When I was in school, being smart was considered social suicide. The more diligently you studied, the deeper into unforgivable “nerdom” you sank. I know this because it was my story.

But then something interesting happened.

As I transitioned to a young adult, my nerdiness became sexy. And I realized this immutable fact about human nature: we are wired to find being smart attractive.

Conversations are just better with people who are smarter. I’m not talking about native intelligence or IQ but rather people who have many interests, like to learn, and aren’t intimidated by trying “new” things. You don’t have to be a genius to be curious about the world! These are the kinds of people that we at Brainscape think of as smart.

But here’s the thing: many people only become motivated to learn later on in life. So what if you squandered your school years paying more attention to sports, social media, and the soap opera of who was dating who than on your lessons? And what if, as a result, you don’t remember a single useful thing about geography, English literature, history, economics, biology, or art history?

How are you supposed to volunteer an opinion on books, current news, the weather, travel, an art exhibition, or global politics when your foundational knowledge is shakier than your hands after a triple-shot of espresso?

Alas, it is true: a lack of basic knowledge leaves you terribly short-changed, whether it’s because you struggle to think of something interesting to say or ask, or because you don’t have the CONFIDENCE to say what you think. Either way, you’re stuck in a corner, while your more erudite buddies make friends or make out (or both) because their smarts have made them more attractive.

Well, that changes TODAY, my friend!

The team at Brainscape have created this guide and an app to give you the tools, tips, and knowledge resources you need to sound smarter in conversations, with the side effect of actually BEING smarter. By the end of it, you’ll have:

  • A roadmap forward on improving your foundational knowledge,
  • Improved confidence in initiating and sustaining conversations,
  • A fresh mindset to approach a world of learning,
  • Free resources to improve your knowledge, and
  • A new perspective on what it means to be smart.

Excited to get smarter? Great! Now, allow us to introduce ourselves…

Hi! We’re Brainscape…

We’re the brains, minds, and hearts behind the world’s smartest study app, and we’ve made it our passion project to curate a special collection of general knowledge flashcards that deliver an essential baseline education in all the facts:

  • You wish you’d learned in school (Knowledge Rehab),
  • You wish you’d learned in life (Street Smarts), as well as
  • The words to express yourself better (Vocab Workout).

This triple-threat set of flashcards comes automatically loaded with every free Brainscape account. Go on, get Brainscape (App Store | Google Play) and take a look for yourself! Together, they will fill your noggin with the knowledge you need to understand the world better, have more interesting conversations, and sound (and BE) smarter!

Now, why do the work of amassing all these flashcards if we don’t intend to charge you for them?

Because it’s chief among our goals to consolidate the world’s knowledge and offer it for free as a minimum viable education for all. Besides, you never know, one day we may bump into you on the subway and then it’ll all be worth it when we’re able to chat about anything, from art to artificial intelligence!

On that subject, why should you care about having smarter conversations?

Because smart is sexy (biologically speaking)

Smart is sexy

It’s true! Smart is sexy.

Humankind’s ability to ingrain enormous amounts of data about ourselves and the world around us is a key trait of Homo sapiens (Latin: “wise man” but let’s tweak that to “wise human”). It’s what’s made us such a successful species; able to live and thrive in some of Earth’s harshest environments, thanks to innovations like climate control, airplanes, and thermal underwear.

Just like female birds are biologically wired to find the most colorful males attractive—or female deer find bucks with bigger antlers sexier—so too are we primed to find smart people attractive. (Or threatening, which is why smart kids in school are teased for being “nerds”.)

Think about it: how many times have you taken a relationship with someone further—whether you became friends or lovers—because they were interesting to talk to? I’ve personally dated many a battleaxe because I found their minds incredibly entertaining. (Hopefully none of them are reading this.)

So, yeah, smart is sexy or at least attractive: humans are hard-wired to find it so.

Your step-by-step to sounding smarter in conversations

Now that we’ve established a little foundation for just why it’s so important to invest in your general knowledge, let’s sink our teeth into a step-by-step to sounding smarter in conversations!

Step 1: Seek out INPUT

Short Circuit input GIF

The first crucial step is to fill your brain with information. This can seem intimidating. There are vast libraries full of books on every topic that ever existed since the universe first blinked into existence. And maybe you don’t yet know what exactly piques your interest. Well, the key word there is “yet” so it’s time to make a start, which you can do by:

