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What Makes Me… Smart?

According to Letterman’s first head writer, a Major Leaguer-turned-‘New-York-Times’ columnist and 6 other experts in their fields

In this installment of our “What Makes Me a…” column, we asked seven people how a person should behave to be considered smart. Turns out, it’s not all about your IQ.

Rachel Winograd, assistant research professor at the Missouri Institute of Mental Health: Someone smart is someone who can think quickly and broadly, who can think ahead in a way that’s informed by history. Someone who can feel the temperature in any room and adjust appropriately. Someone who is creative, asks new questions and seeks input from people who know more than them.

Doug Glanville, former Chicago Cub, Philadelphia Phillie and Texas Ranger; ESPN baseball analyst; and University of Pennsylvania grad: The smartest answer to any question I’ve heard was back when I was in college. For a job interview, a student was asked to “define risk” and to write it out on an 8×11 piece of paper. His answer: “Risk is leaving the rest of this paper blank.” Bam!

Doug Glanville

Karl Kassel, mayor of Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska: Being well-versed on a variety of topics or data doesn’t make one smart. Book learning only goes so far. Understanding what life is truly about takes proper intention and objectivity, and requires personal interaction with others and compassion. This leads to a depth of knowledge that surpasses what’s in books, and is felt as much as known. The “proper intention” is the most important part; without it, you cannot completely understand or rightfully apply the academics. Defined this way, a smart person is destined to enjoy a successful life, and depart the mortal plane happy.

Jake S. van Vuuren, Lyft driver: I always appreciate it when people call or text and say, “It might show to go to the alleyway, but I’m actually at this address.” I’m always thankful when people do this because 50 percent of the time we don’t have an address, we have a range. So I’d say communication and a little foresight makes you smart. At the very least, I really appreciate it.

Rayne Parvis, personal stylist: In my opinion, the smartest people are the ones who never stop learning and improving themselves. A smart person also constantly steps out of their comfort zone and takes risks to invent; to try to accomplish new things.

Aida Vazin, therapist: Curiosity. The key to expanding one’s knowledge is to be open to perspectives beyond what one already knows. Fear, hatred and racism all come from ignorance, which is essentially a lack of knowledge. By being curious and open to more knowledge and perspective, one can expand their own general fund of knowledge and become a smarter person.

Paul Nelson, men’s sex educator: A willingness to learn new things. It’s amazing how many men stubbornly refuse to change anything about their sex lives, even when it’s not working and their partners aren’t happy. Most men have a goal of getting back to the functionality of when they were 20, but what they don’t realize is that most 20-year-olds aren’t having great sex, they just screw like crazy.

I had one student who was amazing — an average Joe-type, but with a real willingness to work on his issues. When he realized he could actually study the topic of sex and learn new concepts, ideas and techniques, it transformed his life. His wife was ecstatic — he was a genius in the world of sex education!

Merrill Markoe, author/TV writer: Well, if in fact I am smart (debatable), it’s because I compulsively analyze everything, to the point that some would argue that the word “smart” should be replaced with “annoying.” I see almost everything as part of a larger pattern. When I hear the same thing twice or meet someone who reminds me of someone else, the computer in my brain files them together; then it starts to look for what unites them and fits them into the original bigger template.

I’m also a compulsive over-achiever. I write something short by writing something long, then reducing it through endless rewriting. I, perhaps mistakenly, believe in trying too hard. Except for this. I’m sending it now because I’m in the middle of something else and don’t want to overthink it. Otherwise, I’ll keep writing it all day.