How to Succeed When You Don’t Have a Clue

I’ve been around the block enough times to have accumulated a few successes and failures – in writing and elsewhere – and some of those have surprised me. Stuff I thought would work, didn’t – and some of my long shots came through. So I wrote this list. There are plenty of “How to Succeed” lists on the internet… but at least mine is only three bullets long.

1) Reject “knowledge.”

The world is much more complicated than we think. Theories about how something should work are nice for making us feel less overwhelmed, but if you fly by theory, and can’t understand why you aren’t getting anywhere, throw the theory away. What’s more: don’t replace it with another theory.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” — quotable physicist Albert Einstein

When smart people fail, they often spin their wheels in endless analysis. Dumb people don’t bother with this — and that is the advantage in being stupid. Most failure is random, and burning time trying to track down the imperfection in your technique (polishing your resume yet again, revising your novel yet again) doesn’t pay as well as just taking another random shot. Dumb people can clean the floor with intellectuals, as long as they’re persistent.

2) Don’t give up.

I’ve taught mathematics for years, and I can report from the trenches: intelligence isn’t what gets good grades. Persistence does. A+ math students push through confusion, get over frustration, and keep on going. The students who fail are the ones who never learn how to climb over that wall. A lot of my job is helping students manage their frustration, so they don’t give up.

When I’m hammering away at troubleshooting a computer, I’m always open to being surprised. I’ll try anything — even stuff that seems illogical — because too frequently, that is the stuff that works. Aside from taking good notes (so you don’t repeat yourself), what pays here is creativity. Are you crazy enough to keep trying new things? If not, and you are truly stuck, you’re shackled by theory — see #1.

Change one variable — even randomly! — and try again.

3) Google it.

I know that some think the internet makes us less intelligent. I’m amazed by this opinion, because from what I’ve seen, the internet adds thirty points to the effective IQ of billions of people. This is on my short-list of reasons I’m excited about the future of the planet. If you can use a search engine, you’re as competent as any expert was thirty years ago. Actually, you’re as competent as all of them.

“I google everything!” — quotable hacker Samy Kamkar

(I don’t mean Google literally — that’s insane. Have some self-respect and use something more private, like Startpage or DuckDuckGo.)

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