I have a confession to make. I use the word “confession” liberally here because — if you who know me — this probably isn’t news to you.
Here it is: I’m not that smart. I never have been, really. Actually, I’m not a very good writer either. Or very funny. Or a good photographer. Or singer (though I do love karaoke.) And, even though it’s my chosen profession, I'm not an especially talented designer either.
I've known all of this — for a long time. I’m a quick learner though, and a dedicated worker, so I’m able to get by. But, when push comes to shove, I’m a bit slow to get noticeably better at things. And I’m ok with that — as long as I am getting better. I’ve learned to play to my strengths and work on the rest. Slowly though. So slowly.
That’s not to say I’m totally dim-witted. I’m smart enough to have realized I’m not that smart. I’ve also figured out ways to be successful, do good work, and — most importantly — I’ve learned to work smarter and get better.
The first requirement of improving, at anything, is practice. You want to be a better singer? You need to sing. Want to write well? Put your butt in a seat and write. But, there is another way. Always surround yourself with people smarter than you. It can be humbling, but it provides a great way to learn.
I’m hardly ever — no, actually— I’m never the smartest person in the room. And that’s usually by choice. I actively seek out people I can learn from. As the saying goes: “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”
If you have the confidence to hang out in the right room, you’ll find the smartest people won’t always be older than you, or more senior than you or even more educated than you are. You can — and should — find people to learn from in all sorts of odd places. Often they will learn from you too. One of my favorite ways to learn is by teaching. Sharing your expertise with someone sharp — but less experienced — is a great way to discover holes in what you know. The questions you get asked are often gold mines.
It can be anyone who forces you to stretch yourself in unforeseen ways, and often such people don’t reveal themselves right away. So keep a keen eye out.
You’ll recognize them when they make you squirm a bit.
Seek out people who challenge you, question you, and make you question yourself. I like to be around people who, like me, have a problem with consensus. Consensus is for losers and should be fought against whenever possible. Smart people know this.
I also look out for listeners. People who will engage and ask questions. The harder the questions, the more uncomfortable they make you, the better the chance the person asking them has something to teach you. The goal is to be challenged.
Get comfortable with feeling like you don’t know what you’re doing. Feeling lost is a sign you’re on the right track — that you’re learning and growing.
You want to be in your un-comfort zone.
Once you’ve found your un-comfort zone, do what you can to stay there.
Start by working hard, but not too hard, being quick with a helping hand and nice to people — without being a pushover. Hard work, people skills and a willingness to learn new things can take a person far in work — and in life. I’d say, these traits make up for a lack of smarts in most cases.
At some point you’ll probably find that you’ve “leveled up” or, at least, learned enough that you begin to feel comfortable and complacent. If that happens, and you start to feel a bit antsy, it might be time to seek out new experiences — and new people with a different type of intelligence to learn from.
This doesn’t mean blowing everything up and starting over. You don’t have to leave your job, or quit your friends or anything like that. Just mix things up. Take on a new project, work with different people in your company, go to a conference, volunteer. The key is to keep growing and stay engaged.
For me, being bored is the last thing I’d ever want to feel. When I do find myself feeling bored, it’s a clear sign I need to change things up. Damned if you do, bored if you don’t, I always say.
Change can be a great thing. If you get stuck, move on to the next, most interesting experience you can find. Jump into your un-comfort zone and start learning.
It’s never easy, but it’s always smart.