Arjun

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Is it intimidating to work with people smarter than you?

July 18, 2020

I was recently on a panel with COOP which is an organization that is building a diverse movement of upwardly mobile college grads overcoming underemployment through digital skills and peer connections. It was a fantastic experience, and the students who were part of it, were awesome to interact with. During this panel, I was asked a question -

Was it ever intimidating to work with the enormous amount of talent that you have come across throughout your career?

Yes. There is no way around it, and its not even a thing in the past. If you are honest with yourself, then the unequivocal answer is yes. If people say otherwise they are either -

  • Not being honest
  • Too proud to admit that
  • Not challenging themselves enough to be in an environment which has other smart people

Some of the reasons that I think have accentuated my feeling of being daunted include -

  • Being an immigrant, which itself comes with a bunch of baggage
  • Having imposter syndrome
  • Being afraid of looking stupid in front of peers or colleagues
  • Genuinely not having knowledge in areas that are being talked about

I believe that there are tremendous benefits of being intimidated or surrounded by people who are much smarter than you. In my opinion, most learning occurs at the cusp of discomfort. If you are early in your career, it could be your manager/peers who are challenging or asking you to do certain things you are unfamiliar with. If you are a more senior veteran, it could be your peers/reports, who are challenging or refuting your thoughts but -

  • If you frame it right, it can lead to non-linear gains over time
  • You want to surround yourself with people smarter than you because you will never have all the answers, and you need to be able to learn from others
  • You want people to disagree with you for the right reasons. As you get into managerial positions, it can get very easy for an opinion you voice to be interpreted as a task/order. You need people to call you out on your BS if you haven’t fully thought it through, or you have formed an opinion that is not using important inputs that should have been considered.
  • Being in an intellectually challenging environment helps you hone your opinions/thoughts. Every time I have taught or mentored students or people, I have always found myself questioning the very basics of my beliefs, using some form of Socratic method. You learn more as a teacher because you always question “why”. I believe that having these very smart people around you helps bring out the same kind of process.

Basically what I am saying is, there is always someone smarter than you in the room, and rather than feeling trepidation, embrace that feeling and use that as a resource to make yourself better.