Four Qualities of Smart People

Acquired, not given.

Younes Henni, PhD
4 min readMar 5, 2021


Albert Einstein (Credit: Fred Stein Archive).

I was fortunate to interact and learn from lots of smart people. From my years as a research scientist to the projects I helped build as a software developer, the teams I worked with faced tough challenges and sometimes failed along the way. But we always pulled a form of success from the endeavour.

Whatever the project, the field, and the exceptional people I worked with, I saw four big qualities that smart people have. These qualities helped them achieve their goals, grow personally, and learn more. Examine these qualities, and see if they can help you innovate more, manage your work and relations better, make smarter decisions and live a happier life.

#1 — They Eliminate Chaos

Smart people seek clarity first and foremost. They eliminate (or at least reduce) chaos in their life, projects, goals, and ideas.

Smart people set a clear purpose (a why) that helps them navigate the obstacles of life. They define a self (e.g., getting a promotion, earning a degree), a personal (e.g., buying a house for my parents, sending my kids to college), and a global (e.g., fighting poverty, eradicating disease) purpose. Whatever life throws at them, they know how to react. As Friedrich Nietzsche said: “He who has a clear why can bear anyhow.”

Smart people examine their thoughts and feelings regularly. Through meditation, introspection, and mindfulness, they let go of bad thoughts and learn to calm the mind’s chaotic nature. They give themselves ample time for stillness and quiet.

Smart people are minimalists. They declutter their physical space (house, workspace), digital space (phone, laptop, social media), and social life (relationships with others). They hold dearly to things that add value to their lives, to people who lift them, letting go of everything and everyone putting them down.

#2 — They Create Opportunities

Smart people see opportunities in their problems. They think from first-principles, breaking down a situation to its fundamental truths: “what do we know for sure to be true? What’s under our control and what’s not?” They isolate the facts from the assumptions, making the answers appear more naturally.

Smart people design and plan vigorously. They know a robust roadmap is a recipe for opportunities while failing to plan is planning to fail. If they aren’t sure about what to do and how to do it, smart people always invert. They picture the life they don’t want to live, the things they don’t want to achieve, the careers they don’t want to have. They know that inverting often clears the picture and helps them see what’s important and not.

Smart people think backwards. They start from the end in mind and move back to their current state, making the path to the outcome more obvious. They follow in the steps of Steve Jobs, who once said: “You can only connect the dots looking backwards, never forward.”

Smart people fail like a scientist. Instead of taking failure personally, they welcome it with curiosity and see it as an opportunity to refine the next experiments. They know that setbacks have little to do with their lack of worth and are part of the process.

#3 — They Maximise Probabilities

Smart people avoid binary thinking: good vs bad, smart vs stupid, success vs failure. Instead, they see the world as a stream of probabilities. When they seek something, they tread paths and take actions to maximise the odds of success.

Smart people understand that execution maximises progress. They minimise friction with habits and systems. They start immediately and never rely on motivation — knowing that momentum always carries them forward.

Instead of spending their hours ticking tasks, smart people take time to disengage their mind and energise their creativity. Following Thomas Edison, Salvador Dali, and Albert Einstein’s steps, smart people take naps, solitary walks, relax their gaze, and play music. They let their mind wander, and their thoughts roam free instead of trapping themselves facing screens where great ideas seldom appear.

Smart people learn, memorise, and understand things at a deeper level through vivid imagery, metaphors, associations and storytelling. They understand that emotions are crucial to learning and retaining. In the words of Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Smart people know that thinking is a skill. And like any skill, they can improve at it. They seek and learn new mental models, consume content that enriches their thinking and explore various views. They live by Sir Isaac Newton’s motto: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

#4 — They Improve Holistically

Smart people understand that personal growth is a holistic endeavour, not a granular one. They don’t hurt their relationships to get more followership. They don’t sacrifice their health to build wealth, and they certainly don’t seek more power by losing their honour. Instead, they seek to enrich all areas of their lives: their sleep, posture, breathing, nutrition, relationships with people and themselves.

Whatever their goal, smart people understand that feedback is key to mastery; it helps them adjust what they did poorly and sustain what they did well. Smart people recognise that success is a relationships matter, not a lone-wolf adventure. That’s why they don’t go at it alone: they network, team up, exchange ideas and ask for help. In the words of Simon Sinek: “Failure we can do alone. Success always takes help.”

Smart people are mindful of their thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. They are logical in their planning, careful in their execution, attentive to their failures, humble in their success, grateful for their progress, empathetic with their family, colleagues, and friends.

Which qualities do you already have? Which areas did you neglect?

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Younes Henni, PhD

Physicist • Soft Dev • ☕ Junkie • I bring you the latest in science, tech, health, economics & personal growth. To read all: