‘Be smart,’ ‘Don’t be stupid’, ‘See how smart Tony is’ – these are a few phrases that our parents have repeated to us like a broken record since early childhood.

Being smart and acting smart are two different things, but the key question is how do we tell the difference between acting smart and being smart for real?

Several books and blogs have been written highlighting the ‘steps to smartness,’ but being intelligent is not exactly like taking up a guitar class. Smart people have specific characteristics and practices that they put to use every single day of their lives, both personally and professionally.

Let’s look at some of the common characteristics possessed by highly successful people:

They take risks.

Tom and Harry both graduate from the top university in their city. Tom decides to work for the best CA firm in the city, while Harry decides to pick up the latest edition of Lonely Planet, a few books, and sets out to travel the world. They meet again after two years, and while Tom has all the quantitative knowledge of what’s happening in the financial world. Harry flaunts his newly-developed Spanish accent, and stories from all over Europe – the people, the culture, the lifestyle. Smart people do not limit themselves. They are open to risks, challenges, and transformations. They thrive under such conditions.

They’re open to learning.

It is only normal to walk into a room feeling like you are the best. In fact, most confidence-building exercises will ask you to do just that. However, you must also tell yourself that you are there to learn something new. Learning can happen any time and at any place. Be proud of who you are but never be egotistical about it. Your ego can close all doors of future learning, and this way you will be no better today than you were yesterday.

They question, a lot!

You often hear teachers and mentors say, ‘no question is ever silly’. Drop the fear of presenting yourself as naïve. The smartness is not in the ability to answer every question, but in the questions that you seek answers for. The trick is not to ask questions to demean anyone or prove a point but to engage your audience in an inquisitive brain-storming activity.

Know the art of disconnecting.

The need to constantly engage via social media, emails or phone calls kills half of the time you can spend learning a new skill or reading a good book. Take time out for yourself, if not on weekdays then on some weekends, and sign up for that yoga class you have been dreaming about. Disconnect from the outside world and analyze yourself. Make a mental checklist of your shortcomings or improvement areas and work on them. The world won’t collapse if you didn’t respond to that Facebook message for half hour (unless it is a signal from an alien who is planning on attacking the world).

They don’t follow anyone blindly.

Don’t follow anyone at all for that matter. When you restrict your mind to follow one person or be inspired by a single principle, you close the doors of your mind toward hundreds of others. Take inspiration from everyone around you, your teachers, your mentors, your kids, and even your neighbors. Most importantly, believe in yourself first and foremost. Know that it is your dedication and hard work that has the ability to put you on the same threshold of those highly intelligent people you admire.

Embrace failure.

Winston Churchill once said, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” Failures are the only sure shot way of learning something. Fall seven times, stand up on eighth. You are not done when you fail, you are done when you quit trying. Face your failures and your fears with a firm fist and a smiling face. And, remember, success comes to those who embrace their failures.

Smartness is not a luxury. Intelligence is not eternally a God’s gift. However, it’s almost always a combination of your inner ability and your efforts. It’s not for you to show off but to cherish and nurture. So, if you think you are doing the opposite of any habit on this list, replace the habit with one of the few we mentioned above. Remember, you still are the best but its imperative that you be better than the best.