There’s a great dramatic moment in the film Now You See Me, when one of the characters, a magician accused of theft, suggests his police interrogators are not up to the task of solving the crime. The magician pulls an amazing trick, throwing the handcuffs that seemed to be restraining him onto one of the officers while proclaiming, “The first rule of magic – always be the smartest guy in the room.”
It’s a clever moment.
It’s also pretty much the opposite of how I choose to live. There’s a saying, “if you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room (or deluded).” Being the cleverest person in your circle can feel good, depending on your personality, but you will really limit your chances of growing and learning unless you surround yourself with people who are smarter, better and more experienced than yourself.
You Are Who You Meet
“I read for growth, firmly believing that what you are today and what you will be in five years depends on two things: the people you meet and the books you read.”
It’s kind of pointless to talk about innovation, creativity and inspiration unless we are willing to orient our lives towards growing and expanding our abilities and our sense of what is possible. Being the cleverest person in the room might feel creative, but after a while it’s self-defeating. Pretending to be the cleverest person is just a sad self-delusion.
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
The really smart move as you become better at your craft is to be intentional about the people you hang around with. It’s a pattern you often see in people who have sustained artistic success, they start to seek out people who are excellent in other fields. A novice photographer will learn a lot from hanging around other, better photographers. But, once the photographer starts to acquire some mastery of their craft, the big creative bursts may come from film-makers, musicians, writers, scientists, painters, fashion designers, typographers, really anyone who brings a fresh perspective to the creative process and might help the photographer think in new ways about the role and function of photography as an art form.
Lean Away From Cleverness
Of course, you will still, on occasion find yourself being the smartest person in the room. It might be by choice, as an employer, teacher, mentor or workshop leader. Or, it could be a curveballs life throws us, someone we meet at a dinner, party or on our travels. The answer to how we should behave in those situations is, in my view, quite simple.
Being kind isn’t just about politeness. Being kind gives those potentially awkward moments enough time and space to allow them to be fruitful for all concerned. Being kind gives the novice the chance to frame their questions well and the so-called expert the right frame of mind to see the world the way the novice does.
The clever answer (or put-down) is a device to close off conversation. But, there’s a kind of bad karma in doing that, because the questions we get from beginners (or people who don’t really understand our craft) can sometimes really cut through to the why at the heart of our endeavours.
Moreover, if we struggle to explain what we do in simple “lay man’s” terms, then it could well the approach to our work we do is also not entirely clear in our mind. Sometimes it’s easier to bluff our way through when amongst fellow professionals and experts than when in the company of “ordinary” civilians!
Don’t Be That Guy
Some folks sadly become intoxicated with feeling like the smartest person in the room & the stench when they feel threatened is obvious and unpleasant. It’s not long before the conversation stopping attempts at clever wit, dripping with defensiveness and self-justification start to seep out. It’s so sad to watch.
This kind of cleverness is seldom authentic. Unkind cleverness can actual hold any of us back, insulating us from the realisation of the things we don’t really understand, the ways in which we can still grow and evolve. It’s an anchor, that keeps us in place, rather than a lever to propel us forward.