My Secret To Success: I'm The Dumb One

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I think one of the reasons I’ve done as well as I have is that I’m often the least talented guy in the room.  But I sought that room out.
Now, it’s a little bruising on the ego to be the dumbest and least talented person in any group of folks.  You do feel intimidated, and maybe underaccomplished, and certainly feel a tremendous pressure to shut up, geniuses are talking.  The temptation is to leave these scary smart folks and seek out a group of people more on your level, where you won’t feel so far behind.
Here’s the trick, though: you only get the high-level advice when you talk to high-level people.  You might hang with a crowd of average joes and have a great time, but at the end of it you’re all working off of the same rough knowledge base.  You’ll exchange a few helpful tricks, since everyone has strong points – but it’ll take you longer to ascend to the next level.  Because those folks aren’t in the top tier, and they don’t know how to get there any better than you do.
So find a bunch of people who are really good at what they do, and try to learn directly from them.
But here’s the terrifying part.  When you’re among the brilliant, you don’t want to seem dumb.  So your natural temptation is to shut your mouth and nod, trying to pass for a genius.  But that won’t work.  Things will go over your head.
No, to make headway, you must actually admit your ignorance to them.  When you’re confused, say you’re confused.  If they’re talking about something you don’t know, say you don’t know what it is.  And while some folks will sneer, in my many years of experience using this trick, I’ve found that most people absolutely love to explain things to other people.  It makes the explainer feel smarter, and knowledgeable, and helpful – and if you hang around geniuses, what you soon learn is that many of them feel every bit as insecure as you do.  As long as you don’t ask for an explanation after every sentence, you’ll get along fine.
So what you get by hanging out is explanations by very smart folk, who often want to share their knowledge because it gives them a warm glow.  I’ve spent years behind the 8-ball – hell, I married a woman who is probably double my emotional IQ – and the progress I’ve made has been astonishing.
As such, I’ve made it my plan, whenever I can, to hang around people who are way above my pay grade.  And to be the dumb one.  Because to be the dumbest guy in a room full of smart folks is often a lot smarter than being the smartest guy in a room of dummies.

5 Comments

  1. Scott Van Essen
    Feb 26, 2013

    When I play sports, I like to be the second worst person on the team. That way, I still feel like I’m contributing, and like I’m not dragging the team down too much, but I’m pushed by my teammates’ performance to elevate my game.

  2. Mark
    Feb 27, 2013

    Nice essay! I have to agree completely. The times I’ve started working a new job after college, I’ve always felt like the dumbest guy when starting at a new position and this made the starting period always the most fun as you keep improving, but also the most unnerving because it’s somewhat hard to be the dumb guy, especially when you came from a position where you knew what you were doing very well.

  3. Kathryn Scannell
    Feb 27, 2013

    Really great advice. It works. I’m on an entirely different career track because seven years ago I called up a manager who came to the office where I was working to show off his new database and GIS tool, and how it could save time for us. I thought it looked like a great idea, so I called him up after he went back to his home office and asked what I would need to know to become part of his newly forming team. That lead to him essentially offering me an apprenticeship within the company, and a whole new skill set.

  4. Alexis
    Mar 1, 2013

    I love this post. It’s so true! I’ve gotten the best advice when I’m with people out of my league.

  5. Maria
    Mar 6, 2013

    You’re crazy-good.

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