4 ways to be as smart as Sam Seaborn

Sam Seaborn – intellectual inspiration

Sam Seaborn, what a legendMy top pick for a TV show I could watch for days on end? The West Wing. My favourite character from that show (not an easy task, that – it is full of brilliant, complex personas)? Sam Seaborn.

I thought I wasn’t particularly unusual in this, but apparently in fan and tabloid ratings Sam often doesn’t hold his own against some of the other heavy hitters in the Bartlet administration (including the President himself). However, those of us who idolise Sam do seem to fall into a handful of camps. Some see Sam and wish they could find a partner that loving and passionate (not to mention rich, I dare say). Some see Sam and want to mould their entire lives based on his examples (I’m talking to you, Jessica at Hello Giggles). Me, though – I see Sam and I ask “How could I become that smart?”

Now, what that says about my personality I couldn’t say – we’ll get some insights from my future therapist at some stage, no doubt – but assuming I’m not the only one with this question in his head, let’s look at some possible answers.

Here’s a list of four things I think Sam does to be as smart as he is:

  1. Read lots
  2. Work long hours
  3. Never consider it beneath you to debate a point with someone, no matter who they are
  4. Don’t settle for ‘good enough’

Read lots

Any time the camera pans to Sam in his office, he’s always doing one of two things: writing or reading. The writing is the bulk of his job at the White House, but it’s the reading that’s the important bit. To be able to comment intelligently on a topic, you’ve got to be well-informed about it, down to the level of being able to quote the fundamental statistics. And not only that, but Sam’s value also derives from his ability to link themes together, something that rests on him being widely-read.

Sure, there are other ways to absorb information – TV reports, being briefed in person – but reading is one of the most versatile and efficient means. Plus, I’m sure Sam would say that reading good writing helps him to create good writing, which is a nice spillover benefit.

Work long hours

This seems a bitter pill to swallow for me, as I’m still clinging to the idea of a permanent work-life balance, but clearly Sam gets so much done in the day partially because he is at the office for more hours than most people are even awake. And it pays off – he says that at his former job at a law firm, he was raking in over $400k, and at the White House he is directly shaping policy (as Ainsley Hayes quickly learns). Be that as it may, though, it still comes at the price of his social life and sleep patterns.

Never consider it beneath you to debate a point with someone

Whether it’s the President of the United States, a 19-year-old intern from the Audit office, or incorrigible Republican Ainsley Hayes, Sam never shies from an intellectual challenge. And he does so in full combat mode, too, chasing down whatever piece of legislation or archaic tome he needs to support his argument. This isn’t just to his credit as a liberal who practices the sort of egalitarianism he preaches – any would-be Sam Seaborn should relish the constant opportunity to sharpen wits against a worthy opponent.

Don’t settle for good enough

Have you heard the expression, “It’s good enough for government work”? Well, apparently Sam Seaborn hasn’t. Even the menial task of writing a birthday message to the Assistant Transportation Secretary can’t be put down until it is perfect. Not content with the ringing applause following a speech he wrote, he laments that there was no standing ovation. He views every piece of prose, every oration, and every policy initiative as an opportunity to shift the world into a better orbit. And that, I suppose, could help to explain why he’s able to commit to the first three points…

Overheard at Toastmasters

At an evaluation contest yesterday:

To make your speech even better, you should work on the preciseness of your language…

Needless to say, for the rest of the meeting I could barely concentrate – too busy reliving that moment and savouring the perfect irony!

A present from the past – my time capsule

Lena and I were cleaning out the garage yesterday when she came across something we had completely forgotten about:


A time capsule! Prepared and hidden away by a much younger Daniel (whose handwriting is so similar to mine as to be almost indistinguishable). How it ended up in our garage in Alexandria rather than in the roof of young Daniel’s house is a story unto itself – stay tuned for that tale in a later blog post, maybe.

Anyway, it turned out that young Daniel had done an amazing job of sealing the time capsule. We had to bust out the can opener to get it open, removing the bottom of what was formerly a shortbread tin:


Inside were all manner of treasures! What a discovery:


In case it’s not obvious from the visual, an inventory:

  • a photo of young Daniel
  • a mother-of-pearl shell (so pretty)
  • a Remembrance Day poppy
  • one of my favourite marbles (I just loved shiny things, okay?)
  • some stamps
  • a term program from my local church youth group
  • the comics and front page of the newspaper from the date of the time capsule’s creation (31/12/2002, as it turned out)
  • some seeds from Cosmos Sensation flowers sealed in an old TAB ticket (Dad used to collect them to use as scrap notepaper)
  • a letter

The letter ran to two pages, and had some good things to say. No testable hypotheses about the future, sadly, but the whole package did yield some interesting insights, of which a couple were:

  1. My sense of humour was just about fully developed by the age of 12. I have a better grasp of irony now than I did then, but other than that present Daniel and past Daniel would find one another hilarious.
  2. I was unbelievably investment-minded, even then – thus the stamps. I haven’t looked up their market value yet, but I feel like past Daniel might be disappointed with how little they’ve appreciated in the intervening 12 years…
  3. I have no idea about botany whatsoever – I’ve optimistically planted the seeds, but could not tell you at all whether they’re likely to grow. Would love to hear any advice you have on this front, to save me from disappointment.

Hope you liked taking that trip down memory lane with me and my time capsule. If you’d like to do something similar but don’t quite have the energy to make a physical time capsule, check out something like futureme – I highly recommend sending yourself a message in the future.

Three ways to optimise your language learning

Learning a second (or third!) language is a fantastic experience, and opens the door to a host of experiences you otherwise would have missed. But the learning process is both tough and time-consuming. So, unabashedly revelling in my economist nature, I’ve got three tips for you to optimise your language learning – saving you both time and effort.

  1. Doch indeedGrab yourself a frequency dictionary early on in the language learning process. As implied by the name, a frequency dictionary lists the most commonly used words in a language, enabling you to focus your attentions on increasing your vocabulary in ways that will quickly yield big dividends. Do note, however, that a frequency dictionary is not a substitute for a normal dictionary – you should definitely buy both.
  2. Speak the language you are learning. Find as many opportunities as you can – with a native speaker if possible. Meetup.com is the perfect place to look for fellow language learners, and universities often have casual conversation groups you can attend. One vital piece of advice, though: it’s not enough just to go to the group and listen to other people. You’ll start seeing big gains only when you step up and join in the conversations yourself. And yes, that means you are going to make mistakes – that’s an unavoidable part of the process. Plus, although those gaffs are slightly embarrassing at the time, they make for great stories later…
  3. Practice every day. It’s tempting, particularly for the time-poor among us, to think that putting in an hour of practice twice a week will be much better than doing 15 minutes per day. Unfortunately, two things work against this: diminishing returns, and human nature. Diminishing returns means that your ability to concentrate on language learning will decline after about 15-20 minutes – so it’s better to do a lot of short, separate practice sessions rather than one long stint. And humans like patterns and routine – it will be a lot easier to stick to a commitment to practice every single day rather than a more flexible schedule. To help me with this, I use an app called Streaks – it’s amazing what lengths you find yourself going to in order to avoid breaking your perfect run of days!

Hopefully those three points help take your language learning to a whole new level! If you liked this post, Lingholic also have a list of the best language self-study methods available.