The Unsavory Desire To Sound Smart Instead Of Being Smart

Date: Jul 7, 2020

Sciolist - a person who pretends to be knowledgeable and well informed.

I was listening to this Joe Rogan podcast with Naval Ravikant recently. It's an incredible conversation packed with deep insights. Around 2:08:31, they briefly touch upon this act of sounding smart instead of being smart. That hit a nerve since I'm quite guilty of that. Mostly it's just little white lies, but on other occasions, it's either a variant of imposter syndrome or a futile, vain desire to maintain an image for society.

As a kid, I loved the attention that my teachers showered on me; And I ate it up like a kid in a candy store. I was a well-behaved child who was academically inclined. My identity revolved around being the smart one in class. Hence I'd do what was necessary to maintain that image. If the teacher posed a question to the class, my hand would be up, eager to impress everyone with my answer. If it was a question that needed some mathematical calculations, I'd frantically try and solve it as fast as possible. It was (and still is to an extent) extremely important to me that I got the answer first. I saw first-hand the respect an educated, successful man garnered and I desperately wanted that. I grew up hearing the Tamil aphorism "கற்றோருக்கு செல்லும் இடமெல்லாம் சிறப்பு" roughly translated as "The learned men garner respect everywhere they go". While the desire to learn is worthwhile, I've employed questionable means to achieve that end.

A post-mortem analysis of my sustained academic efforts revealed two predominant, underlying intentions:

  1. A genuine desire to learn something (internal)
  2. A dubious desire to project a self-image to society (external)

Interestingly if I picked an activity with the sole purpose of impressing a third person, it never panned out. It left me feeling like an impostor whose lies deserved to be exposed to the whole world. I wouldn't actively work on such projects and rather focus on hacks & easy wins that help project the external image. I believe the pursuit of a perfect external self-image impedes actual growth in the long run. I've tried to list all the ineffective shortcuts and band-aid solutions I've employed in the past and other questionable behavior I've witnessed in my life. This post is partly an effort to drill this message into my head - "Don't dwell on the outcome, focus on the process".

Hacks, quick fixes and other examples of feigning smartness

Memorization & rote learning

This problem of rote learning is so rampant across the Indian education system that it's not even funny anymore. Most of my exams involved memorizing ungodly amounts of text, formulas, diagrams, equations, etc., and subsequently reproducing them in an examination. There's a colossal tutoring & publishing industry dedicated to identifying chapter-wise "important" questions. These are frequently asked test questions that students should memorize to get good marks in board exams. If you have a decent memory, chances are you're going to do well in these exams. After 14 years of schooling and 4 years of undergrad in a system deeply entrenched with rote learning at its core, I learned this - I knew shit about shit. To be fair, thanks to my high school teachers, I did know the difference between rote learning and understanding the concepts. However, that didn't stop me from employing hacks and memorizing "important" topics to score well in exams. I wish I could say I truly understood the subject first and later memorized the relevant topics to game the system. Truth is I did just enough to maintain a respectable grade point average (GPA). After all, a high GPA had immediate short-term rewards; it "showed" that you were smart and studious, it increased the probability of internships and job offers. Of course, a stellar GPA in a system that incentivizes thinking and understanding is laudable. But metrics like grades turn meaningless if all one has to do is cram, memorize, regurgitate and forget.

“You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing — that's what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
― Richard P. Feynman, "What Do You Care What Other People Think?"

Absorbing information without understanding stunted my growth as a researcher. It led to the underdevelopment of skills like analyzing, critiquing and, learning on my own. Content memorization does have its place in learning. For example, multiplication tables accelerate mental arithmetic speeds. I'm sure we'd all prefer a doctor who could diagnose existing conditions off the top of his/her head over someone who looks up symptoms on WebMD. Having useful information at your fingertips is of great use in personal and professional settings. But the recollection of facts shouldn't take precedence over the development of reasoning abilities.

P.S: Richard Feynman famously admonished the rote learning system in Brazilian universities in a keynote speech titled The Problem of Teaching Physics in Latin America. A first person account of the events from Feynman's biography can be found here. I believe a lot of these criticisms are valid even today in India

Pawning off someone else’s insights and passing it off as your original thought

"My Boy is Wicked Smart", the scene from Good Will Hunting that spawned a thousand pop culture references:

You'd be surprised if you knew the sheer amount of educated tools like the blonde guy with a ponytail from that iconic scene. I do not doubt that folks like him are clever. But their desire to show off and prove their "superior" intellect is so blinding that it drives out any sense of humility and openness required for original thoughts. This strategy is insidious in the sense that it's very hard to unlearn. While it does promise a future with modest financial success, it's a horrible strategy is you are intent on creating something new. In other words, it's a great example of "winning the battle but losing the war." You know what, the Good Will Hunting scene explained it much better.