  • Reading. Anything. Even cheap paperback fiction will improve your vocabulary, take you to far-flung places you’ve never heard of, and introduce you to characters you can learn from. But try some non-fiction, too; perhaps centering on emotional, financial, or cultural, etc. challenges that hit close to home for you. Check out this Ultimate List Of Books That Will Make You Smarter by BookBub.com.
  • Listening to podcasts. Whenever you spend your time doing “non-thinky” tasks—like working out, driving, prepping supper, cleaning, etc.—put on a podcast about something you find interesting. Need inspiration? Check out College Info Geeks’ hit list of the 40 Best Educational Podcasts, which covers top history, finance, philosophy, wellness, entrepreneurial, arts, career, and culture podcasts. (My personal favorites are TED Talks Daily and Ologies.)
  • Searching “documentaries” on Netflix (instead of rewatching Schitt’s Creek for the third time). There are some really great documentaries covering a myriad of topics on popular streaming networks like Netflix. From true crime, the rise (and controversy) of social media, and conservation to nature, travel, and feats of human performance: if you’ve got to “Netflix and chill” you may as well learn a thing or two while you do so!
  • Exploring your city (and others). Pack a lunch and hit the streets of your city to learn more about it. Take in an art gallery, a museum, the library, or some popular historical landmark or attraction. Visit the oldest pub, the tallest building, the longest street, or whatever. Even just trying a new restaurant or cuisine will broaden your perspectives and experiences. And if you can afford travel to other cities and countries, DO IT. Travel changes you in ways that are hard to replicate and it’ll be money well spent!
  • Talking to people outside of your immediate social circle. Every human being in the world is a walking, talking vestibule of knowledge and experience, and through their stories, they can offer you a window on all manner of new and wondrous things. So start talking to people: the next time you go out with friends, find a new person to talk to or try attending an open mic night for poetry or storytelling. Join a book club or volunteer at a home for the elderly, where everyone has at least 7 decades of cool sh*t to share!
  • Learning with Brainscape. If you do NONE of the above, let our collection of Knowledge Rehab, Street Smarts, and Vocab Workout flashcards at least be the thing you do to improve your worldly knowledge. They are a comprehensive collection of general knowledge flashcards—completely FREE with every Brainscape account—and they are, by intentional design, the most efficient and effective way you can quickly improve your baseline knowledge of the world.

And because Brainscape is such a powerful tool for learning, we have dedicated the next step to showing you how to use it to its full potential!

Step 2: Develop a daily habit with Brainscape

Art general knowledge flashcards
Brainscape's web study experience: Our 'Knowledge Rehab' collection contains a deck on art, which drills you on some of the most important and influential artists in human history.

Okay, so you know those snatches of free time you often find yourself with throughout the day? Five minutes in a grocery store queue; 15 minutes waiting for the bus; five hours waiting for your spouse to get ready to go out…

Well, Brainscape is all about taking that time and repurposing it to get smarter rather than what we usually do, which is scroll social media or stress ourselves out by checking emails.

It’s as simple as opening Brainscape (App Store | Google Play) and tapping the ‘study button’, which’ll unleash a steady stream of facts covering everything you should know about the world around you, from history’s greatest artists, classic authors, and the names of the common birds in your backyard to basic first aid, survival skills, and the capital cities of the world’s countries.

[Check out Brainscape's general knowledge flashcards here.]

Suddenly, that wine menu becomes demystified because you know the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc; you understand better why the Mona Lisa draws millions of visitors to the Louvre in Paris every year; and you know what to do when you get lost in the woods (again).

Brainscape general knowledge flashcards
Dashboard for Brainscape’s Knowledge Rehab collection

With Brainscape, you’ll learn need-to-know facts about ALL of these subjects and so many more, which will unlock vast worlds of intrigue, curiosity, and connection between you and the humans you mix with.

The key is to study a little bit every day. Heck, even just 3 minutes of flashcard practice, every day, will accelerate you towards your goal of having smarter conversations.

Pro Tip: One of Brainscape’s AWESOME features is ‘Smart Study’: a single ‘Study’ button that, when tapped, delivers an unpredictable mix of flashcards from across all your subjects (but you can toggle its settings to deliver content from specific subjects, like Knowledge Rehab, Street Smarts, and Vocab Workout).

What this does is eliminate ALL the work of getting started, which is always the hardest part of learning! Just hit ‘Study’ and Brainscape will automatically drill you on your weakest areas, while occasionally reviewing the content you’re more comfortable with.

You’ll also get useful stats and metrics to guide you, as well as habits and tips from the Brainscape team to make getting smarter truly effortless.

Right: now that we’ve covered the biggest and most important steps to getting smarter, which is acquiring knowledge, let’s now turn our attention to some of the smaller, though no less important steps you bear in mind as you boldly pursue a life of learning!

Step 3: Follow your curiosity down “the rabbit hole”

It’s easy for me to tell you to “start learning things”. And while Brainscape has curated a baseline education for you to start with, you should also think about what interests you and follow your curiosity down the rabbit hole of that subject.

Whether it’s sports, birdwatching, economics, natural disasters, trains, astrology, politics, or conservation… identify your interests and focus your attention on learning more about them.  Even if they’re super esoteric or super vague at first (“Hm, why IS everyone losing their mind over cryptocurrency”).

