Don’t be the smartest person in the room

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The best advice I was ever given was never be the smartest person in the room.

It’s easy to think that wisdom is something that comes naturally over time. It’s not. Hack the heck out of it.

‘Challenge yourself every day’. You’ve probably heard someone famous say something like this once. There’s an easier way to do this: Let the people around you challenge you every-day.

Let’s be honest: This is tough.

We are ACSians. We are used to being in the position where we are already one of the best. The idea that we have to actively seek out people, and be in situations where we are inferior, is uncomfortable.

And it should be.

Because this is something we also know: The harder we challenge ourselves, the better we perform. We know the best is yet to be, but the best comes only when we keep pushing ourselves.

There is a spiritual aspect to this; To be humble is good, and there is nothing more humbling than forcing yourself to be the inferior in the group.

Like many things in life, the first time will be a terrible experience; you’ll come to love it.

So how do we do that?

Be in the right rooms

It always surprises me how simple this is. Where would the people who share your passions be?

Whether it is art, business or politics, there is always a place they will tend to be, and topics they will tend to discuss.

I really liked geopolitics and international affairs, so I joined a think-tank.
I really liked startups, so I talked to people about startups and went to startup events.
I really liked understanding people, so I found philosophers.

I became obsessed with ideas, and people who shared that obsession responded.

Reach out to people.

I have cold-emailed and had coffees with CEOs, ministers and politicians.

I write cold thank-you emails to writers, journalists, and professors whose work I admire. Some reply and we chat and meet.

I have met people from drivers to billionaires.

A cold email on LinkedIn got me the job I have now.

Find out how they became the smartest guy in the room. The interesting thing I’ve found is that the advice was never really about ‘Learning X, or achieving Y’. It was almost always about how to structure your own thoughts, emotions and courage.

I learnt that the best question to ask has always been:

“And how did you react?”

As an aside, realizing that these highly successful and intelligent people are also human is an incredibly powerful tool for yourself. You begin to see the patterns in how these people think. Sometimes, achieving great things is actually a lot easier than it seems.

In this vein:

Find a mentor. Write down things people say. Wonder if you might have done the same thing they did.

You will never feel that you have made any progress. But on a quiet day, when you realize what you now know, and what you can now do, it will be a good day.

Thanks for reading.

Chia Jeng Yang, Class of 2011. Working for Rocket Internet in Sri Lanka. Among other things, he is now trying very hard to automate his room and wake-up routine.

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