Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pure Genius in Three Easy Steps

A while back I introduced you to the competition being held between my friends Mark Kaufman and Jonathan Harwood for World's Dumbest Smart Guy. Well, outside the occasional contribution from my dad who is kind of World's Dumbest Smart Guy Emeritus, Jonathan and Mark have been consistently breaking records and raising the bar in what I can only describe as a leap-frog competition of epic proportions. If only they were to have focused their ingenuity on curing cancer or solving world hunger... But alas, they seem to be destined for another kind of greatness.

Until recently, I thought that these two represented the best the planet had to offer, but all that's changed.

Smart as a Verb
Now, any one of us is contender for World's Dumbest Smart Guy. The first step simply involves being really smart. If you've never considered yourself really smart, it's quite easy to do. Being smart has nothing to do with innate ability or the mythical Intelligence Quotient (IQ). Being smart is something that can be learned, practiced and developed over time.

In fact, the phrase being smart is a bit of a misnomer. What I'm talking about would be more accurately described with a verb, not a state of being. So, instead of talking about being smart, let's talk about doing smart (like playing piano) or smarting (like running).

Now, if each of us were to take up playing piano or running, we would probably start at different levels based upon any number of factors such as our experiences, genetics, skills and attitudes. Over time, as we practiced and developed our skills, we would get better. In fact, depending on a bunch of factors such as attitude, focus, effort, insight and passion, the one of us who seemed to have the most talent (another mythological construct) at the beginning might not be the best player six months later.

Taking up doing smart is no different. Each of us starts at a certain level, but that has nothing to do with our potential or capacity for change.

At Least He Has His Music
As a kid, music always came really easy for me. I could hear things and play them. I could spend an hour or two with a new instrument and start playing it. At fourteen, when I learned notation, I began writing scores for musicals and big bands. Easy.

As a kid, other things were impossible for me. I was overweight, uncoordinated and last picked for any athletic team. I drove my dad to the brinks of insanity with my math skills. I couldn't organize my thoughts or cogently communicate them. I took remedial reading classes all the way through high school. Impossible.

Learning to Run
When I was thirty-two, I decided that I wanted to be athletic. A man named John Sheehan, one of the executives at work had taken a bunch of us on week-long team building and personal development course that involved everything from diet and exercise to high-ropes courses to learning how to become more aware and better at listening. The teachers were experts in what they taught. For example, the people who talked about diet and exercise were coaches who'd worked with professional sports teams. I soaked up everything and came home inspired to put into practice all that I'd learned.

Over the next six months, I ended up dropping about forty pounds going from 180 down to 140. I was able to run ten miles in just under an hour averaging 5:53 per mile and on the road, I could ride my mountain bike twenty nine miles in an hour. I started getting involved in mountain bike racing and even did some extreme rides such as a 185 mile trail ride that we completed in about sixteen hours (that's me in the yellow after 185 mile of mud, rocks and roots).

I was an athlete.

What Changed?
So what changed? First, I was taught that the dichotomy of athletic people versus non-athletic people doesn't exist; there are simply people who do athletics and those that don't.

Second, the most important skills required to learn anything are focus and attention. It's amazing what you can learn without instruction simply by being focused and paying attention to what you're doing. In many cases, everything you need to learn is already in you.

With running, I started paying attention to my stride, what felt good and what didn't, what felt fluid and what felt jerky. I started paying attention to my breathing and then to the correlation between my breathing and my stride. At first, I had no idea what to do with my arms; they seemed to get in the way. So, I experimented. I would let my arms hang loose at my side. I would swing them widely in sync with my legs. I would flap them randomly.

When I got stuck, I would watch others run, focusing so intensely that I would start breathing with them.

And of course, I would run! I ran every day, focused and attentive. And, eventually, I learned how to run.

Learning to Smart
Learning to do smart is no different than learning to run. The keys are focus, attention and practice. The first step is to recognize that there are no smart or dumb people, there are just people who do smart and people who do dumb (most of us being capable of both).

The next step is applying focus and attention to how you think, your process. How do you behave when confronted with a challenge that requires you to be smart? Do you remain present and clear, or do you distract yourself with emotions based on beliefs that you can't handle the challenge. If you do the latter, then work on the beliefs that are keeping you from being comfortable; practice refocusing yourself, becoming present and clear.

Next, practice doing smart. Dive into things that usually leave you feeling dumb. Pay attention to your process, how you respond, where your mind goes; develop a style of doing smart that works for you.

In the end, if you start with the premise of smart being something you do, if you really focus and pay attention to your process, and if you practice, you can be really smart.

Back to the Competition
Now that we know how to be smart, it's easy to understand how to do dumb. Even the most skilled smart guy can render himself completely stupid simply by losing focus and not paying attention.

Of course losing focus and not paying attention are also misnomers; it's not about losing focus, it's about focusing on something other than that which is most pertinent and useful, e.g., focusing on winning rather than running, or focusing on being accepted rather than what you have to say, or focusing on the audience rather than the music.

Mark and Jonathan tend to establish new records when they hyper-focus, i.e., the get so focused on one thing that they lose context and perspective. It's a great technique that leads to really funny breakthroughs in the competition.

Surpassing the Masters
Now I want to assure you that doing smart is not a life sentence. You can always undo it all in just a few moments. When it comes to dumb, Jonathan and Mark have only momentary lapses of greatness. This is due to flawed technique; being hyper focused on a specific element of what you're trying to achieve to the exclusion of all other elements doesn't happen that often. Their greatness is fleeting.

To completely wipe out smart is easy. It requires the engagement of big emotions such as fear, anger, self-righteousness or envy. Moreover, it requires you to engage these emotions in a sustainable manner; scary movies and the occasional argument won't cut it. To eradicate smartness, you must engage yourself in activities like jealousy or holding grudges or revenge. If you do this well and long enough, it can become habitual and you'll never need to worry about being smart ever again.

Alternatively, if you're already engaged in these or like activities and you seem to have lost all capacity for smart, you can restore smart simply by deciding to let go and love.

So, go out there an do smart... or don't.

Happy Sunday,

PS continuation of yesterday's blog is still to come.

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