Stop Acting Smart

Notice I didn’t say “stop being smart.”  I want you to be smart, to hoard both facts and experience.  Be smart and interesting — have something to talk about at dinner that doesn’t involve work.  Surround yourself with passions and interests and fantastic plans for the future.

However, don’t place yourself on a solitary peak by flaunting your intelligence.  Have confidence in your ideas and experience, but don’t use your smarts to make others feel small.  Stop showing everyone that you’re the smartest person in the room, and trying to intimidate others by the speed and flexibility of your intellect.

It took me about 30 years to realize how much this bad habit can stunt relationships and careers.  I didn’t realize that the recipients of my wisdom weren’t stunned into silence by the power of my smarts…they were really silently crossing me off the list of people they’d associate with in the future.  I had this nasty habit of making others feel small while building myself up, and didn’t realize how toxic that practice was to my relationships.

Others want to have a voice too, and no one enjoys feeling stupid or minimized.  While actively listening, asking good questions, and quietly offering ideas you can draw others out and make them feel both valued and part of the solution. There’s an art to bringing others along in your life’s journey, and it takes years of practice with co-workers and friends and family to master it.

But please master it, because it’s important.

I was reminded of this nugget of wisdom this week.  I interviewed someone who I would have loved to hire.  He was smart and experienced in his field; he had a good Rolodex of contacts and had worked in some great organizations.  He was amazingly smart, and had worked as both an engineer and as a sales person.  He was driven, intuitive, and he was really interested in working on my team.

He also spent a lot of time name dropping, listing off protocols and techno-terms, and implicitly telling me how smart he was.  I agreed — he was smart.  I wanted to hire him.  I wasn’t threatened by his experience or attitude — I always want to hire people who are smarter than me, who will likely surpass me.  It’s how I challenge myself to get better, and how I make my team better.

Everyone else in the loop interview hated him.  One person accused him of being a misanthrope.  One thought he had a sordid past and we needed to do a background check.  One interviewer just said he was arrogant and completely refused to work with him.  At that moment, I realized that there was no way I was going to get to hire this man…despite his intelligence and suitability to the role, there was no will to work with him.  I knew the team would not support the hire, and would not support this person if I hired them.  Despite being the optimal candidate from an experience and smarts standpoint, this candidate wasn’t viable.

I urge you not to follow in this person’s footsteps.  Polish your words and your expressions — and learn how to share your intelligence and ideas with others in conducive ways that make others feel happy to team with you.  Ultimately this principle is a key to success — because when you build others up, you will realize that they keep coming back to work with you, which builds your experience and creates a positive feedback loop.


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