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How To Be The Dumbest Guy In The Room

2010 October 31
by Greg Satell

Everybody wants to be smart.  Intelligent people are admired by others for their ability to retain facts, complete crossword puzzles and maintain scintillating conversations at cocktail parties.  Nobody wants to look dumb.

That’s unfortunate.  There are a lot of benefits to being the dumbest guy in the room.  You get to encounter ideas that you never heard of before.  People can explain things to you that you don’t understand.  Dumb people can always be surprised and thereby discover new things.

It isn’t easy, though.  Being truly daft takes a whole lot of effort and courage.  However, it can be accomplished.  Read on and I’ll show you how.

Hire and Retain Really Smart People

The first thing you can do is hire really smart people, which is more simply said than done.  Those with tremendous intellectual horsepower can’t be lured with big salaries alone.  They usually have an inner need to be stimulated and achieve great things.  They’re curious about a variety of areas and don’t fit into easy categories.

Highly intelligent people also bore easily and need to be continually challenged.  You need  monitor not only their work, but also their energy level.  If they are left in the same job too long, their performance will eventually suffer.  Most of all, they need to constantly engage in freewheeling discussions with other smart people.

Very few managers attract and retain brilliant people simply because they want to be the smartest guy themselves.  Make no mistake.  If you are in a position of authority and can hire anyone you want, you should be the dumbest guy in the room.  Anything else is truly moronic.

Facilitate Connections

Another way to ensure that you are the dumbest guy in the room is to facilitate connections both inside and outside of your organization.  By helping your people to connect with new people and
ideas, you will ensure that they will know a lot of things that you don’t.

There are a lot of ways to do this.  Sending people to conferences is the most obvious, but by no means the only or the best way.  Simply making introductions and encouraging staff to get out and meet people can work wonders.

Increasing connectivity within your organization can also be extremely effective.  In the past, I’ve  used a variety of ways to get people mixing.  Graduate training programs can be a great way for young people to bond before moving on to disparate parts of the organization.  Best practice programs give up-and-comers a forum to show off their best work, while at the same time diffusing valuable information.

Unfortunately, many managers want to be the “face” of their organization themselves and so miss opportunities for their people to build relationships that will bring new knowledge into the organization.

Change Your Context

We all have our own areas of expertise.  Our experiences typically lend themselves to certain tasks at which we excel and make us feel satisfied and fulfilled..  Over time, we develop a comfort zone that’s hard to break out of.

I’m an unusual case.  I’ve worked in five different countries in a variety of roles.  Each new challenge has forced me to reinvent myself.  I’ve had to learn new languages, skills and cultures.  It’s often been difficult, however every new adventure has left me vastly better off.

Of course, when you find yourself learning and doing new things, you are going to look dumb and that’s uncomfortable.  It’s always easier to stick with what’s familiar, but if you don’t stretch you become a slave to your context.  Eventually, that paradigm will change and you’ll be left unprepared.

The Dumber You Look, The Smarter You Get

Marcus Aurelius once said: “A noble man compares and estimates himself by an idea which is higher than himself; and a mean man, by one lower than himself.” Jonah Lehrer makes a similar point in his book, How We Decide.  He cites a study where students who are told they try hard outperform ones who are told they are smart.

As we progress in our careers, our sense of self importance increases.  Others are more willing to listen to us and take our opinions seriously.  It’s natural to get complacent when respect is so easily won with a job title and an air of authority.

What’s much harder is to constantly stretch yourself beyond your abilities.  Inevitably, you will fail and look dumb.  Hiring and managing super-smart people makes you question your own competence.  Facilitating connections of others makes your own network less unique and changing your context is probably the most difficult thing you can do.

Yet the alternative is a mirage.  You can close yourself off and be the smartest guy in the room, but only at the cost of your awareness of reality.

The world is a big place, with lots of stuff in it.  If you are going to do more than just scratch the surface, you’re going to have to be the dumbest guy in the room sometimes.

– Greg

28 Responses leave one →
  1. October 31, 2010

    “He cites a study where students who are told they try hard outperform ones who are told they are smart.” It must be from Carol Dweck! She’s very good!

  2. October 31, 2010

    Right on the money. Good catch!

    – Greg

  3. Uncle Jimi permalink
    October 31, 2010

    Clever stuff Greg – I’d hire you if I had the money. Jimi.

