‘If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.’
This quote has been circulating around for a while and it is believed to have been coined around 2006 by James Dewey Watson, molecular biologist, geneticist and zoologist, best known as one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA in 1953 with Francis Crick.
The quote is used frequently in professional publications, on social media and at various conferences. At conferences it is usually followed by the speaker giving the audience a ‘gotcha’ look, to the great delight of all present.
While it is generally presented with good intentions, as encouragement to develop, grow and challenge oneself, I always feel a little uneasy when I see, or hear it. On closer analysis I concluded that, at best, it is a counterintuitive concept. At worse, I think it may land at the intersection of being patronising and self-delusional.
Consequently, I came up with my own version of the quote:
‘If you think you are the smartest person in the room, perhaps you are not as smart as you think, because a truly smart person will find someone in any room who could teach them something.’
Further, learning is not a one-way street. It’s not always only about what you can learn from others, or you can get out of a gathering. Sometimes it’s about what you can give to others.
Sharing your expertise, your knowledge and your wisdom. So, in the highly unlikely event that you do find yourself the smartest person in the room, and there is truly nothing that you could learn from the others, give a little and share your smarts around.
After all, expertise, knowledge and wisdom can be practically worthless if they are not contextualised and shared.
Collaboration is the sweet spot, the cradle of invention and innovation. If you allow yourself to live with the belief that you are the smartest person you know, you are likely deluding yourself and you could find that true invention and innovation will elude you.
And most likely so will friends and colleagues …