On being the dumbest person in the room, and thriving-ish

We’ve all heard the saying, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” Presumably, this means that if you’re the most intelligent and/or accomplished in a business, you won’t be able to learn or grow much. I also imagine it’s very difficult to be in a room full of people dumber than you, so getting the hell out of that room is astute advice.

If someone is the smartest person in the room, someone else is the dumbest. And while this person likely has the most opportunity to grow and learn, they also need to work ridiculously hard to appear semi-intelligent in a room full of type A geniuses. I know this, because I’m this person.

The dumbest person in the room: A memoir

So let’s rewind. Am I really the dumbest person at my company? Probably not. But at times, especially at the beginning, it certainly felt like it. Right after being hired at the startup that currently employs me, I went to the team page to read a bit about my new coworkers. Then I spent the next 30 minutes hyperventilating and trying to figure out how the hell I managed to trick them into hiring me.

My coworkers were and are impressive specimens. Many of them have Ivy League degrees, enviable resumes and great big city connections, and I’m still convinced they’ve fit in several lifetimes in their young lives. Meanwhile, I have an unrelated degree from a state school, where I earned an average GPA. Before starting at the company, I was a freelance writer for eight months, and before that, I was a mediocre tax accountant for 18 months. Coming from the middle of nowhere Midwest, I was without impressive connections or sophistication. How the hell did I get hired and how the fuck was I going to hang on to my job?

That particular hyperventilating session was almost two years ago now. I still have my job. I’m even *gasp* valued in my position. And although I still feel like a country bumpkin impostor on the regular, I’ve done well enough to transition to a more specialized role and have enjoyed multiple raises, while almost sounding like a competent human being in meetings. Almost.

How to thrive when you’re the dumbest person — or close to it — in the room

Alternative subtitle: How to avoid getting fired even though everyone around you is clearly more qualified.

Be bolder than others have to be. You may wonder how I even got my job if I’m the “dumbest person” there. Funny story: I actually got turned down when I applied. Deciding that I really had nothing to lose, I countered that I disagreed with the assessment that I wouldn’t be a good fit. Maybe it was my boldness, or maybe I just badgered them into submission. Either way, I got the second chance, and ultimately, the job. YMMV, but don’t be afraid to throw the Hail Mary to get your foot in the door. What do you have to lose?

Emulate people who are way smarter than you. Once you’re hired, talk to people who have the job or the work ethic or the know how you want. You may have no clue what the fuck they’re talking about at first, but listen and eventually you’ll catch on. Maybe. Follow them around like a stage 5 clinger and do what they do.

Let go of your fear of feedback. You aren’t doing everything right. In fact, there’s a good chance that you’re doing most stuff in an mediocre fashion at best. Ask your managers and peers for feedback. Ask for more feedback. Don’t fish for compliments, dig for criticism. The goal is to learn, not to be coddled, so listen to what they say and get better at your job. Even when you think you’re right. Even when you’re convinced that your output was so good that you’re god’s gift to [insert your profession here]. Put on your big girl pants, eat a piece of humble pie and learn, even when it sucks.

Fake that shit. Over and over again. Eventually, you hear yourself saying something in a meeting, and you’re amazed that the words coming out of your mouth are intelligent enough to keep you from getting fired for another week. It’s surreal. And even though right after your semi-smart remark someone else will say something that makes you realize that you’re still a moron, you’re learning. Progress, not perfection.

Get smarter. Sounds obvious, but in case it needs to be said, you should probably aim to be smarter than the dumbest person at your company. Preferably way smarter. Read books and blogs, listen to podcasts and take classes related to your field. If you’re lucky, your company will pay for these learning resources. If not, it may still be worth it. Think of these costs as an investment in yourself and your work life. These materials should help you gain additional skills and/or make more money.

Being the dumbest person in the room is a great position to be in if you play it right. Be bold, get smarter and ask for feedback like your job depends on it (and it might). Work your way up to the top and then leave. Become the dumbest person in another room. Idiocy is underrated.