  4. October 31, 2010

    Thanks, Jimi:-)

  5. October 31, 2010

    Hi Greg,

    Life is a learning process, both personally and professionally, and in my opinion, those who do not take advantage of this, will be the “dumbest guy in the room”. Great article – thanks for sharing 🙂

  6. October 31, 2010

    Thanks, Julie.

    Have a great week!

    – Greg

  7. October 31, 2010

    Interesting post Greg, Reminds me of my favorite quote from the movie Serendipity, “To improve in life, you have to be content to be thought stupid and foolish”. In my opinion, In this connected world, dumbness is more about being open and receptive to knowledge coming from divergent nodes…

  8. October 31, 2010

    Good point, Venky. I wrote a post about a similar idea a while back. Most great “discoveries” are actually make by synthesizing disparate ideas than by specific expertise:

    Thanks for your comment:-)

    – Greg

  9. Chris permalink
    November 1, 2010

    Great Article. Dweck is very good. Have you read anything from Ed Deci?

  10. November 1, 2010

    No, can you suggest anything?

    – Greg

  11. Gareth permalink
    November 3, 2010

    Interesting thoughts there Greg.

    Connectivity and status seem to go hand in hand nowadays, the more connected people are the smarter they feel. I’ve just read your article and feel smart although I actually am the Dumbest Guy in the Room, and it’s a very small room.

  12. November 3, 2010

    Fantastic! I’ll have to remember that one:-)

    Thanks, Gareth.

    – Greg

  13. November 12, 2010

    Great post Greg. My uncle gave me the same advice when I started my career. Though a lot of people agree to this philosophy, it is truly rare to find people who actually go on to hire people who are smarter than themselves……

  14. November 12, 2010

    Thanks, Mukesh.

    Hiring really smart people is indeed difficult and intimidating, but your uncle was right. If you are going to have a high performance organization, that’s what you have to do.

    – Greg

  15. November 25, 2010

    Now that is truly a brilliant article! And you are right- you, as a boss, must sometimes be stupid like a fox on purpose for everyone to cooperate with your business plan.

  16. November 25, 2010

    Thanks, Laura. Have a great holiday!

    – Greg

  17. Ed Tessmacher permalink
    January 16, 2011

    Oh, I so wish I’d read this years ago… I’ve noticed a really interesting (and discouraging) phenomenon in the workplace. Managers who feel threatened by their employees. One would think, (and it seems intuitive to think so) that a good manager would want to hire the people who would make them look good. However, when a poor manager gets an employee who can outshine the manager, that employee is made miserable. How does one go about making sure that they make their employer look good, and yet not be threatening? This is a dilemma that fits perfectly with this article…

  18. January 16, 2011


    You make an excellent point. I think the first and most obvious thing is to make good choices about where you work. Another important thing to do is always think in terms of what you can contribute before you think about what you’ll receive in return. Finally, try to be supportive of those around you (especially of your boss).

    That’s the best I can do. What do you think?

    – Greg

  19. February 13, 2011

    Hi Greg, Love your blog. Thanks again for enlightening me. – James

  20. February 13, 2011

    Hi James. Nice to see you again!

    I saw you started your own blog. Good luck with it!

    – Greg

  21. February 13, 2011

    Or tell everyone to leave the room 😉

  22. February 13, 2011


  23. Rohan permalink
    June 9, 2011

    Great points Greg,

    As a young potter I was placed on a vocational program with Neville Wison of Maldon Pottery in Australia, who was a great potter and an extremely interesting guy.

    At the end of my placement he gave me two pieces of advice, one was to always recognise the history of places, people and objects. The other was to work hard and play dumb, as he put it no-one ever learnt from being the smartest kid in the room!

    Thanks for your consistently enlightening thoughts.


  24. June 9, 2011

    Great points, Rohan!


    – Greg

  25. October 28, 2012

    Another way to find out how dumb you are is to work with a community… especially a rural one. We are doing that, bringing a fibre network to the homes, and are constantly amazed at the ingenuity and knowledge of the people. If you work with them you learn more than you could imagine, and its freely given knowledge. Grassroots has an untapped power that few take the trouble to harness.

  26. October 28, 2012

    Well said. Keep up the good work!

    – Greg

  27. Ed Tessmacher permalink
    November 5, 2012

    Please forgive me for being so blunt, but I think that’s foolishly optimistic and rather puerile advice. Most often, we have NO choice “about where we work” because we have to live in the workplace we have right now.

