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Smarty Pants

Once upon a time, employers tried to hire people who were already very, very smart. That wasn’t easy to do, as a quick glance at your company’s management team will prove.

These days, employers are more likely to hire people who could someday become smart, but aren’t right now. This makes recruiting much easier. For example, when it comes to recruiting for your company, a certain degree of cosmic dumbness is a requirement for accepting a job offer.

Can working at a dumb job make you a better thinker? The Wall Street Journal’s Sue Shellenbarger certainly thinks so. Her most recent Work & Family column is headlined, “How Your Job Can Make You Smarter.”

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Shellenbarger relies on a bunch of smart neuroscientists, whose research shows that “training in certain mental skills can build the brain’s capacity to process information and solve problems.”

This should give you hope, though I think we know there is little chance that working on your current job will lead to a Nobel Prize. That’s because to actually build up your puny brain cells “takes more than sitting down at your desk.”

“A person must be challenged and stimulated, tackling progressively harder tasks and reaping rewards as an incentive to keep building the brain,” explains Dr. Michael Merzenich, a researcher and author of “Soft-Wired,” a book on the practical applications of brain plasticity.

This pretty much excludes any chance of you getting very smart very fast, since the hardest task you take on is getting into the office every morning, and the only rewards you are reaping are the stale pastries you are able to fish out of the garbage after the morning staff meeting.

[Merzenich would love to go Dr. Frankenstein on your brain, I’m sure. It’s not every day a neuroscientist gets to work on a brain with the plasticity – and the IQ – of Silly Putty.]

But maybe there is hope for you and your brain. According to a 2014 study by researchers at the University of Texas and the University of Illinois, your ability in “blocking out distractions” could lead you to “perform better on tests of abstract reasoning.” And blocking out distractions is one of your best abilities. Don’t be modest! Your ability to block out the distraction of work assignments, criticism and interpersonal boundaries is unequalled.

Another brain-building skill, and the subject of studies by University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy Salthouse, tracks the benefits of “visualizing the movement of three-dimensional objects in space.” Your brain should really be able to benefit from this activity, considering the hours you spend at your desk, visualizing the movement of the 3-D objects in Victoria’s Secret videos.

Alas, it takes more than an active imagination to get smarter on the job. According to Merzenich, “the job has to matter to you. You have to be into it.”

In other words, to make brain-building work, you really have to work. This doesn’t come easy to a lot of people. As Merzenich says, “We have an early period on the job when we master it, commit it all to memory and say, ‘I’m good at this now,’ and stop advancing. And you slide backward.”

The good news is that you have been working at your job well past your “sell-by date,” and have never even come close to mastering it. So it’s impossible for you to slide backward. How can you slide backward if you never moved forward in the first place?

Another job activity that can improve your mental activity is to sharpen your perceptual skills and see what’s in front of you. Because if you could stop walking around in a fog and “engage in the world in all its details,” you could better “read colleagues’ mood and attitude.”

To exercise this perceptual muscle, assistant professor of management, William Becker, of Texas Christian University, encourages his students to keep “journals describing important conversations they’ve had.”

Should you become more aware of what passes for everyday life in your workplace? I think you should try. Why, I can imagine your first diary entry right now:

Dear Journal: Met with my team today and perceptually reading my colleagues’ mood and attitude. I am beginning to suspect that they are very angry and depressed. Apparently, they think I am not pulling my weight and that I am big drag on the team’s progress because I am a dumb idiot who only wants to goof-off, gossip and complain.”

See, it works – you’re getting smarter already.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@bgplanning.com.

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