Getting on the hype-train / Fear of missing out

Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain, Internet of Things (IoT) and Cloud Computing. These are just a few examples of fields that were hyped way too much in the past. I still vividly remember a LOT of asinine posts and talks about the perils of AI and how AI would revolutionize the world from folks who had zero background in AI. While the experts carefully measured their words, the halfwits shot their mouth off. "Empty vessels make the most noise". This aphorism holds, especially during a publicity frenzy. I get the desire to cash in on the next big thing; the desire to make the most of a gold rush. However, it's a problem when you avoid the effort necessary to understand a topic and focus solely on building the image of an expert. Using buzzwords to make oneself sound smarter is a strategy guaranteed to blow up in the face. Friends and connections on social media might like a few of those mindless posts. But the professionals would notice the pretentious nature of such an enterprise. True experts in the subject matter would deliberately choose not to associate with impostors.

Virtue signaling

"People who do X are considered smart and successful.
Therefore if I do X and proclaim that on social media, I'm also smart and I will be (considered) successful."

Now replace X with activities like reading classics, business books, biographies, etc. This sort of "infallible" reasoning leads to a lot of annoying, narcissistic behavior, especially on social media. LinkedIn would be exhibit A. LinkedIn is full of people who pass off banal platitudes disguised as deep philosophy. This category feeds on social media validation and derives pleasure from being a garden-variety phony. To them, the external projected self is more important than the actual self. They're the ones who post with hashtags like (#learning, #motivation, #Xisthefuture, #success, #inspiration, etc.)

Maybe it's just me. But my social media feed is inundated with inane posts by pretentious dickwads who distort their privileged life experiences into something inspirational. Are we seriously supposed to be inspired by their meaningless accomplishments and like their posts to encourage their nauseating, constant need for approval? In the legendary words of George Carlin, I want to say to those folks - "go fuck yourself". There's something fundamentally sneaky and dishonest when people pretend to be pioneers and visionaries when they haven't put in the effort to master a subject.

Humblebrag: The curious case of false humility

“Nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast.”
— Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice”
A wonderful comic from Poorly Drawn Lines

I'm sure that we all know folks who consciously try to get away with bragging about themself by masking it with a phony show of humility. And it's almost always about IQ or money. They might speak in an eloquent, articulate fashion. But they would surreptitiously add that they don't find people to connect with because they're just too damn smart or too damn rich. It's a bit embarrassing to admit that I've tried to humblebrag about my "intellectual gifts" in the past. It wasn't one of my finer moments. I still cringe when I think about it. For some reason, I thought it was an effective strategy to celebrate my accomplishments without the risk of self-aggrandizement. In hindsight, false modesty is just frowned upon.

Using technical jargon to explain other jargon

When we speak without jargon, it frees us from hiding behind knowledge we don’t have. Big words and fluffy “business speak” cripple us from getting to the point and passing knowledge to others.
- Richard Feynman

"Basically the constitution of the constipation of the washbasin of the Brownian motion..." I'm both a victim and offender when it comes to using complicated jargon to explain research, philosophical and artistic ideas. It's easier to pretend that I understand the math in a hardcore presentation rather than admit defeat to others. Rather than admitting ignorance and choosing to learn, it's easier to pretend to be knowledgeable. Why are we impressed by things we don't understand? Why do we seek to impress others with complex logic? Is it because it's easier to take these shortcuts rather than put in the work to understand their ideas? So far, the best counter to this ploy seems to be the Feynman Learning Technique:

  1. Choose an idea/concept you'd like to learn.
  2. Imagine you are teaching it to a child.
  3. Identify the gaps in knowledge; Go back to source material and relearn.
  4. Simplify; Tell a coherent story

Closing thought: Don’t dwell on the outcome, focus on the process

Another way of saying the same in Tamil is "கடமையை செய். பலனை எதிர்பார்க்காதே". And I'm certain that different religions and cultures have variants of this saying. Funny how proverbs I used to laugh at as a teen have significance as an adult. The primary objective is learning something for yourself. The reward is the pleasure of finding things out and/or accomplishing something. Awards, fame, prestige, etc., are byproducts. When we see a successful person from the outside, the byproducts are visible. But intrinsic rewards and the journey that led to success are hidden from our view. It makes sense that we start by imitating the conspicuous characteristics (i.e., outward aspects) of successful people. Now that I've realized my folly, it's obvious that I need to switch strategies and put in the necessary groundwork. After all, as Seneca put it “errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum: 'to err is human, but to persist (in the mistake) is diabolical.”. It's now clear in my head - the effort precedes the outcome. If that's true, "smartness" is a state of being; sounding smart is an inevitable byproduct. You either have such a state of mind or you don't. There's no pretend.


  1. Principles of Effective Research by Michael Nielson
  2. An Antidote to Rote Learning by Forbes India
  3. The Problem of Teaching Physics in Latin America - Richard Feynman's keynote speech
  4. A post on The Feynman Technique from the blog "Physics PhD"
  5. The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out, a BBC interview with Richard Feynman