A new crop of productivity hacks and tools arrive nearly every week, but the best performance-boosting tricks aren’t newfangled. Instead, they are usually principles that have stood the test of time. Ben Franklin’s best bit of intelligence-boosting advice is a perfect case in point.
From young hot head to wise founding father.
As literary scholar Mark Canada recently reminded readers of The Conversation recently, Franklin wasn’t always the rational, white-haired inventor and statesman we all remember from high school history. In his younger years, Franklin was a hothead.
In his autobiography, Franklin describes his relationship with his brother James, who employed him for a time when Franklin was a young man: “We sometimes disputed, and very fond we were of Argument, & very desirous of confuting one another.”
Franklin, in other words, was the 18th century equivalent of your loudmouth friend who has an opinion on everything and isn’t shy of sharing his views. That is until he came across some examples of Socratic dialogue, a technique ancient philosophers used to uncover truth by way of a series of probing questions.
“I was charm’d with it, adopted it, dropt my abrupt Contradiction, and positive Argumentation, and put on the humble Enquirer & Doubter,” Franklin wrote.
The technique made such an impact on the founding father, Canada notes, that he “eventually changed his entire manner of discourse, communicating ‘in terms of modest Diffidence’ instead of positive assertion, dropping words such as ‘certainly’ and ‘undoubtedly’ and substituting ‘I should think it so or so’ and ‘it is so, if I am not mistaken.'”
All of which makes for a charming story of a young man’s introduction to wisdom, but what does it have to do with us living a few centuries later? Adopting a tone of greater intellectual humility didn’t just make Franklin more pleasant company, it also made him effectively much smarter.
“If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others,” Franklin observed, “and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error.” Or to put that in modern terms: If you want to get smarter, you first have to be willing to admit you might be wrong.
It’s a quick (if sometimes ego-bruising) shift in attitude that functionally raises your IQ. And it works just as well in 2021 as it did in 1721. Just ask Jeff Bezos.
How to maximize every IQ point.
When the soon-to-be former Amazon boss was asked to describe how he spots the greatest minds to come work for him, he didn’t go on about prestigious degrees, gold-plated resumes, or fiendishly difficult brain teasers. Instead, he stressed that he tries to hire people who change their mind a lot.
Like Franklin, Bezos understands the smartest people are those who are able to put curiosity and pragmatism above ego and listen to new evidence and opposing opinions with an open mind. If you can do that, the rate of improvement of your ideas and mental models of the world shoots up dramatically. And that means you make the most of whatever mental horsepower nature equipped you with.
Or, as Franklin once reminded members of the Junto, a kind of debate club he founded in 1727, the point of discussion isn’t victory. It’s knowledge. Remind yourself you’re chasing truth and not burnishing your ego or defending your viewpoint every time you start a conversation, crack a book, or open another browser tab, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to instantly make yourself a little bit smarter.