Give a person an IQ test in elementary school and again when he or she is a senior citizen and science suggests the score will remain largely unchanged. Which means, like it or not, our sheer mental horsepower is largely fixed.

How smart you are, though, can fluctuate wildly. Just like you can trash a supercar with no maintenance and rough handling or keep that old Toyota humming along nicely with a bit of TLC, intellectual performance is about much more than hardware. It's also about circumstance, approach, and habit.

So while you can't make yourself into a natural-born genius, you can make a lot more or a lot less of whatever level of intelligence you were dealt. How? MIT neuroscientist Ed Boyden helpfully laid out 10 suggestions on "how to be creative, thoughtful, and powerful in a world where problems are extremely complex," in a classic post for the MIT Technology Review.

If you want to make the most of whatever intellectual horsepower you have, it's well worth a read in full, but here are a few of his ideas in brief to get you started.

1. Synthesize constantly.

"Never read passively. Annotate, model, think, and synthesize while you read, even when you're reading what you conceive to be introductory stuff," he writes. There are plenty of specific suggestions out there on how best to accomplish this.

2. Learn how to learn.

"One of the most important talents for the 21st century is the ability to learn almost anything instantly, so cultivate this talent," instructs Boyden. "Know how your brain works." Cognitive science has lots of insight to offer on the subject.

3. Make contingency maps.

File this one under simple but powerful ideas most people never think of: "Draw all the things you need to do on a big piece of paper, and find out which things depend on other things. Then, find the things that are not dependent on anything but have the most dependents, and finish them first."

4. Fail fast.

Turns out Boyden agrees with one Silicon Valley mantra, at least: "You may mess things up on the first try, but do it fast, and then move on. Document what led to the error so that you learn what to recognize, and then move on. Get the mistakes out of the way."

5. Write up best practices.

"As you develop skills, write up best-practices protocols," suggests Boyden. "That way, when you return to something you've done, you can make it routine."

Looking for more insights from the obviously brilliant Boyden? Check out his complete guide to better thinking, or read this fascinating recent interview on the Huffington Post, which includes the books that most inspired Boyden and his unique approach to note taking.

Published on: Oct 3, 2016
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