Do you want others to see you as smart, capable and successful?
I know I do.
From childhood, they test us on our knowledge, give us grades, equate going to a prestigious school with success. Then we get that great job and the cycle starts again, only on steroids. Indeed the whole “gerbil track” is geared around being seen as smart, capable and successful, and rewarding those who are.
And that’s the beginning of a slippery slope.
The Slippery Slope
The system leads us to want to be the smartest and best person in the room, where “smartest” incorporates being capable, successful and any of the other attributes society tends to ascribe to “A Players”. It’s addictive, heady stuff.
Then it becomes tempting – and even natural – to surround yourself with people where there’s a comfortable margin between you and everyone else.
That’s where the idea of surrounding yourself with “yes men” comes from. People who won’t challenge your worldview of being the smartest, most capable and most successful of the group.
The thing is, it happens gradually, so it’s hard to notice until one day you wake up and find that you’re left behind. That’s when you realize that the truly successful people have continued to learn and grow.
The Downsides to Being the Smartest Person in the Room
There are real downsides to allowing yourself to glide along this path toward being the smartest person in the room. Here are three in particular that can be showstoppers for your career.
When the chips are down, you’re on your own
When a truly big, complicated problem arises, you won’t have people to help you solve it. Instead, you’ll be expected to know everything. It’s like being the mighty and powerful Wizard of Oz (a.k.a. “smartest person in the room” of Oz) who turns out to be a quite ordinary – and lonely – person.
Ultimately, we all face the big gnarly problem that we can’t solve on our own, and that’s where your career starts taking a turn for worse.
You stop learning and growing
At a recent conference, I asked a fellow attendee how he was enjoying the event. His answer was, “We've discovered we’re more advanced than most of the people here, so we’re not learning nearly as much as when we first started attending years ago. So it hasn’t been great.”
That was telling. Here was a person who was basically saying that he and his team were now the smartest people in the room, and it wasn’t so useful.
While others might use this as an opportunity to gloat about being ahead of others, he was disappointed to miss the chance for greater learning and development. Given this mindset, I predict that his group will continue to stay ahead of the pack and do some great things for the world.
You top out in your career
Another version of being the smartest in the room is when you surround yourself with people who are great at executing on what you tell them, but aren’t otherwise as capable as you. One of my clients is dealing with just this issue with one of his direct reports, John (not his real name), who runs a major division of the organization.
John built his track record by being great at running the nuts and bolts of the operation. He did that by building a team he could trust to do as they’re told and execute on the plan… his plan. But now at this loftier level, John lacks the talent around him to drive performance at the next level, which means being innovative.
My client wonders whether John is too insecure to hire people who are independent thinkers and might challenge him. Or maybe he just doesn't understand how to build the right team. Either way, John is no longer seen as being on an upward trajectory and has topped out. Ultimately, that will probably put him at risk of losing his job.
How Will You Go Through Life?
As with all things in life, you have choices. In this case, it’s about being smart right now versus tapping into a way to become better and better.
On the one hand, you can do what we’ve been trained to do since childhood. Show how much you know and hide the rest. Find the group where you can be the smartest person in the room and settle for being smart right now.
Or, you can open yourself up to a lifetime of learning and growing. Someone who never wants to be the smartest one in the room. Someone who wants to become better by tapping into a room full of genius and inspiration.
That requires being comfortable with yourself so that you can be vulnerable and open to the new and unknown without feeling inferior. From personal experience, it’s hard to take that personal risk, but it’s well worth it. Plus, it’s one way to not fear getting older, because you can keep getting better!
The question is, how do you want to live your life?
Leave a comment and let me know.