Don’t Be the Smartest Person in the Room — Stand Next to Them

The fastest way to get what you want

Photo by Marcus Platt on Unsplash

The fastest way to get what you want is to be around the people who already have it.

When you hang out with fit people, you’ll work out more. If you want to make a million-dollar deal, meet with people who make million-dollar deals. This may sound obvious and, yes, we’ve all heard the saying that “you are the average of the five people around you.”

Yet, in our quests for money, love, and happiness, we often spend most of our energy trying to change ourselves rather than our environment. We worry too much about the incremental changes we can make — and too little about how much the people in our proximity will rub off on us.

Take intelligence, for example. We all want to feel smart. We want confidence, respect from others, and, let’s be honest, the occasional smug face to indulge in. There are two common strategies we use to try and attain these feelings.

The first is to work really hard to improve whatever combination of natural giftedness and acquired knowledge you have. You can learn new things in your spare time, stay up to date on your industry, and play games that’ll keep your mind sharp.

While this is a good baseline, and we should exercise our wits regularly, it can also spiral into an obsession with being “the smartest person in the room.” But you’re just one person! Of course you have a limited perspective. We all do. We’ll never know everything, and it’s liberating to admit it.

The second strategy is to jump into cold water and surround yourself with people who’ll blow you out of it on a daily basis. This is the delayed-gratification version of the first strategy: You accept the discomfort of being below average for a while to emerge stronger later. “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room,” they say.

While this strategy acknowledges the influence others have on us and is a good addendum to learning as much as you can, it comes with its own flaws.

Noah Kagan was the 30th employee at Facebook. He says it was the biggest growth period of his life and that a lot of what he does in business today goes back to that time. But he also admits it was hard: “I was the most insecure. I was the most self-conscious on a daily basis. To be put in a place where, every day, I’m feeling retarded sucked. It sucked.”

There is, however, a third strategy. One that’s based on humility and that’ll neither drive you towards being a conceited jerk nor make you miserable for feeling stupid on a daily basis.

The late Harold Ramis, known for playing Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters, once articulated it this way: “Find the most talented person in the room, and if it’s not you, go stand next to them. Hang out with them. Try to be helpful.”

For Ramis, this meant writing and directing movies his partner Bill Murray would star in. He knew he didn’t have the same charisma and on-screen energy — but he did have the skills to elevate those of his friend.

James Altucher frequently echoes Ramis’ advice: “Stand next to the smartest person in the room.” He suggests other examples of people who did this are Steve Jobs, who sold Steve Wozniak’s creations to the world, Craig Silverstein, the first employee at Google, and Kanye West, who was mentored by Jay-Z.

When you’re busy trying to find the smartest person in the room and observing what they do, you don’t have time to worry about how smart or dumb you are in relation to others. You’re focused on supporting someone strong, someone who might be able to lead you where you want to go.

Everyone wants to be a leader, but, like Derek Sivers says, it takes guts to be a first follower. It takes courage to admit that, “I’m not the smartest here, but I can help the smartest get us all over the finish line.”

For most of the rooms you’ll enter in life, you’ll neither be the smartest nor the dumbest. Therefore, neither ferociously trying to outcompete everyone nor wallowing in constant self-pity are sustainable long-term strategies.

Instead of worrying about your place in the hierarchy, worry about how being part of this particular group will affect you overall. Switch groups if you must, but always think of ways to support those around you. If they win, so will you.

The fastest way to get what you want is to be around the people who already have it.

Find the smartest person in the room, and then stand next to them. You won’t know where they’ll lead you tomorrow, but in the long run, they’ll always take you where you want to go.

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I write for You. That’s my promise — and the name of my daily email full of inspiration, smart ideas, and emotional support: https://youletter.substack.com/

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