
In their illuminating article, Farnam Street makes the case for becoming a voracious reader. “All of us can build our knowledge, but most of us won’t put in the effort.”
As an entrepreneur, I’ve written extensively about the merits of holding a daily reading practice — one that opens our minds and allows us to see solutions more clearly. And like the above quote states: it’s required effort and discipline. It’s meant putting my phone away at night and reaching for a book, instead.
That said, I’m not suggesting you try speeding through 100 books a year, where you zig-zag your way through pages.
When I was younger I bought into the erroneous belief that I should stick to only reading “business books,” but what I discovered over time is that this is a mistake as they can only teach us so much. Instead, I owe the bulk of my personal growth to the diversity of reads found on my bookshelf.
Diving into literary fiction, for example, isn’t just entertaining, it’s also been found to increase our empathy and emotional intelligence.
The fact is, reading makes us smarter not because we’re memorizing a bunch of facts — but because we’re able to challenge and transcend our beliefs. We glean new insights and gain analytical skills — both of which are essential for success.
But more than all of that — because it allows us to hold an opinion of the world that is truly our own.
Be a life-long learner
“Most people confuse knowledge with learning, but they are not the same,” writes Sue Hawkes, an executive business coach and author of Chasing Perfection: Shatter The Illusion; Minimize Self-Doubt and Maximize Success.
She adds: “Learning new things, learning how you learn best, and unlearning things that no longer serve you are all part of being a lifelong learner.”
The more we conscientiously approach this, Hawkes says, the more open and accessible we’ll be to new ideas, opportunities, and in designing the life we want. “Learning equates to behavior in action, really practicing what you consume as information and transform into behavior.”
I couldn’t agree more. As CEO to my company JotForm for the past 15 years, I attribute much of our success to this belief in becoming life-long students.
Whenever I wear my mentoring hat, this is what I try to get across to aspiring entrepreneurs: making smarter decisions starts with an openness towards recognizing our mistakes, and consequently, learning from them; but mostly, in showing up.
Surround yourself with people who challenge you
Harvard Business Review contributor, Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, argues that the key to career growth involves the company we keep.
“We seek out expanded roles, more senior titles, extra money,” he emphasizes, but that we often overlook one very key piece of the learning puzzle: “proactively surrounding ourselves with people who will push us to succeed in unexpected ways and, in so doing, build genuinely rich, purposeful lives of growth, excellence, and impact.”
We often think of accumulating knowledge as some solo endeavor, but it’s the opposite. We learn best when our ideas are challenged, when we aren’t insulated in our “bubbles” of people who are constantly agreeing with us.
To gain wisdom, we should examine whether the people around us are offering honest feedback, and whether we’re listening to radically different perspectives and points of views. “Proactively seeking out and cultivating those who will help us become better versions of ourselves is, by a wide margin, the key for living a truly happy and meaningful life,” says Fernández-Aráoz.
Seek out moments of awe
For most entrepreneurs, having time to sit and process information is a hurdle in itself. We’re constantly making decisions — often with no time to think. That’s why I’m such a big proponent of carving out time for stillness.
In a story for TIME, professor of philosophy, Brian O’Connor, notes that there’s an ever-tightening connection between our work and our personal identity that constricts us. “We come to believe that being idle at all is, somehow, the antithesis of freedom.”
Most of us fall into the trap of being so busy that we’re always go, go, go, especially now that we’re beginning to navigate post-pandemic times. But stepping back and reviewing what I’ve learned over this past year and a half — both the good and the bad — has allowed me to assess what I truly want for the future.
Reading, studying, surrounding ourselves with the right people — all of this will guarantee the right conditions for fostering knowledge.
But acquiring wisdom involves sitting with the information obtained so that we can process and make sense of it all. It involves taking time to do nothing.
Throughout my time as CEO, I’ve often taken time off with my family — spending days olive-picking under a blistering sun.
Having that mindfulness and distance, it’s in those moments when I understand Einstein’s words fully “One cannot help but be in awe.”