The reason I suggest this is because pursuing something you’re already interested in is the most sustainable way to kick off (and stay on) your learning journey. If you’re just researching a subject because it’s trending, you’ll soon lose steam.

Not all subjects are going to pique your interest and THAT’S FINE.

Step 4: Never be afraid of NOT knowing things (or asking questions)

The stupidest I ever felt was (ironically) when I was in college, studying science. Theoretically, you’d expect me to feel really smart, right? I mean, there I was learning about electron valences, general relativity, and fluid dynamics… I should have had a God complex, no?

Let me tell you: nothing humbles your brain quite like staring into a telescope at the inky, eternal blackness of Space. And yet we all have to start somewhere.

My point is: there is NO shame in not knowing. Instead, use that—your burning knowledge gap—to propel you forward. Don’t hide for fear of looking ignorant. No one expects you to know everything about everything, so ask questions. Become a seeker!

Step 5: Use stories to connect people with your interests

Sometimes, YOU’LL be the one answering questions, rather than asking them. And what better way to introduce other humans to your interests than through stories? Stories are awesome for conveying information that other people might otherwise have no context for or connection to.

For example: hail. Who gives a crap, right? Well, to some, hail is crunchy snow. To the residents of Vivien, South Dakota in 2010, it was the literal apocalypse with hail the size of grapefruits (and bigger) smashing down on their cars and homes and heads.

It’s like a tribe of belligerent yetis had been unleashed upon the town who, in a homicidal craze, were slinging armloads of oversized icy grenades at every available target. And it was here that the largest stone on record was collected, measuring 8 inches in diameter and weighing in at 31 ounces, just shy of 2 pounds.

“Oh, dude, that’s still pretty light, though. I mean, I bench press 180 pounds soooo…those hailstones would just bounce off my swole body!”

Tell that to the average bullet, which weighs 97.8% LESS than the record-breaking hailstone I’m talking about. And, at fall speeds of up to 70 mph, that chunk of ice would punch a hole through even the thickest of skulls (or “swolest” of pecs, bro).

See what I just did there? I made hail interesting!

People love stories, especially record-breaking, history-making stories, and every subject has its fair share of outlier happenings that would intrigue even the most Neantherthal of audiences. But, you know, you don’t even really need to go to the extremes to intrigue another human. You just have to…

Step 6: Speak with passion

So often, people are embarrassed about getting excited over some obscure subject. They’re afraid that their fervor and passion will be interpreted as “nerdy”, to which I say that they’re probably right. BUT, here’s the thing. Joy is contagious. And watching someone speak with joy about a subject you may know nothing about is a wide-open, welcoming doorway through which you are so much more likely to travel.

And if the person you’re talking to isn’t interested in taking that step over the threshold, well then, find something else to talk about: or someone else to talk to. Remember, just because someone isn’t interested in a certain topic doesn’t mean they’re rejecting YOU as a human being.

A final word on having smarter conversations

The grand thesis of this guide is that the key to having smarter conversations is getting smarter yourself. But I do want to make one thing clear: I’m not talking about literally improving your native intelligence or IQ. (That’s kinda up to your genes.)

What I’ve been talking about is filling your brain with more knowledge so that you have more material to work with—and a more informed perspective to offer—when having conversations.

Besides, it looks like it’s not even possible to “level up” your brain to improve your native intelligence, which apps like Lumosity, Peak, and BrainHQ claim to do. In fact, they’ve rather controversially been debunked by replication studies, which show that the skills you acquire from “brain games” are NOT transferable to other areas… and this entirely defeats the purpose of doing them in the first place!

That’s like using an app to learn to speak Spanish—and nailing all the app’s exercises, quizzes, and streaks—but then not being able to speak Spanish in real life! (Which is kinda the case with DuoLingo.) If you can’t transfer the skills you’re working on in the app to real life or other challenges, what’s the point?

What Brainscape offers with its free collection of general knowledge flashcards IS transferable. Learning about some of the world’s most famous artworks and who painted them, or the names of the different popular spices and which foods they pair best with, or key historical figures of history, or the names of the most prominent celestial bodies in our night sky (and so SO much more)... these are all facts that, once learned, can be directly applied to your experiences in the real world.

What we’re saying is that you don’t need to have a stratospheric IQ to be able to change the knowledge aspect of your intelligence, and to subsequently improve your conversations.

More knowledge about the world shifts your perspectives, gives you more to go on, and makes your opinions and input more interesting. It opens your mind, expands your horizons, and allows you to extract joy from so many more things.

Being more interested makes you more interesting. And THIS will connect you with the people you meet—through education, out socializing, while traveling, and in life—in a most profound way.

Failing all of these wonderful benefits, it’ll improve your odds of winning your next pub quiz.