I was the dumbest person in my graduate school program which is part of the reason I was thrown out. Stupidity plus immaturity and a willingness to show off both qualities is a bad combination. I thought I was a cowboy. I would show up to final exams having not attended a single class, totally smashed from the night before and not having slept. I had semesters where I failed every single class that semester.
I did everything you could possibly do to piss off as many people as possible in as short amount of time as possible and eventually I got thrown out. Well, I got “asked” to leave. I’m not defending myself. I took bad advantage of a great situation I was in. They paid me a stipend and I used it to do whatever I wanted to do.
Later, when I had to move to the corporate world, I was the stupidest person there as well. Probably because I failed to learn anything in graduate school. I got the job for various reasons that had nothing to do with my abilities and so they didn’t know what to do with me. I was so impressed with everyone running around, knowing what to do, knowing how to survive in the big city. I thought to myself, “these are the real people and I’m faking it.”
On my second day they gave me a computer to put on the Internet. They said, “you know something about that internet stuff. Get this thing on the internet. But be careful, we keep some email servers on this.” I destroyed that computer so badly it had to be sent back to the manufacturer (Silicon Graphics) and it never came back. I was wearing a suit that didn’t fit me. I never wore suits. It was sunny out. I went outside to use the payphone. No sense making a call like this from my cubicle. I called my girlfriend in Pittsburgh and told her I was about to be fired. She was pretty happy about that. She wanted me back. Which, unfortunately, was my worst nightmare.
Jolie Hunt at Reuters invited me to a dinner a few months ago. I was definitely 100 IQ points lower than anyone there. Tina Brown was sitting next to me. Shawkut Azziz, the former prime minister of Pakistan was across from me. Padma Lakshmi was next to him. I don’t even know why I was invited. I concluded during the dinner that I must’ve done a favor at some point for Jolie but I couldn’t remember what it was. The list goes on of the people at this dinner. Everyone had something to say. One of my favorite authors, Ken Auletta, was drilling the former prime minister about how much Pakistan knew about Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts. I was deathly afraid someone would look at me and say, “well, what do you think about all of this? What do you have to say for yourself?”
But after 40 years of being the least smart person in most situations that I’ve been put in I’ve finally figured out how to be the smartest person on the planet.
The KEY: ALWAYS assume you are the least intelligent person in the room. Always.
Do this in every room, at every dinner, in every situation.
Several things will happen:
A) you’ll listen and learn from everyone around you. They are all smarter than you. Which means you have a lot to learn from them. Sergey Brin has a trick when he interviews people for Google. He can tell within seconds whether or not he is going to hire someone. If he’s not going to hire them he knows he still has to suffer through another twenty minutes with them. So he always makes it a point to learn at least one thing from them so it’s not a total waste of time. I do this with every person I meet ever. Because I happen to know a secret about them: they are smarter than me.
This is not a false humility. I haven’t been very good at school (which is probably why I write so many articles about why college is bad). And I haven’t made a billion dollars despite the opportunities I’ve had. I’ve made many many stupid mistakes that I have a hard time forgiving myself for. I could’ve saved lives and instead I squandered them. I got good at squandering.
The good thing I have going for me is that I LOOK smart. I have curly hair and glasses. And I’m Jewish and people stereotype all of the above. Oh, and I’m good at chess. Which people also equate with intelligence but this isn’t true.
B) When you’re done listening, listen to the silence. Trust me, people never finish talking. Once you’ve learned something from someone and they are done talking, then skip your turn to talk and let them talk again. They’ll do it. Not because of arrogance. It’s because they have more to teach you. So listen some more.
C) Now when they are done talking, ask at least one question. They’ll do A and B again. You’ll learn more. As I’m writing this it almost feels like I’m making fun of the people I’m listening to. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I’ll give you a quick example. I’m in a computer lab right now. Some guy, 31 years old, was just sitting at the computer next to me, looking for apartment rentals in Houston. I asked him why he’s moving to Houston. He just took a job at ExxonMobil. I thought the US had run out of oil, I said to him, immediately underlining my stupidity. He then explained to me how Texas has more oil than Saudi Arabia with all the new techniques and technologies and fracking, etc. I thought “fracking” was from Battlestar Galactica. He explained the whole thing to me. He drew diagrams of how the drills work. Of how oil and gas flows out of the rocks. I then googled it after he left to learn more and make sure I understood. I don’t know if Texas has more oil than Saudi Arabia but I certainly learned a lot more than I knew two hours ago.
D) Intelligence compounds exponentially. It’s the “network effect”. In a system (like the Internet) with the network effect, the more people that use it, the value of the entire network goes up exponentially. Which is why the value and profit of companies like Facebook and Zynga have gone up so fast compared with companies in prior generations. And why the entire Internet exploded upwards like it did. But in the case of intelligence, the “network” is the neurons in your brain. Learn new things and new neurons wake up and start firing synapses with each other, increasing exponentially the “value” (intelligence) of the “network” (your brain).
So try this: be the least intelligent person at every meeting and gathering. You’re a spy, gathering all the intel you can. Unlike everyone else at the meeting, you are guaranteed to learn something (because everything people say is something you don’t know, almost by definition). Because of the compounding effect, at some point, you will be the smartest.
E) Humility. At the very least, assuming you are smart, you will be able to practice and cultivate a healthy humility, which is never bad.
But, you might ask: shouldn’t one exude confidence and demonstrate intelligence so people are impressed?
Answer: No. People will forget you. Not everyone. But most. Because that’s what people do. They move onto the next thing. But if you consciously cultivate humility and learn from everyone you meet, you will be the one who will never forget them. And, before long, you’ll be the smartest person on the planet. And when the aliens land and say, “we are going to talk to your leader”, everyone around you will be surprised when the aliens go straight to you.