Did that business degree help you become a better website developer? Probably not. How about all those hours spent learning accounting, yet you founded a tech startup? Or -- and this is my personal favorite -- what was going through the mechanical engineer’s mind who began his own restaurant business? (I’m completely making these up, by the way).
What’s the linkage between any of the above, besides randomness? Learning. Each person chose to forego what he or she knew best for sake of learning something new, and, in doing so, they gained new perspectives that enhanced their subject-matter expertise. Each subject-matter expert pivoted when he or she saw the potential for greater opportunity and did so because of not what they learned but how they applied that knowledge.
You see, smart learners don’t look at new information for what it is -- the what being the content. Rather, they look at this new information and ask why it’s important and how it can be applied. Here’s an example. If you’re asked the random question of, “Are bartenders leaders?” you have two ways to answer this: yes or no. Conversely, if you're asked, “How are bartenders leaders?” you’re now being cued to think of an answer; to look for similarities that weren't apparent before.
This is how smart people become smarter; how nerds stay nerdy -- they re-frame their curiosity to ask powerful questions so they can integrate new information with their existing understanding -- a theory known as generative learning. Additionally, smart learners generate new questions based on the following X factors:
1. They’re perpetual nerds.
I mean this in the nicest way possible, only because I have nerd tendencies. Perpetual nerds are constant learners. They question “why?” and make random connections with unrelated topics, because they’re aware of trends and current news topics. Nerds are hungry for more information because they know that the more they know, the more they can share that information with others and empower them to act, which means their nerdiness just turned them into a superpower.
2. They’re unafraid to question “what is.”
You don't become smarter by following the crowd -- unless that crowd is running away from a raging kitchen fire. If you did go with the flow, then you may be smart, but not smarter. After all, if everyone’s doing the same thing, then nobody’s different, which indicates a status quo. Smart learners aren’t afraid to question the ordinary, because they understand what it takes to become extra-ordinary. Heck, look at Uber, Tesla and every other startup that went against the grain. They’re not exactly doing poorly, are they?
3. They find subtle differences.
You don’t learn anything new by repeating the same routine. Well, nerds know this, which is why they look for alternatives to the status quo by questioning their normal. They take a different route to work. They talk with different people. They seek to understand first and to be understood second (thank you Stephen Covey). At the end of these subtle behavioral changes are subtle differences that distinguish them from their non-nerdy counterparts -- and make them exceptional employees.
4. They don’t wallow in missed attempts.
Smart learners stay smart, because they don't let performance hiccups bog them down. Rather than letting the negative self-talk of, "I'm a failure, I'm no good" seap its way into their minds, smart learners flip these negative thoughts on their heads by turning them into powerful questions (see number one above). Moreover, they see failure as a temporary process rather than a finite end-state.
Nerds are cool -- that's the bottom line. Just kidding, but the process smart learners use to become smarter is invaluable for anybody aiming to stay competitive.