Jacob Gordon

How to Be Smart if You Are Not a Genius. A List of Tools.

I don’t really know what qualifies a person as a genius, but I know I’m not one. My sense for who is and who isn’t a genius is mostly anecdotal, sprinkled with some cherry-picked psychology and brain science that my non-genius mind believes supports my framework. Really, I think I know what a genius is because I have one truly close friend in my life, and that person represents genius to me. It is not just a matter of being smart, testing well, having Rain Man-esq toothpick-counting abilities, or just coming up with good ideas. Genius minds have formed differently, and to a genius, the world appears more illuminated than it does to the rest of us.

Do I wish I was a genius? I’ve definitely spent a lot of time wishing that. On the other hand, I also have many moments when I’m grateful not to have to shoulder the often crushing weight that is the lense of genius. People who see the world in these unique ways often have difficulty fitting in, turning it off, and many geniuses have gone down dark spirals in their lives, many times with tragic endings. Surely there are many geniuses who often wish they could just be normal. It’s really nice sometimes.

But what do I know. I’m here to talk about how people who consider themselves normal can do exceptional things. And it starts with knowing where your weaknesses are and then building systems that compensate for, or even surpass, our baseline functioning. This means things can take a lot of work, but then you know the saying about inspiration and perspiration. Even for the gifted, most of their day consists of sweat, leaning into their work and pushing the boulder up the hill. Maria Popova has gathered several good accounts of this at Brain Pickings, including the thoughts of painter Chuck Close. “Inspiration is for amateurs,” he says, “the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

So, for what it’s worth, here are some of the systems I have accumulated that help me get show up and get to work.


Make a List and then Choose One


The other day I was looking back at all the blog posts I’ve written. I have published literally hundreds of posts, most of them at TreeHugger.com, where I worked as a daily freelance contributor for over five years. They covered all sorts of topics and were often really fun to write, though I won’t make any claims to their artfulness. However, each and every one needed a title and an opening line and often these were the hardest to write. They need to be punchy and eye-catching, but also informative and accurate, not to mention keyword optimized for search engines. I can’t tell you how many times I agonized over writing a good headline or opening sentence, but eventually I found a little method that helped greatly.

Instead of trying to write the one winning headline outright, I write the numbers 1, 2, and 3 down the left side of the page and then write out three versions. Then I pick the one I like the best. This frees a writer up from the tyranny of having to write the winning sentence in one go. I’ve since found that this works for a lot of things.


(I’ll add here that I’m aware of some of the psychology at play in a strategy like this. Decision making becomes easier when we can compare options and dismiss some as inferior. Ask any real estate agent about it and they’ll tell you to always show a potential buyer an inferior house to which they can compare the others. But even if we’re tricking our minds into thinking that one headline is better than the others, just because there are alternatives we like less, it still works, and still cuts through the writer’s block, so I think I’m fine with it.)

Head Up, Eyes Open

I’ll keep this one short because I have no idea if it applies to anyone but me. I have a terrible sense of direction. Abysmal. My rule of thumb is to go the opposite direction from where my internal compass points me. However, I do have a good visual memory for places. The facade of a building, a stand of trees, a billboard, a trio of gas pumps. These things stick in my mind and I can orient myself based on their position.

I recently found myself in a building I hadn’t seen for over ten years. Back then it was a recording studio (and I was nineteen, living there, and doing very questionable things with my post high school summer). Now, a decade later, it’s an artisinal cocktail bar. The neighborhood (Long Island City) has completely changed and it wasn’t until walking outside and seeing a freeway overpass that I realized, in shrieking awe, where I was. It was the shape of the concrete and steel in the darkness that triggered the recall.

So rather than try to keep track of which way is North or where I am on a map (things I might as well write off as lost causes) I always keep my head up and eyes open when I’m walking or driving or taking the train or whatever. I don’t even try and memorize or make specific observations–I just think of the visual info entering my eyes and being recorded by my brain, which of course is what’s happening.

The lesson here, I think, has less to do with the specific technique and more to do with playing to your strengths. My sense of direction sucks–I think the magnet must have just broken off when I was born–but my visual memory is good, so I give it as much data as I can.

An Inbox System to Capture Everything

My memory isn’t great either, but I have a lot of interests and all sorts of mental odds and ends are always bouncing across my awareness. I’ve developed a system for capturing and sorting those ideas using an inbox method mostly derived from Getting Things Done. I’ve already written a blog post about it, so if you’re interested, just read it.


Mindfulness and Meditation

I’ve already waxed about this topic as well, so I won’t bore you with more here. But in short, meditation is powerful stuff. It is deceptively simple and sends ripples through a person’s entire psyche. Genius or not, meditation is part of being more balanced, responding to stress and conflict better, working and multitasking better, and even helps you fight off the common cold. Just don’t take it too seriously and start acting like a glassy-eyed new age fool. My best Zen teacher was a foul-mouthed chain smoker whose robes barely covered his Navy tattoos. Though he did eventually die of lung cancer. So there’s that.


Close Facebook and Listen, Goddamnit!

A good friend recently told me that one of her New Year’s resolutions (along with reading a book a month–damn showoff) is to become a better listener, which started a conversation about what that actually means. It coincided well with something I’ve been working on a lot lately. Things continue to accelerate rapidly at Artiphon, and every day demands intense teamwork and on-the-fly decision making and problem solving. I work remotely and spend a lot of time on phone calls, so it is especially tempting to be scanning Twitter, scrolling down Facebook, Pinterest or whatever, while also trying to keep track of the conversation. This doesn’t work for me.

I can’t actually do high quality work if I’m doing other stuff at the same time. Some people can and more power to them. But not me and my sometimes slow processing. I need to be totally focused on the task at hand for me to do what I consider high-quality thinking. Sometimes this even means covering my eyes with my palms and just sinking into the conversation. I also have notes open so I can jot stuff down and not feel scared I’m losing a loose thought.

and lastly…


Read Broadly and Read a Lot

Must I elaborate?

Surely there are more methods to discuss. I’d like to talk about creating visual timelines for things, but I have to work on that one more before I can say anything insightful about it.

Your feedback is always welcome. And feel free to email me at Jacob_Gordon [at] mac.com