The Smartest Person in the Room: What I Wish I Knew Then

Performance evaluations are nobody’s favorite experience, with the possible exception of a small population of masochists. However,  I did enjoy one from a department chair who began,

Unlike most new Ph.D. ‘s who believe that they are smarter than God, AnnMaria ….

My assumption of less-than-omniscience began with my graduation from the University of Minnesota with my MBA when one of my professors counseled all of us,

When you get your degree in the mail, read every word of it, turn it over and look on the back. Notice that nowhere on there does it say, “I now know everything.”

Even with that very sage advice, there are a lot of things I thought I knew back then that turned out not to be true. There were other things that I didn’t even know that I didn’t know. Here is a random list:

  • If you are the smartest person in the room and a jerk, people will use your technical skills if they cannot avoid it, but they still won’t like you.
  • A lot of jobs can be done perfectly well by someone smart, it doesn’t have to be the smartest person in the room.
  • No matter how brilliant you are, there is a point where it won’t be worth the pain in the ass of putting up with you. (A manager once said this to brilliant friend of mine as a word of advice and I’ve always remembered it.)
  • When you are the smartest person in the room, find a different room! When I was young, I was afraid that other people would be smarter than me (doctoral students at research universities are a competitive bunch).This year I’m going to SAS Global Forum, the Joint Statistical Meetings, the Western Users of SAS Software conference, an advanced predictive analytics course and a grantee meeting in D.C. My point in going to all of them is to hang out with people smarter than me who I can learn from.
  • You’ll run into people who will tell you that you are not all that smart because you aren’t an expert COBOL programmer, don’t have a masters degree in mathematics or any one of a thousand things. No matter whether it is knowledge of structural equation modeling or how to code in Perl, there will be lots of things you don’t know. When I was younger and people (almost always men, for some reason) would say that, “You’re not really a techie / engineer / entrepreneur because you don’t have X.”  I’d feel bad and think they were right. Thirty-two years after my MBA, I have had a ‘long and storyed career’ – or at least that is what someone said who introduced me at a talk I gave. I’ve been an engineer, programmer, statistics professor, founded  or co-founded three companies. I still run into people (still mostly men) who act as if I’m an idiot because I don’t know Perl (I still don’t) or whatever it is that makes them feel they’re the smartest person in the room. The difference is my attitude. I realize I’m smart and they’re jerks. (Refer to my first point.)
  • When you make a mistake and think that the more experienced people must think you’re a jerk or a moron that is almost never true. When I see a young person make a mistake, whether it is a technical problem or just acting like a jerk, I usually feel bad for them and inwardly cringe remembering when I was that age and some really stupid things I did. Yes, there are people who, when you make a single mistake will consider you a bad person or not very smart. Those people are assholes. Who cares what they think?

The rocket scientist went straight from graduate school to being a white Anglo-Saxon capitalist war-monger (well, he was always white). He worked for the same company until he retired. I was the opposite. I worked at a lot of different jobs. Most of my life, I held two full-time jobs (or more) at the same time. Two things worked for me. Your mileage may vary.

  • Take a job based on how much you expect to learn. Every job I have ever had I learned A LOT. There have been jobs when I didn’t like my supervisor, salary, co-workers or working conditions (fortunately, not all in the same job) – but in every position I have ever had, I have learned a great deal and been grateful for the opportunity to work there.
  • Don’t be afraid to walk away. In a book that was required reading in graduate school, “Business as a Game”, the title of one chapter was, “Never play with a stacked deck”. If you realize that you won’t get the raise, promotion, corner office, travel budget for conferences, respect – whatever it is that’s important to you – leave. If you really are that smart and what you want is reasonable, you’ll be able to get it somewhere else.

And finally, there is this … 

I once worked for an employer who when I asked for something said,

“The view of management is that in this economy, people should be happy just to have a job.”

I thought to myself,

“Well, that’s sure the fuck not MY view!”

I left that job for a position that paid a lot more money and that I really loved. That experience reminded me of Seth Godin’s blog. He talks a lot about gifts and how a  company receives your gifts says a lot about the relationship. If you work late, that’s a gift. If you do a great, not just acceptable, job, that’s a gift. If that is just taken for granted, or not even noticed, that tells you something.

The other night it was past 1 a.m. and I was still working on a project for a client, because I was interested in the problem and wanted to find the answer. I thought about some of the organizations where I had worked that placed a big emphasis on everyone coming in at 8 and “working” a ten-hour day. Personally, I come into work around the crack of 10:30. Sometimes I worked from home because that’s where my stuff is, it seems a big waste of time to drive in rush hour traffic to work on a computer when I have plenty of perfectly good computers here, plus there is that getting up in the morning thing.

my old desk

My boss (who was the greatest) had done back flips to get me flexible work hours, telecommuting, a travel budget and a bunch of other things that were “not company policy”.

