Are You Smart, or Clever? Here's How to Be Both

Last Updated May 5, 2011 2:02 PM EDT

Clever often beats smart. I should know.

Years ago I raced motorcycles. I was good in a small fish, small pond kind of way, winning plenty of races and holding at least one track record (even if only for about two months).

But there was one guy I couldn't beat. Conventional wisdom said I was better: Better equipment, better lap times, confident, and bold in a "sure, I've broken some bones and one shoulder does hang a little lower than the other but hey, chicks dig guys with scars" kind of way... yet he still beat me four races in a row.

Why? I was a smart, experienced rider. He was just as smart -- but he was also clever.

I'll spare you (and my ego) the details and summarize what happened:

  • At the first race I put in a textbook ride. On the last lap he surprised me and passed where I was strongest, killed my drive off the turn, and used lapped traffic to scrape me off my line into the next turn. He won. Lessons learned: 1) Sometimes you are weakest where you think you are strongest, and 2) Throwing a helmet greatly reduces its aesthetic appeal.
  • The next race he jumped out to a big lead and I purposely let him go, figuring he would kill his tires on an unusually abrasive track. Another textbook call, but he took advantage of clear sailing to run perfect, tire-saving lines and beat me by .012 seconds. Lessons learned: 1) Conventional wisdom often produces conventional results, and 2) You can love your tires but they will never love you back.
  • I led the next race, clicked off extremely consistent lap times, rode my own race and stayed within myself... until I had to work too hard in too many corners to pass too many lapped riders and made my back tire look like it ran into a cheese grater with an attitude. He knew the track and the competition better than me and purposely laid back to avoid lapping too many erratic riders too soon. Lessons learned: 1) Your biggest competitor is sometimes not the competition that matters most, and 2) Insulting a slower rider before he takes off his helmet and reveals a small, colored-in, teardrop tattoo below his eye shows a serious disregard for personal safety. (True story.)
  • By the last race he was completely inside my head. All I remember is I finished second. Lesson learned: Sometimes the best memories are the memories you manage to forget.
Biggest lesson learned? Clever often beats smart.
For the sake of argument, let's define smart as educated, trained, experienced, seasoned. Smart people can evaluate a situation and determine the right thing to do.

Clever takes smart a step farther, adding insight and a dash of the unexpected. Clever people evaluate a situation, determine the smart thing to do, and then go a step farther to determine a sometimes surprising way to capitalize on an opportunity.

In business terms, smart is the guy down the hall with the MBA who analyzes and optimizes your supply chain because you assigned him the project. Clever is the gal on the shop floor who comes forward to show how you can increase productivity 15% simply by sequencing jobs differently. (Another true story.)

The business world is populated by millions of smart people. Education, experience, resources -- there are countless smart people. To set yourself apart it's not enough to simply be smart. You also must be clever.

Fortunately, we can all be clever: It just takes the right frame of mind. Click to the next page to learn five ways you can proactively increase your cleverness quotient.

NEXT -> Learn how to be more clever

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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.