You Are the Smartest Person in the Room, and So is the Person Next to You

I recently came across an imagine online with the following quote from happy_trader:

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

After the image, the contributor connected the quote to an experience as a teenager. A basketball coach advised to find the court where everyone is better than you. Surrounding yourself with people who are better than you will stretch and challenge you in ways that can make you better and stronger, the coach explained.

There is proverbial wisdom in such a statement. I’ve certainly experienced the wisdom of this quote in my life. Yet, the quote also served as the spark of a larger reflection about what it means to be the smartest person in a room. Three distinct reflections come to mind to help illustrate where this took me, and its implications for education.

Reflection #1 – What is Smart?

Several years ago I received an invitation to be keynote/featured speaker for a gathering of twenty or thirty University presidents. We met at a resort that was less than ten miles away from the physical space of the old Black Mountain College, a fascinating experimental college started in 1933 that lasted less than thirty years. Yet, it played a valuable role in gathering and nurturing the minds of an impressive list of faculty and students who went on to be a force of change and influence in the arts. The organizer of this group asked me to speak on a topic of personal passion that might also stimulate the thinking of such an impressive group of University leaders. So, I spoke on how startup culture and the spirit of entrepreneurship is influencing contemporary education.

I talked for a little over an hour followed by fifteen minutes of question and answer. The next morning I headed home. Sometimes when I speak, I walk away with a keen sense of how well it was received, whether it accomplished the intended goals. Other times I’m not so certain, and this was one of those times. It was a reserved group that did not seem quick to share their questions in front of one another. While I know several of these leaders personally and am the first to point out their wonderfully humble approach to leadership, it was hard to ignore the interesting power dynamic when speaking in a room like this, and that contributed to my uncertainty about people’s response to my talk.

A week later, I received an honorarium in the mail along with a postcard from the organizer of the event. The postcard from the event organizer who was a longstanding and well-respected retired President of an independent college on the east coast of the United States. Not including the exact words, it was only two sentences and said something like this:

Bernard – Thank you for sharing your insights with us. You were the smartest person in the room.”

I have a love/hate relationship with the idea of being smart. As readers know, I’m critical of traditional measures of intelligence through reductionist tools like IQ. Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences found its way into my thinking early in my career, and it continues to work on me, influencing many of my beliefs, values, priorities, and practices in education. When I’m around people who talk about how smart their children are on the basis of some objective test, I find myself managing a blend of anger and sadness, desperately wanting to offer an alternative way to think about the value and uniqueness of each child. I’m troubled when some University faculty instantly turn to the idea of raising admission requirements as the first solution to some academic problem with students, especially when that raised standard is on the basis of yet another reductionist set of criteria. At the same time, as a kid, I was drawn to every “boy genius” character that I ever read about or saw on the screen. I also loved the idea of being smart. I will admit that I am flattered by comments like what I read on that postcard. I don’t know if I’ve ever shared this before, but I kept that postcard on my desk for several years, looking at it for a boost of confidence when I felt like I needed it. After all, I was in a room with some of the most well-educated and influential people in higher education, and the person writing that postcard was a leader among such leaders. I respected his opinion, so when I found myself experiencing a moment of self-doubt, his confidence in my intelligence or ability served as a useful, albeit temporary, proxy for my own.

Was he right? Was I the smartest person in the room? On any number of measures, I was not, and yet it was affirming to know that someone appreciated my words and insights. What I really wanted to know is whether any of those words benefited others in the room. Did I have an impact?

Reflection #2 – Big Fish in a Small Pond or Small Fish in a Big Pond?

I’ve always been fascinated with the process of job interviews, and in my 20s, I loved to apply for jobs and interview. Even when I was not actively searching for new employment, I loved the interview process, the chance to meet new people and learn about another organizational culture. I found going through the interview process to be a great learning experience. I confess to dozens (maybe even hundreds) of interviews in my early years. After getting quite a few job offers, I realized that I was wasting the time of people if I was applying but not serious about considering the job, so I started to be more open about my level of interest, and yet many still called me in for an interview and even offered me jobs. I’ve often pondered turning these early experiences into a book, my personal lessons from two-hundred (I made up that number) job interviews. I especially enjoyed learning about the types of questions that people asked, which leads to this second reflection.

In one interview for an international humanitarian organization, the president asked me if I would rather be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond. I was in the habit of thinking out loud about such questions in interviews, and that is what I did in this case. My response went something like this. “Well, I love the challenge, adventure, and opportunity to learn that comes from a big pond. I guess, for me, the size of the pond is determined by the size of the mission and its potential impact, and I’m inspired by large and compelling missions, organizations that are going to lead a large and positive impact in the world. So, in that sense, I really want to be part of an organization that, in one way or another, is on its way to becoming a big fish in a big pond. Yet, I realize that this is not what people usually mean by this phrase. I’m just not sure how to answer the phrase in a traditional sense. Sometimes I’m the older, more experienced, more skilled person in the room, and that is an important role to play. Other times, I will be the small fish, and it will be my job to learn from and support the bigger fish. As long as it is a compelling mission and I’m growing, I can get behind it.

For me, it has never been about being a big fish or a small fish. It is about being a growing fish with a compelling mission.

Reflection #3 – You Are Always the Smartest Person in the Room, and So Is the Person Next To You

This brings me back to the quote that prompted this line of thinking. “If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.” I agree with the challenge that we want to stretch ourselves by being around others who exceed our capacity in one way or another. That is a great piece of advice that will serve many people well. On the other hand, maybe there is value in expanding our understanding of “smart” enough to recognize that you are always the smartest person in any room, but that the person next to you is as well. This is not some modern “every kid gets a trophy” statement. This is, I contend, an objective reality, if only we have the humility to expand our definition of what it means to be smart, excellence, intelligent, skilled, insightful, or even genius.

This is not some esoteric philosophical musing. This matters in how we think about and design education. Consider the implications if we truly reoriented ourselves and our classrooms to look at people and communities in this way.