What to do when you realize you are the dumbest guy in the room

I’m often not the smartest guy in the room. This has been true most of my life. In high school I was in honors classes, but far from the smartest in the class. I went to college at Georgia Tech. While I may have been in the middle of the class in high school, at Tech, I was near the bottom for sure. Even now with 48in48 or Sideways8, I have to recognize that I’m often not the smartest person in the room. So, what do you do when you realize you are the dumbest guy in the room? Or, when you at least realize you aren’t the smartest?

  • Befriend smart people. In elementary, middle school, high school, and college (and today) David was one of my closest friends. He is brilliant like few people I have ever known. I can honestly say that a portion of my grade point average throughout all grades was due to his patient tutoring and great friendship. Being friends with him made me, and continues to make me, a smarter and better person.
  • Learn from others’ experience. I met my friend Jeff about four years ago. I introduced myself because I knew that he had been where I want to go, and we became great friends. I can honestly say that I learn something from Jeff weekly, and frequently ask questions that draw on his experience.
  • Be open and ready for input. Having a posture of openness is key. If you are ready to learn and grow from the rest of the smart people in the room, you will. In fact, I would argue that once you realize you are the dumbest guy in the room you have an advantage because you will be more open and ready for change than everyone else.
  • Speak carefully. This doesn’t come naturally to me. I have run off at the mouth one too many times and, fortunately, have learned to stop. In a room of smart people, speaking too quickly can go south fast. When I’m in that situation, I try to listen carefully and speak carefully.
  • Commit to learning. There is little more sobering than that moment when everyone is talking over your head. But, I also think that is a great moment to use as an encouragement toward more learning and growth. When I first started Sideways8, I remember being in all kinds of meetings where people were using terms that were jibberish to me. After those meetings, I would go and google the terms that they used so I would know the next time.
  • Piggyback. This is a practical tip. If you are in a meeting and lost with the conversation, wondering how you might contribute to it, piggyback your comment on someone else’s. To do this, make sure you listen carefully and long enough until someone says something that makes sense and connects with you. Once they do, add to their comment in some nuanced way that adds some value. You still may be underwater with the conversation, but at least you have contributed in a meaningful way.

I confess that I don’t typically think I’m the dumbest guy in the room. In fact, I rarely think about intelligence in general. But, I do often recognize that I’m in over my head in certain conversations. That was what prompted this post. I think we all feel like the dumbest guy in the room at times, though I doubt it is true for any of us. Hopefully, these thoughts will help you to navigate those moments. They help me more often than I care to admit.

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