Why You Should Be The Smartest Person In The Room More Often

Nov 13, 2020
Created by the author — original Photo by Miguel Henriques on Unsplash


Solve this riddle:

10 people enter a room to fix a problem. Each person leaves as soon as they realize they are smarter than the others. What’s the result?

A lonely room and no solution.

“If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room” — Confucius

This mantra has been repeated by several leaders from Michael Dell to Marissa Meyer but it has a dark undertone. Nothing screams elitism more than not wanting to be surrounded by people you think you’re above.

The original concept guards against ego but now it feeds into hustler mentality. The idea is you always need to be climbing upward and interacting with people better than you. Yet why should these people help you? It’s selfish to want to learn from others when you wouldn’t do the same in their position.

It’s time to stop mindlessly following such clichés. This extends to any attribute or skill. Sometimes being the best in the room is an incredibly rewarding opportunity. A growth-at-all-costs mentality isn’t the only way and rejecting Confucius’s argument is the first step.


Pass on the Kindness You Have Received

When I was at the peak of my karate career and in the UK National Squad, I still went to my regular classes and helped out. I certainly wasn’t the best in the squad but I was far more advanced than those in the normal sessions. Yet I loved the easier classes as I could pass on knowledge and encouragement to newer students to speed up their growth.

People like to think everything they achieve is because of their own hard work but it’s a lie. We all stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us. Every success I’ve had in my life is because of the people who gave away their knowledge and time for free. If I lock my neck looking upwards only at those better than me, I disrespect all those people who looked down and saw me as a diamond in the rough.

It is the disadvantaged who lose out when we break the chain of helping hands. Malcolm Gladwell showed this effect in Outliers where the gulf between children from different economic backgrounds grew as they got older. The smart kids were put in one room and continued growing whereas the others stagnated. The only way to stop this is for someone to cross the divide and help those at the bottom. Why shouldn’t that person be me or you?

If you truly want to change the world, find a room where you are the smartest and lift everyone else up. Do good for others and the research shows it will boost your own mental wellbeing too.


Everyone Can Teach You Something

I remember helping one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met whilst in a previous job. He had been holding his mouse down for 10 minutes to drag a formula down a spreadsheet. I double-clicked on the corner of the cell and auto-filled a million cells and it blew his mind.

It’s impossible to look at people on paper and decide you can learn nothing from them. Few skills are completely linear where someone more advanced knows everything someone less experienced knows. There’s more information out there than we could ever be expected to know and it’s constantly being updated.

Let’s say you consider yourself a hotshot developer. There’s no way you’ve kept up to date with every minor update in the last few months. The trick is maintaining what the Japanese call shoshin which translates to beginner’s mind. Rather than convince yourself you’re better than everyone else, see if you can learn from them. They may look at a concept through a lens you never considered.

The beauty of humanity comes in how our interests overlap. You may be the best marketer in a room but someone else might be the best salesperson and another could teach you how to surf! By interacting with others who you are superior to in one area, you can open yourself to learning in another. I’m sure Barack Obama could teach Stephen Hawking a lot about politics and the favor could be returned about physics.

In the worst-case scenario where nobody provides you with inspiration, the act of explaining concepts to others itself will help your understanding. This concept has been studied by Dr. Barbara Oakley, creator of the Learning How To Learn course, where the act forces our brains to make deeper connections.


The Danger of Humility as a Virtue

You’re in a room and someone has a heart attack. There’s one doctor but she doesn’t put her hand up because she doesn’t want to seem like a know-it-all.

Another variant of the smartest person in the room advice is more about perception than reality. It encourages people to silence themselves so they don’t seem arrogant to the others and it doesn’t matter if you’re actually the most qualified person.

I want to challenge this toxic idea. It has the largest impact on the people who want to be liked and no effect on people who are truly arrogant. There’s no honor in purposefully withholding information that could add value to others. It wastes time and could lead to less desirable outcomes. Speak up and spread your knowledge.

If you’re the expert in the room then people will want to hear your ideas. Look at the number of views on TED talks or the number of non-fiction books sold. Explore the enormity of advice articles on the web. We want to hear from the best. Would you feel happy listening to someone mediocre speaking and later finding out there was a genius sitting right next to them?

This isn’t a license to dominate every conversation but if you believe you have something valuable to add, don’t deny others the opportunity to learn from you. Sometimes picking a room where you are the most informed means you can leave everyone else slightly better off.


What to Take With You

I’m making the bold statement that Confucius was wrong. Don’t run for the escape route if you find yourself above the others around you. See it as an opportunity to expand your mind and the minds of those around you.

If you practice a beginner’s mind then you can learn from anyone and maybe make a lifelong connection. You may find you inspire someone earlier in their journey to greatness. It’s your choice.

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Amar's Letter

Real talk on driving impact as an imperfect human.