In Reconcilable Differences #41, Merlin Mann & John Siracusa discussed being smart vs clever and why John always “seems so smart”. I found John’s descriptions of his thought processes enlightening, so I transcribed them for easy reference.

The transcription starts at 01:03:18 and cuts out some details for brevity. If you want to listen to it instead you can jump straight in here:

I think one of the things that I practice a lot, that I’ve been doing my whole life and practicing, is, I want to understand. There’s what you described as being clever, quick witted, able to associate things quickly, connect things in a way that makes some kind of sense and is often funny. But I always want to know how the thing works. We talk about this with little kids, like, “Why do you do the things you do? Why do you feel the way you’re feeling? Do you understand how you yourself are working?”

For example, some topic comes up and you free-associate a bunch of things about it, connecting it to the past conversation in a way that’s witty, its funny, people would call it clever, but you’re not preoccupied with figuring out, “Why was that funny? Why did I come up with that association? What am I trying to say with that comment?” You know, the death of humor, to dissect it and pull out all its organs and figure out how it works. Most people don’t like that, that’s why its one of the things that’s less common about me than other people, most people don’t have that urge to figure that out.


If you start to think about, “What were you even trying to say with that? Why is that clever? Is there some underlying point? Is there some actual connection or are you literally just free-associating like this neuron hits that one hits that one hits that one and words come out of your mouth?” But no one in that interaction cares about that.

For me, everything I’m taking in and putting out, I need to know why, I need to know what caused this to happen, what am I actually trying to say, what is the actual point. And that’s why almost every topic we talk about, you’re like, “Oh you already have all these opinions on things”.

I’m not going to let a podcast like that one with Hoffman enter my head without thinking through it and trying to figure what I think they mean and what I think about that and how it changes things and its not just going to be like, “Huh”, and let it stew in there. I don’t want it to be a black box. I need to know, every part of this whole process needs to be explicable.

And so, with everything I say and do, there should be some purpose. Even when I’m free-associating, I will retroactively try to figure out, “Where did that come from and why did it come out and what was I trying to say about it?”

Very often you think – I do as much free-associating as anybody else – but I’ll try to say, like, “Was that apt? Of all the things you could have pulled out of the giant bag of tricks that is your head, does that one make sense in context?”

For example, […], Because that association, that sort of like, connection that my brain made, I looked at it and said, “That connection makes sense. I understand, brain, why you made that connection.” It is not mysterious, its like, “Why do you do the things you do?” I know why that connection got made.


I always want to know why the things go together. If you go through any of my writing on my blog or even my OS X reviews they’re filled with pop culture references and links. I hope every single one of them is there for a reason. If I had to go back and explain before a jury, “Why did you link to this thing? What are you trying to say by linking this word to this thing?” I should have an explanation for every single one of those.


Where I’m getting is I think that’s why I might seem smart, sometimes. Not that I’m not smart, but part of seeming smart is when you’re saying things that when prodded about them can explain further. It’s like, “What, did you have all this prepared? Are you looking at a big set of notes about this?” No, the notes are all in my head. There is, every time you dig or prod or poke something to say, “Yeah, but what does that actually mean?”, I can keep going, and going down and down and down.

Its just a practice, its just like anything else. I am driven to do that, so I do do that. That’s why all of that is there. In the same way that some people are driven to make puns, or whatever. That comes off as seeming smart, because, getting back to the instinct before, when presented with a task that you think is going to involve some kind of thinking that you don’t think you’re ready to do, you’re afraid that, if poked, “Why did you try this?” your answer is “I don’t know, I don’t know why I just did that.” Whereas when you get that impression of me, if I was to try something and someone said, “Why did you try that?”, I’d have this big whole explanation of why I tried it. That makes me seem more prepared to tackle things. Even though, both of the things, we might have both tried the exact same thing and it might not have worked in either case. The fact that its explicable to me, in some ways it’s just bluster, or whatever, having some confidence. If you intuitively do the right thing, and I do the wrong thing but have a 10 paragraph explanation for it, who is actually smarter there? But I seem smarter, in scare quotes, because I have a reason, whereas you actually got the result but did it quote unquote intuitively.

Knowing why you do things and being able to explain things does not actually lead to better outcomes but it does make you seem smarter. Maybe. Or at least, more obnoxious, one or the other. No one likes a smart ass.