On Being The Smartest Person in The Room…and Knowing When to Leave

Written By John Sonmez

There’s a quote that has been tossed around the online space in the past few years as a reminder of our strengths and limitations.

“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”

In the world of programming and development, that statement seems almost laughable. You spend your entire career working to be the smartest person in the room. When you are the go-to person for a particular programming style or fix in a specific language, you are indispensible.

Which is how most people build their expertise. Being the indispensable programmer in their field.

But what do you do when your skills are no longer cutting edge? When you walk into the office one day, stare at the new lines of code that got written while you were away, and realize that you have no idea how someone figured that out? Or even jumping on any open source community and seeing the innovative concepts those crazy kids are coming up with, and feeling like you are suddenly learning a new language all over again.

Suddenly, you’ve gone from being the smartest person in the room to feeling like (and maybe even being) the dumbest person in the room.

If there’s anything worse than being the smartest person in the room, it’s being the dumbest.

Knowing When You’ve Stayed Too Long in the Wrong Room…

Ever had a moment like this?

You’re sitting in a meeting, listening to everyone in the room drone on endlessly about inaccurate or irrelevant information to the task at hand. In fact, in your mind, you’ve already solved the problem. Now you’re itching to get back to your desk to bang out the necessary fix or update to implement and move on.

Though it is tedious, this seems like the best job security ever, whether you are employed by others or self-employed.

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Worse Than Poking Your Eye Out With a Rusty Spork

Therein lies the first issue with constantly being the smartest person in the room. It is an extremely tedious existence.

Sure, that sounds quite egotistical, but it’s what happens. You get bored, you get complacent, you can do this stuff in your sleep.

Slowly, boredom turns to half-heartedness, then half-heartedness turns to apathy, then apathy turns to depression or hatred. You can’t will yourself out of bed some mornings to have to deal with the idiots you are surrounded with on a near-daily basis.

That doesn’t sound fun, does it?

Of course, there’s the scarier penalty that comes with complacency, and that is eventual replacement.

Getting Taken Down a Notch

What happens, unfortunately, in most of these situations where you’ve slid down the boredom > apathy > hatred death spiral, is that people around you start to notice.

Wherein you used to be the revered genius of the office, now you are that angry old developer, shaking your fist, who wants all the kids off your technical damn lawn.

No one wants to work with the angry old fist-shaking person. People barely want to talk to that person.

So they go and find someone who has your experience, who isn’t so bitter. They come in all fresh-faced and dewy, and it makes you even angrier. They ever-so-gently correct your mistakes, and you want to throttle them, not in the virtual way. Suddenly, everyone around you realizes you used to be the smartest, but you’ve been replaced.

If you don’t leave the room voluntarily at this point, you might just get asked to leave against your will.

…and Knowing How To Leave

In Michael Dell’s commencement address at the University of Texas, he summed up to the graduates why this is so important, and how it transfers to everyday life situations:

“Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people … or find a different room. In professional circles it’s called networking. In organizations it’s called team building. And in life it’s called family, friends, and community. We are all gifts to each other, and my own growth as a leader has shown me again and again that the most rewarding experiences come from my relationships.”

No surprise, it can be daunting to strike out and go from the top to the bottom. Like I said before, no one likes feeling like the dumbest person in the room.

There’s something freeing that comes from that position, though.

Suddenly, you are free to make mistakes again. You can ask questions without worrying that it will make people chip away at your shiny armor. You can fall in love with the allure of learning about new things in a way that gives you excitement brain butterflies that you haven’t felt since you sat in university or online classes, first learning what all those 0’s and 1’s really do to computers and software.

In the writing and content world, thought-leaders and authorities often lament (publicly and privately) that they yearn for the days when they could share any old thought with the world to provoke interesting discussion and more frequently update. It’s a scary responsibility that comes when people start listening to you when you talk…or reading what you write.

As Dell notes, there are a number of ways to remedy the situation, by either finding a new room or changing up the members of your current room.

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Reverse Mentoring

I’m a big fan of reverse mentoring. Reverse mentoring often works the same way regular mentoring does, except instead of seeking out the older wiser mentor, you seek out a younger wiser mentor. This is a big ego swallow, finding people who are smarter than you with less time in the trenches.

Jason Lowenthal wrote a great article on ways to learn from these perceived novices, that digs into the process a bit more, but the quick TL;DR includes:

  • Seeking them out in online communities like Stack Overflow
  • Peer reviews and peer programming to learn about vulnerabilities and unnecessary complexities you may not be able to see or solve with your knowledge
  • Non-coding peer reviews, if you are looking to expand your knowledge into fields you may not be as experienced with, like writing or public speaking or social media

Team Development and Building

When was the last time your work team learned something new?

Like, really had little or no idea what the hell you were doing, but jumped in and created something new and awesome, that you weren’t expecting?

It was pretty damn exhilarating, wasn’t it?

I frequently work with my team to branch out and try new things. They're already smart, so I want to add more smarts to the room. When new opportunities or models come up in online content and publishing, I’ll post to our internal Slack channel, asking who would be willing to take the lead and research everything on it to either share or implement.

As a manager, I get a new product or feature to offer clients, which means more revenue in the company, which means more pay for the team members. From my experience both being a team member and leading a development team, people like it when they can make more money.

As a team member, when I was asked to work on these special projects, it was empowering and exciting. Someone placed their confidence in my prior abilities to be among the smartest in the room, knowing that I may start out with idiocy, but eventually work my way up to expertise that brings value.

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You are said to be the sum of the 6-8 people you regularly surround yourself with.

Since most of us without trust funds work at least 30-40 hours a week (1,560-2,080 hours in a year; 15,600-20,800 hours in a decade), it’s safe to say at least one or two of those people in your inner circle will be someone that you work or collaborate with.

Ever notice that often the things that annoy you most about others are the flaws that you see in yourself, but rarely dare to admit?

What if you found people who are really good at the things you struggle with? While some will choose to find people that are exactly like them, many find that complementary relationships are truly the ones that last here.

Marriages with lots of things in common, but many differences that encourage each partner to “be a better person” have a higher success rate than those where you end up together cause you like each other well enough. Friendships where one person is able to introduce you to new and exciting experiences will keep things fresh and save you from the doldrums.

Of course the luxury of being able to sit in sweatpants and not say anything to each other for four hours, and still be completely happy, is important as well.

Does It Really Matter?

Even after all of that, there are many out there who adamantly (I was going to write violently, but to date, I have never heard of a street brawl over this intellectual concept) deny this concept.

They feel that you should always be at the top of your game. The quintessential King/Queen of Your Own Hill.

There’s something to be said for that.

Yet the reality is that the world is changing, and technology is changing at a rate faster than we have ever seen before. Ruby/Rails is barely a decade old, and Swift is barely beginning to hit its stride as a two-year old toddler language.

Sure, it seems like there will always be a need for some of the old standbys like variations on SQL and C/C#/C++. HTML doesn’t seem to be going anywhere,, no matter how many sites switch to CSS and PHP structures.

Here’s the question to ask yourself though — when it comes to these specializations, are you TRULY the smartest person in the room?

Is there NO chance that someone else could show up at any moment who knows more than you?

Ask any monarch or ruling emperor from the past couple thousand years, and they’ll tell you. The worst part of being at the top is constantly wondering who is coming up the ranks and trying to take you down. At least that is what I learned from binge-watching The Tudors and Reign.

If you rest on the laurels of being the smartest and the best, you have no recourse when someone proves that you aren’t.