Did you ever come across someone who seemed to know everything? An expert in not just one thing, but many things across different disciplines? Who not only stunned you with a wealth of trivia, but also all the applicable anecdotes, and the relevant facts to almost anything that would come up in conversation? I’m sure you have. And if that made you think you’d want to be more like that, the good news is: it’s easy! You only need two skills and this one weird trick.
Let me give away those two skills right away. First of all, you need to be great at searches. And secondly, you need to be a speedreader. But better still, even if you’re not particularly good at either, it’s the “one weird trick” that makes it work: actually looking things up.
And yes, I’m deliberately mixing sarcasm with a tired advertising meme (“this one weird trick will make you lose weight overnight!”). And that’s because I’m puzzled why people are not actually doing this. We’re walking around with mobile phones that are more powerful than the supercomputers of the 70s, and are connected to the largest collection of knowledge ever assembled: the internet. We have all of this in our pocket. What do we use it for? Words With Friends, Candy Crush Saga, and posting pictures of our cats to Instagram and lunches to Facebook.
Don’t get me wrong, those are perfectly good uses (I love playing online Scrabble, and I like posting pictures of my cats). But it would be great if more people would also get a bit more benefit out of it to look smart. And yes, I’m appealing to vanity here. Why? What’s in it for me? Well: it would speed everything up, and would make it so much easier to get things done. So let me give you a couple of examples.
Actually read what people are sharing
Don’t just skim the headlines and “like” what you see, but maybe pause for a second and read it; better still, follow the link and read the actual article. Surprisingly, that will give you a huge edge over most people. What’s more, most of what’s being shared on social media hasn’t even been read by the people sharing it. You can be the envy of your friends by being the exception.
This is where the speedreading comes in. If you’re not that good at comprehensive reading, it’s worth training the skill; but apart from all the tricks to improve on that, just reading a lot will help by itself.
Do a quick check on what you’re reading
If something sounds implausible, or shocking, or very much out of the ordinary; it might occur to you that maybe it’s a bit too implausible to be true? If you are actually reading that post or article, maybe you’d want to have a quick look at where it’s published. Classic examples are finding out that the original site is satyrical (and your friends are missing the irony); or carries some thinly veiled political extremist agenda. That will often already be apparent from the masthead or “about” page, but even seemingly reputable publications may turn out to have a terrible reputation. Finding that is only a Google search away. Which brings me to;
Do a search on it
On many online forums, the question that has been posted millions of times before will be met with an agitated “UTFS!”, which stands for “use the ffing search”. The more generic version of this is LMGTFY (“let me Google that for you”), which helpfully has a site (and you can buy the t-shirt). Acronym soup apart, there are a lot of spectacular stories that are easily debunked by one of the mythbusters sites (Snopes, though far from the be-all and end-all of facts, usually provides a nice quick link for your Facebook comment; other sites have picked up that this is a useful service to provide). Maybe you’ll enjoy being the wiseass (I certainly do), but really, you’re doing all of us a service (by cutting short a silly discussion about nothing).
Know where to search
Of course, Google’s search has become a staple of our life (and in most countries apart from the US and China, the default for searches). But there are a lot of specialised databases and search engines for particular purposes or knowledge domains. For instance, there’s Wolfram Alpha (useful for any math equation, but also questions like “how many Star Trek episodes are there?”), IMDB, and so on.
Professionally – in my line of work – it helps to know, for example, about the RFC database. A lot of my more stupid questions will probably already be answered on Stack Overflow, which means I don’t have to waste my colleagues’ time by asking them.
I could go on, but this is not meant to be a comprehensive list – these are just examples. But even the obvious ones should be used a lot more often. There are too many times when I have a meeting with someone and make remarks such as “of course, you already know this, since you used to work at…”, and people are startled I would know this. Because yes, we connected on LinkedIn – but I actually read their profile. I have a phone. I can do the search. I can read the resume.
You won’t be fooling anyone
Of course, none of this will help you actually be an absolute expert in anything. In most cases, knowing where to look is the most important part, and that takes experience and knowledge. Nobody will think you’re suddenly a genius out of nowhere. A few weeks ago, I was explaining to one of our sysadmins how to create an SPF record in DNS, as if it’s me who’s the expert on this. After a bit of back and forth over chat, we got it done, and he then continued with a question, “since you’re so good at Google, could you look up something else for me?” He’s too smart to be fooled by me at all.
I’m perfectly fine with that. The point is not to fake intelligence; the point is to be smart with the tools we have. And if you want to be an expert in anything, that might be a good start.