    We ALL have the right to not be treated like five-year-old idiots in the workplace. We ALL have the right to not be made miserable by someone who does it just because they can. We ALL have the right to not be bullied. We ALL have the right to expect that we won’t be punished, abused, browbeaten, and micromanaged, especially by someone who could not lead a three-year-old to the potty. And we should have the right to be able to speak up when faced with poor management.

    When one has the job, one owes the employer only one thing. A fair day’s work in exchange for an honest day’s wage. The employer owes the employee fairness, honesty, and respect. It is that simple.

    The job I held at the time I wrote my original post was slowly but inexorably killing me. I had more education, more experience, and more on-site knowledge than the moron brought in to manage the site. I spent three years being treated like an idiot. I spent three years being told how to do every little thing I had done the previous two years, and then be criticized for doing it wrong. I spent three years being told that my contributions were all wrong. I spent three years being told that everything I did was worthless. I endured three years of racial slurs, veiled threats, and covering for his incompetence. I spent every single day for three years biting my tongue, being threatened with reprimand, and being bullied. I had no recourse. Zero. None. I was told, in writing, that if “I ever crossed him, I would be written up, and probably fired.” Not only could I do my job better than the boss could, I could do HIS job better than he could. And he knew it. He once tried to correct me on something about which I had written in my masters’ thesis, and when I brought in a textbook the following day to demonstrate with irrefutable evidence that I was right, his only comment was “Seriously? You bring in a book just so you don’t lose an argument? Are you kidding?” He never acknowledged he was wrong, and never admitted I was right. So, out of self-preservation, I became a zombie. Doing only what I was specifically told to do, and nothing more. Only when I was told to do it. I gave nothing. I did nothing more than the absolute barest minimum I could scrape by doing, while exerting myself to the fullest trying to look overwhelmingly busy. I showed up exactly on time, took 5 minutes less than allotted for lunch, and left precisely on time. I never, ever went above or beyond. Not once. I paid lip service, I documented everything, and I even recorded conversations when possible. I also searched diligently for another job, submitting over 350 resumes and applications in a 19 month period. That’s an average of over 18 a month. I still have every one of them. For the three years he was there, he got less out of me than he would imagine. I did not one single iota of anything more than was required of me.

    Then, I finally got a job offer elsewhere. At 39% higher salary than my idiot boss was making. With no superiors. I gave one week’s notice, and haven’t looked back. An acquaintance who knew me back then just recently came to visit, and commented that I looked happier than he had ever seen me in all the years we’ve known each other. I am treated with respect by my colleagues, I do not browbeat or bully my subordinates, and I enjoy the confidence and praise of the board of directors for whom I work. They ask for my opinion and then accept what I tell them, usually with something along the lines of, “that’s great! why didn’t we think of that?” They show appreciation for my knowledge, my experience, and they trust my judgement. They treat me as I expect to be treated. They are fair when I screw up, honest when I make a mistake, and they are copious with their praise when I achieve the goals we’ve all collectively set. I was hired for my expertise, my knowledge, and my experience, and they expect that I will utilize and apply those gifts. I sometimes find myself working 14 to 16 hour days, and my family tells me that they’ve never seen me so excited about what I do. I’m happy and cheerful when I walk in the door.

    My only regret is that I tried to be a team player and not rock the boat when the insecure bully came on board at the previous job. I tried to show that we could work together. I didn’t stand up for myself when he started bullying me. If I had slammed the door on it when I first started seeing the signs, maybe I wouldn’t have had to endure the sheer abuse I had to take for three long years. Maybe he would have seen that he could not get away with his behaviour, and maybe he would have treated me with a little more common courtesy. Most likely, he would have written me up and fired me, because he is just that type. Toxic beyond belief. How people like that get into positions of authority is beyond me. Perhaps they play the game so well, and make themselves golden children so adroitly that their sycophantic behaviour makes them look good to upper management, because they’re geniuses as kissing ass.

    I would rather actually be the smartest guy in the room, be proud of it, and be recognized that I am the resourceful, knowledgeable problem-solver and critical thinker they expected when I was hired, than be forced to hide my light under a bushel and be utterly and inconsolably miserable, while living out my stress-shortened life under the thumb of a tyrant.

    So, Greg, please forgive me when I say that I know you meant well, but we all have the right to be treated like human beings.

  28. November 5, 2012

    Thanks for sharing.

    – Greg

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