One Weird Trick to really be Smarter

For some reason, I seem to be a bit of a question magnet. Not that I mind, of course, because… Well, you’ll discover why in just a moment. I was reminded of this, this week, when someone asked me—”how do you know so much about so many different things?” Before I answered them, Steve Hood published his first post on his journey to the CCNA. Buried in this post is something very important in relation to the question in hand—

Further, over the last six months I have worked, for the first time, in environments in which I am not the sole networking professional. Simply being able to say “hey, what do you think of doing ____?” has been awesome. Before joining a networking team I could only see my own perspective and the things I thought to google. Now I have the advantage of a reply from someone with more or different experience.

This completely exposes one of my primary pathways to knowing a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. If you don’t see it yet, here it is in plain language, one weird trick that will really make you smarter.

Make certain you are never the smartest person in the room.

I can see you out there reading this right now, crinkling your nose and thinking—that’s it??? Well, two points. First, it really does work. There are few things that help more in learning new things than to be in a room with people who either know about a topic, or at least care about it. Even if someone else doesn’t know the answer to a particular problem, if they at least care, then you will have someone who not only listens, but participates in trying to understand it.

Second, it’s not as easy as it sounds. No, I’m not saying every reader of this blog is smart enough so it is difficult to find someone smarter. But we often believe we are—and our ego, too often, gets in the way of finding people who are smarter than us and hanging out with them. For someone who is a knowledge worker, the most embarrassing moment is when you’ve been bested, when you realize someone else was right about a problem, and you were wrong. It can even, in some situations, be a career limiting moment.

But there is a solution to the embarrassment. Get into rooms with people who are smarter than you, get used to being wrong, and it will, soon enough, stop bothering you. So the solution to the ego problem is simply to intentionally bruise your ego to the point that you don’t notice feeling inferior any longer. That was simple, right?

Except it’s still not… There’s still a problem with this plan—finding people who are smarter than you are. Most of us, as it turns out, work in smaller shops where we are the only engineer who knows some particular thing. We are often hired as the “one and only” network engineer in a company, for instance, or one of two or three coders, or… There is a solution to this problem, as well.

It’s called the larger community. If you don’t have a direct channel to other folks who are smarter than you are, don’t despair. Find a conference or meetup to go to. Find a slack channel to join. Find an open source project, or a standards organization (the IETF, anyone???) to be involved in. It’s fine if you feel overwhelmed. In fact, it’s rather good if you feel overwhelmed. After all, you are intentionally looking for a room you can hang out in where the people are all smarter than you are.

As Steve’s experience shows, just being around other engineers is a useful part of your education. It’s one weird trick guaranteed to make you smarter every time.

P.S. I don’t mind being a question magnet because it means I’m interacting with people who ask questions—and that almost means someone who’s smart.


  1. fred baker on 9 January 2017 at 8:34 pm

    I totally agree. In my mind the greatest gift is listening to two smart people argue, you can gain incredible insight.