The Smartest Person To Ever Live

Sometimes, learning new things feels pointless. When I open up my phone, I experience two distinct feelings. One is that there is so much stuff that I don’t know and probably won’t ever have the time to know. The other is frustration at how stupid a lot of what I see in my feed seems.

I just finished reading But What If We’re Wrong by Chuck Klosterman, a book that highlights how human beings are remarkably terrible at predicting the future. We are often wrong in our predictions, and every year it seems we have decided to have a different opinion about history. Nothing is set in stone, and it is very very difficult to be right about anything.

When I sit in the bus in the morning, I usually consider two choices: I can read a book or I can listen to rap music. Reading feels like it is a responsible and conscious effort to learn something in order to amplify my life experience in some way. Listening to rap music just makes my bus ride way more enjoyable. 80% of the time I choose rap music. In my time traveling from point A to point B, I usually want to have a good time.

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At a dinner party this week, my friend J presented the argument that human beings exist solely to act through all of our animalistic instincts. Since human beings haven’t really evolved that much since we learned how to stand, our motivations aren’t that different from just trying to eat, sleep, and have sex. This seemed ridiculous to me, that the key to happiness in this instance would be to just revert to core hedonistic pleasures. Since we have the ability to have complex thoughts, shouldn’t our happiness be derived from our ability to use this gift? Then I think about my bus rides, and I am again confused.

I am also reading Wandering on the Way, a book on Taoism that suggests that the way for humans to be happiest is to surrender to the flow of the universe and the general “nature of things”. People who seek knowledge only get lost and distance themselves from nature, which in turn confuses them. This makes my choice to listen to rap music on the bus seem enlightened. Why would I fight against the flow of what I desire in this moment? Yes, reading on the bus may teach me something useful, but by forcing myself into an unnatural thought pattern, I will become confused and unhappy. I’d much rather listen to A$AP Rocky.

As a social individual, I receive what feels like 100 recommendations a week for books and movies. Because I am generally good at picking the things I am interested in, I say “no” to almost all of these suggestions. Even if these bits of media contained very useful information, someone would have to sell the book in a very tangible and specific way for me to be motivated to commit to it. At the end of the day, I do not want to push a boulder up a hill. I want to be a student of the things I can immediately use.

In college, I was obsessed with being the smartest person to ever live. I asked my cleverest friends who they thought they thought this person was. This was a fun question (the most common answer was Benjamin Franklin, followed closely by Jesus Christ1), but it led us to discuss intelligence and how it is achieved. My conclusion is that intelligence and time are intimately related. Our capacity to learn is severely limited by the time we have available to study. Thus, if we treat every single moment of our lives as an area worthy of study, we position ourselves to me the most intelligent we can possibly be. The cliché here is that every moment contains a lesson.

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There are many things that I put forth extra effort to study. Currently I am taking a 101 on investing and finance. I go out of my way to interview my entrepreneurial friends about how they run their small businesses. For about fifteen minutes every morning, I obsess over the question of how to responsibly use the internet. These are all things that feel immediately relevant to my life, and I spend time studying these things because at the end of the day it feels like play. When I am fully immersed in my work, even thought it is difficult, I am having about as much fun as I do when I am listening to rap music.

The more we know, the more we realize we don’t know. I have reached a point where I have been searching for “truth” for so long that I have poked my head out of the other end of the globe. I’ve concluded that life has as much meaning as you are willing to put forth into it. In the spirit of David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water speech to Kenyon College, our power as educated people is our ability to choose the lens through which we see the world. And it is my lens that the most important thing is usually what is directly in front of us at any given moment.

This is perhaps why my bus ride feels so meaningful. It is about a thirty minute trip from Eastlake to Pioneer Square. The bus is usually packed with people and I am often struggling with allergies and wondering whether or not the coffee has kicked in yet. If I find I seat, I will close my eyes and listen to music, lightly jostled by turns and stops. Regardless of what I choose, whether or not to “get ahead” in some studying or to unwind to some A$AP, I will arrive at Pioneer Square at roughly 9:25am.

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I have a dear friend who came to visit me in Seattle recently. Throughout his childhood and some of his adult life, he was told that he was stupid and unfit to attend school. I personally disagree with all of these claims, but this is very difficult for my friend to see. We rode the ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island together and talked about this and that, and I told him that he might be one of the smartest people I know. I told him this sincerely and he scoffed, “You’re pulling my leg.” But the truth is that I have never had such rich conversations with a person so willing to listen and to ask questions in a courageous and unashamed way. In a strange turn of events, my friend became a student of everything since he was told that he was never smart enough to understand anything to begin with.

Regardless of intellectual skill or achievements, we are all on the same bus or ferry ride. We will arrive at our destination at one point or another, and it is our choice to decide how we spend our Earthly commute. I don’t know what it is like to be the smartest person ever to live, though I know I’m trying my darndest to get there. Almost every great epiphany I’ve had has reinforced something I have heard over and over again. Strangely enough, it reminds me of a half-remembered X-Files quote: “I am afraid that God is talking all the time, but that no one is listening.” It suggests that in order to learn, we first must be aware that the coursework is everywhere.


1When people told me that they thought Jesus Christ was the most intelligent person ever to live, they often followed up by saying that he may have had an unfair advantage over most other human beings.

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