Ever been told you need to find a smarter room? Change your friends? At the very least you may have seen this quote (or a variation of it) doing the rounds on social media:
“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”
I’ve seen different versions of this quote attributed to everyone from ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, to various modern day authors and entrepreneurs.
So is it true? If you’re the smartest person in the room, should you find a smarter room? If you’re smarter than your friends, do you need new friends?
There are definite advantages to mixing with people smarter than you. There are also advantages to mixing with those less smart, or less experienced, than you. In fact, becoming a mentor can be highly beneficial to you as well as your mentees.
Teaching is often an amazing way to solidify your own learning. Professors, lecturers and coaches often report having their own ‘aha moments’ when working with students and mentees. If you’re trying to revise a difficult concept for an exam (a concept you kind of understand, but need to get clearer on), it’s often a useful strategy to try explaining it to someone who’s never heard of it.
Parenting is often a hugely rewarding (if challenging) process as we teach our children our beliefs and values, simultaneously cementing, exploring and clarifying those beliefs and values.
So there are advantages to not being the smartest person in the room, and let’s face it, no-one would ever become a teacher or professor if they thought being the smartest person in the room was inherently bad.
There’s a reason the quote above is so widely embraced and reposted though. There’s certainly a kernel of truth in it. It’s very easy to spend most of your time with a relatively small group of people who don’t stretch you, stimulate you or mentor you, because they’re at the same level as you.
This happens when you’re an undergraduate student and you spend most of your time with other undergraduate students. It happens when you work a job requiring a set level of training or education, and spend most of your time with your colleagues. And it happens when you spend all your time with your ‘default friendship group’: the group of friends you’ve known forever and feel comfortable with.
There’s nothing wrong with comfort, but if you spend your whole life feeling comfortable it’s a safe bet that you’re not growing, stretching yourself, taking on new challenges or doing any of the things that characterize successful and innovative people.
One drawback of being the smartest person in the room, or even being in a room with people who are all at a similar level of achievement to you, is obvious. It means your ideas, inspiration, and most importantly, advice, is coming from people who are where you are now (or where you’ve already been) not where you want to be.
Taking advice from someone who is where you already are, but don’t want to be, is madness.
This is perhaps most obvious when single people hang out with other single people, often lamenting their single status and (get this) giving each other relationship advice. It’s pretty obvious that if you’re single, and want relationship advice, you go to someone who’s had a long and happy relationship. If you’re reading a magazine article called ‘Twenty Ways to Get and Keep Your Ideal Partner’, and then see it’s written by someone whose bio states she lives on the Lower East Side with her two cats, that kind of makes you doubt that she really knows what she’s talking about.
Author Darren Hardy puts it well, in his book The Compound Effect,
“Never ask advice from someone with whom you wouldn’t want to trade places.”
It’s not quite that black and white, of course. If someone has just gone through a bitter divorce, and you want to avoid that, you could certainly ask him what he thinks he did wrong.
If you want to go beyond ‘avoiding mistakes’ towards ‘proactively doing all the right things’, however, you need to talk to the people who are already where you want to be, and ask them what they did that led to their success, as well as the mistakes they made along the way, and how they put them right.
Surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you is smart. Talking (and listening) to people who are where you’d like to be is highly beneficial. Learning from other people’s mistakes is less time-consuming than making your own. Many people feel that finding a smart, experienced mentor is the single most helpful step they’ve taken on the road to being successful.
But smart rooms have their limitations. One thing the ‘find a smarter room’ crowd don’t always consider, is that smart comes in different forms. During my career as a writer and publisher, I’ve taken advice from experts in writing, publishing, marketing, digital media, project management, productivity, creativity and many other areas. An expert, by definition, is someone who knows a vast amount about not very much (usually one specific topic). The person who knows a lot about one thing will know nothing about others. In my experience, some of the best rooms are collaborative rooms.
So hang out with the smart kids, by all means, but don’t neglect everyone else. Friends of all types can be wonderful, comforting and helpful. Mentoring others can be satisfying and beneficial to you. Don’t be snobbish about the rooms you hang out in, based on the occupants’ intellect. Be aware you can learn all kind of things from people at all levels, including (if they’re self-aware and honest) what not to do.
Just be careful who you take advice from, and in which areas. The universe works on the laws of cause and effect. There are a few variables thrown in, of course, but, as a general rule, if you don’t want to be where a particular person is, don’t ask that person for advice. And try to avoid the truly dumb rooms. They do exist, and unlike smart rooms, collaborative rooms, and regular rooms, they tend to make everyone in them even dumber.