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What Makes You So Smart, Brent Beshore?

Noah Davis talks to the founder of about being smart, being dumb, and which one it takes to nearly get killed by a lion.
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An entrepreneurial streak runs in Brent Beshore's family. His great-great grandfather invented the bedspring, and his grandfather built the family company into a massive, multi-billion dollar organization. Today, Beshore runs, which was 28th on the 2011 Inc. 500 list. The founder and CEO frequently appears on lists of the best young executives. He talked with Pacific Standard about discovering the value of stillness, learning from his grandfather, and the time he almost got mauled by a lion.

I usually start these interviews off by asking people if there was a time in school when they knew they were smarter than most other people. But from a few emails we've exchanged and in reading about you, I'm not sure you think about yourself in that way.
There were interesting signs growing up about how smart I was. Every parent thinks their kids are brilliant, and I think my parents were no different. When I was five or six, someone told my dad that whenever he talked to me, it was like talking to his uncle. I've always been above average verbally and with communication. I was always talking and engaging with people. When my parents had people over, I would spend hours chatting with them. I always enjoyed that.

In third or fourth grade, my parents had me tested for one of those advanced programs. One day a week you got bused off with other smart kids. I thought it was cool because you got to leave school for a day, so I got tested. The examiner said they were the strangest results she had ever seen. I was off the charts in verbal and in the seventh or eighth percentile in everything else. I was like a brilliant moron. I didn't end up going to the gifted program.

That's the pattern of testing as I get older. I never made great grades until 10th grade. Someone mentioned to me that bad grades would keep me from going to a good college. It never occurred to me that I should try to get good grades. I've always seen grading and learning as different things. Grades are a game. How do you get somebody else to assign you a letter grade that reflects nothing you learn and everything that they wanted you to know?

The same thing happened when I went to law school. I was 99th percentile on the reading comprehension section. I was 92nd or 93rd percentile on the logic and reasoning section. Then there's this thing called logic games. There were five choices for each question and 25 questions. I should have gotten five correct if I just guessed. I got three correct.

If you define intelligence by the ability to communicate and the ability to engage with people, yeah, I think I've known from an early age that I have abilities that other people don't. If it's the ability to play a musical instrument, speak a foreign language, or put together a puzzle, I'm on the bottom of the barrel.

Have you done anything to enhance the abilities you don't have? Or have you naturally gone to the stuff you're good at?
I think we all tend to do more of the stuff that we are good at because we like it more. I don't quite know how the logic-games test translates into anything in the real world. I wasn't bad at math, and I wasn't bad at statistics. I don't know where that specific thing that I'm lacking appears in the "real world." I've never had anyone communicate to me what those actually test.

It's like a Mensa test. Sally can't sit next to Joey. Joey sits three seats in front of Billy. Where is Joey in the picture? I'm like, “I don't know.” [Laughs] When are you ever going to use that? I haven't ever had my IQ tested, but I'm sure I'm at mouth-breather level on those types of things.

Do you consider yourself a smart person?
I think it depends on the context. The single thing for me that I would say is a huge line in the sand between being smart and not is intellectual honesty and the search for truth. That kicked in for me somewhere in my 20s. I realized that the smartest people in the world were telling you every potential secret that you wanted to know. Everything that you were trying to figure out and struggle with, it turns out that you're not the first person to do so. And they are all written down. [When I was younger], I didn't look at it that way. I just felt like it was more garbage to read.

In reality, I just crave the ability to see inside somebody's decision-making process. How did they view the world and what are the frames of reference? What is the latticework of structure that they apply to how they learn? That clicked on for me, and since then I feel like my "smartness" has grown exponentially. There's that saying, "You're the average of your five closest friends," but I think you can also say that you're the average of the last 15 books and articles you've read.

You strike me as remarkably capable. Are you efficient?
I think I get a lot more done than the average person, but I think I am very inefficient in how I get things done. I feel like I waste a ton of time, although maybe waste isn't the right word. It's all in how you frame it. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are famous for saying that 90 percent of their day is spent reading and thinking. They produce really big, long-term results, and I think more and more that you can do that by being still most of the time and running like hell for a small portion of the time. I'm not trying to compare myself to Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, but I think people get caught up in the short term. There's a sense that you should run as hard as you can, even though it doesn't matter what you're doing. Just do. But take your time horizons to five and 10 years out, and ask what you want to look back on. It changes your daily output to lots of talks with people, reading, thinking, outlining, throwing away your outlines and re-outlining, and trying to chew through big issues about patterns and behavioral psychology.

"I've almost died by lion, a great white, and rhinoceros. That's a different level of dumb."

Have you ever read the book Flow? The concepts are so challenging. You have to sit there, chew on it, and re-read it. But knowing and understanding are totally different things. I think that's the biggest thing that I have come to realize on a day-to-day basis. Getting stuff done is one thing, but it doesn't help to run in the wrong direction.

What's the dumbest thing you've ever done? The time you got attacked by a lion seems like it would be up there.
I've almost died by lion, a great white, and rhinoceros. That's a different level of dumb.

Repeatedly through my life I think there's a pattern that if it seems like the right thing to do but it doesn't feel like the right thing to do, every time I've pushed forward I've been massively wrong. In terms of the dumbest thing, not listening to that gut-level feeling has been when I've screwed up. I've learned to trust that part of my decision-making.

I wrote a piece called "A Bad Boss in Recovery." There's a confession in there about being a really, really terrible boss. A really awful boss. I can't imagine if someone had to work for me the way I was five or six years ago. That's not to say I was the worst boss of all time, but I felt like I had to pretend like I knew everything or people would figure out that I didn't know anything. False confidence results in buying into your own bullshit and believing that you know more than you actually know. The single biggest mistake was falling into that trap. Thank god I had a lot of caring people around me who bitch-slapped me and got me to realize that I shouldn't be that way.

Do you have someone specific who you turn to for advice?
If somebody is thoughtful and has good motives that align with my interests, I really enjoy bouncing ideas off of them. But it has to be something that they are knowledgeable about. I learned early on that if somebody is really thoughtful and knowledgeable in one area, that doesn't necessarily translate into other areas. Most people put people into smart or dumb categories. Either you want to talk to a person or you don't. But it really depends on the situation.

On the business side, I'm really blessed to have a partner in a woman named Susanne Bylund. She's Swedish, speaks like six languages, has a masters degree in economics, been to law school, is way smarter than me, and reads more than me. She keeps me grounded. She's the person that I really hunker down with in terms of the really long-term business strategy. We spend upwards of four hours a week talking big picture.

My grandfather is someone who I really enjoy bouncing things off of. He just turned 85 and built a company from $4 million in sales to $4 billion. He had a lot of experience. He gives thoughtful, seasoned advice that's very transparent. He'll call me out on things and ask me about things like cash flow, long-term profitability, and accounts receivable. He would badger me in a way that was tough. That's what it takes to run a business. Learning that has been very, very valuable.

Your wife is a Ph.D., so are you even the smartest one in your family?
Definitely not. She's a Ph.D. in molecular micro biology and immunology, which is just nuts. When I met her, I told myself that I didn't even know they made scientists that look like that. I called her the “sexy scientist” to my friends before I knew what her name was. It ended up working out.

Who's the smartest person you know?
Peter Attia. He's a physician, elite athlete, obesity crusader, and an amazing guy.

What Makes You So Smart? is an ongoing Q&A series.