One day, as I had just sat down at my desk at 11 a.m. and was drinking coffee trying to wake up enough to do something productive, I heard another manager ask my boss,

“How do you know she is working?”

To which my boss answered,

“You know that system you log into every morning? She wrote it. That’s how I know.”

The secret to a successful career, I think, is to be smart enough to know your own worth, and work with people who know it too, without believing you’re always the smartest person in the room.

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  1. Awesome point of view, thanks you for sharing. Really like your perspective on taking a job bases on how much you expect to learn. Did a quick mental review of my varied (storied?) work history and almost every one of my endeavors has taught me a great many things, just never looked at them from the perspective of what I was going to learn.

    On a completely different note, I noticed that you mentioned a trip to DC this year. Would it be possible to pencil you in at Sport Judo with Mo? Would love to have you visit again.

  2. As you say, “jobs can be done perfectly well” by someone who is not the smartest. Sometimes the non-smartest person completes the job better/faster because he/she possesses skills unrelated to raw brainpower.

  3. Hey, Jeff –
    Yes, I’d love to see Maurice again. He and Kirsten both called the night Ronda was fighting to wish her well. That was so nice of them. I think the meeting in D.C. will be in June but I don’t have the exact dates yet.

    And Rick – sometimes the non-smartest person completes the job better because they’re not bored out of their mind or seething with resentment like Marvin the Robot.

  4. AnnMaria–

    Love it! I’m going to have my judo students (the ones old enough) read it. Great wisdom. Luckily I was long ago disbused of the notion that I was the smartest person in the room! I, too, have held a variety of jobs and learned so much for each one.

    BTW they think Ronda is so cool–they have watched all her fights on Youtube and are amazed that I know you.

  5. Fantastic post. I currently work for a company where the owners feel that everyone should just be happy having a job right now, and that nobody needs personal time, or a reasonable paycheck, or human decency, or…

    I have been looking for the exit for more than half the time I have been there, a little over a year now. The sad thing is that this COULD HAVE BEEN a really great job. I could be putting in extra time of my own free will just because I am engaged in what I am doing. I like what I do, but the people I do it for have poisoned it for me.

  6. I know exactly what you mean. The place where the manager asked how they knew I was working if I wasn’t at my desk was the exact same way.

    My boss was great but he pretty much had to buck the whole establishment to get me telecommuting, flexible hours (I didn’t even find out until later how much effort it took). I am the type of person to work a lot of extra hours just because I am interested in a problem. I eventually ended up working somewhere else for more money and better working conditions. It was too bad because as you said, that organization COULD HAVE BEEN a great place to work with a little effort.

    Attitude of management (except for a few people like my supervisor) was “The economy is tough. What are you going to do?”

    What they failed to understand is that it is always a good job market if you’re at the top of your field. So, all the outstanding people left and the mediocre ones stayed.


  7. This was my favorite post so far, probably because it is so perfectly related to my wife’s career. I was writing a post describing how all this relates to her so well, but it was embarrassingly long. One point I can’t stop myself from commenting on is “Don’t be afraid to walk away.” This has served my wife well (and not just for money).

    Most recently she walked from a job she loved (for complicated reasons) and is now having a go at starting a consulting company with a partner. AnnMaria, I’d love to know if you have any recommended reading related to this. My wife is very technical, and I think you and her may be similar in many ways (though you definitely have a more smart-assed sense of humor). I’m not asking about specific things related to what my wife actually does, but more about the unknown/unexpected things that might come up when you run your own consulting business. No worries if there’s no particular book(s) you’d recommend, but you always seem to have good advice so figured I’d ask.

  8. I don’t have anything particularly witty to say, just that this made me laugh out loud and made my day. I can’t wait to share it, and wanted you to know. You have so many fans here at SAS and now I know why!

  9. Love, love, love this post. I’m saving it for my son (now 7) for when he enters the workforce. Being approachable is so important. It really is true that nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

  10. You make my day. Every single post that I have ever read that you have written, lifts my spirits or makes me laugh. Thank you so much Annmaria. Can’t wait for the laughs in Orlando!

  11. That’s true, Beverly, but you also have to know something. I’ve also worked with people who cared deeply about the students, mission of the organization or whatever but were not very knowledgable. Although they didn’t always do more harm than good, they never did that much good.

  12. Well you may not be the smartest person in the room, but you are certainly in the running for the most interesting. Really enjoyed this post!

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