Marine Sgt. at New Orleans, La. By Howard R.Hollem. Library of Congress collection via Flickr.

Don’t Think You’re Smart If You Want To Succeed

Forrest Christian happiness, Motivation 5 Comments

One of the remarkable things that Carol Dweck showed is that students who thought that they succeeded because they were smart did more poorly in new tasks. They wouldn’t ask for help because they were supposed to be able to figure it out themselves, or perhaps because they thought that if they asked for help they would be shown as not being smart.

Of course, this can be mixed with a DIY attitude, to make it even worse. I’ll chime in here with a personal story: when I was in college, I wouldn’t go to the math profs’ office hours because I somehow believed that I shouldn’t ask for help. It could have been a result of believing I succeeded because I was smart. It was at least also a part of “don’t ask for help” that was a cultural thing with my family. Compound the latter with the former and you get someone who could have done much better in differential equations than he did. (It didn’t help that I really don’t have a strong aptitude for mathematical thinking, arriving at most of my conclusions through intuition and guesswork.)

So internally you need to think that you succeed because of effort.

Lots of people ignore this advice. This leaves them open to being manipulated by you to your advantage, as long as you are willing to not be the smartest person in the room.

It’s really amazing how many people want to be “smartest”. When I was a participant in a life coaching group, the psychologists pointed out our wanting to be the smartest person in the room several time. This was a defense, a part of our fear of not being accepted. They encouraged us to see ourselves as “one amongst” rather than “one apart”.

Even scientists, who are only surpassed by doctors in their arrogance regarding their incorruptible intellect. Mahoney showed back in 1977 that scientists reviewing journal articles would find more faults in the methodology of papers that disagreed with their theoretical perspective, even though the methods sections were identical. They react emotionally but believe that they are impartial.

Doctors, as I said, are even worse. It’s been shown for years that doctors are more likely to prescribe drugs and services from companies that provide them with perks. Doctors, however, believe that they are smarter (and therefore “better”) than normal people. They are adamant that these perks do not affect their judgment.

Pharmaceutical companies have made fortunes off of their hubris.

This means that if you are willing to let other people think that they are smarter than you, you can get them to behave in ways that are beneficial to you. Or, plainly put, you can manipulate them.

This is even a negotiating technique. In Start With No, Camp explicitly says to let the other person believe that they are the smartest person in the room. He goes so far as to advise one client to spill her purse in the middle of the negotiation, after days of things not ending. She did and suddenly the other party was willing to close.

You can do the same thing by having a pen run out of ink. Really. You don’t want to look like the smartest person in the room most of the time.

You want to be the smartest person in the room, and this means that you understand that looking smart isn’t as important as achieving your goal, especially when making money.

What does this have to do with hidden high potentials?

Remember that when I talk about high potential, I’m not talking about IQ. I’m talking about the combination of two related elements:

  1. the size of work that you are capable of doing, or which you have the capacity to do with the right education
  2. the language of domain of work in which you naturally achieve

There is a psychic reality that deforms according to the size of the capacity of the person. Someone who is “bigger” (or even on a steeper growth trajectory) will deform the psychic space more than others. Hidden high potentials, because they have such a high potential, are usually the biggest person in the room. They deform the psychic space, sometimes drastically, and this is picked up by most everyone else. They get the feeling that you are something big. It’s a visceral reaction rather than an intellectual one.

How this happens is beyond me. It may be that you unconsciously give off very subtle cues that others identify. All I know is that is seems to happen.

People identify you as being “bigger” and often believe that you are threatening. You deploy strange behaviours to show others that you are not an intentional threat. You’re weird, not high potential.

So you are really already experts at doing these techniques, of making other people believe that they are the “smartest” person in the room. The problem is that you don’t do it consciously.

By bringing this technique in to consciousness, you can deploy it for your own gain, including work. Concentrate on making money in a transaction with a client, rather than being right or smart. Yes, the client is going to do something that will blow up in their face farther down the line. They do not have a long enough time horizon to see that problem. You can talk until hell freezes over and they will still not understand the problem. There is no way for you to explain it to them because it exceeds the time horizon of their understanding.

So you have to let them be the smartest person in the room and let them do what they want to do.

Then you prepare to make more money when the inevitable failure occurs.

I know: this feels immoral. If I know that something bad is going to happen, don’t I have the responsibility to point it out? (A) You have pointed it out and the client rejected it, and (B) we are almost never talking about something that will result in someone dying.

I am reminded that in September 2007, at the run on Northern Rock, I was told about the Australian finance minister’s speech a couple years back where he stated very clearly that the mortgage explosion was going to crash in an awful way. Lots of people predicted this fall. If you were really smart, you would realize that nothing was going to happen to prevent it and create mechanisms to protect your assets, make even more money, and produce ready-made solutions and corrective regulations.

So take advantage of your skill in looking less qualified than you are to let others be the smartest person in the room so you can walk away with more money in the transaction.

Image Credit: Marine Sgt. at New Orleans, La. ca. 1941-1945 by Howard R. Hollem. Library of Congress collection.

Comments 5

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  2. Interesting question. I’ve been able to pull out some wins due to the belief that I am faster than another person, thereby doing what it took to keep or gain the lead, that I might not have done if I didn’t believe myself to be faster. This would seem to be in conflict with your proposal. Of course, “faster” isn’t the same thing as “talented.” Faster is a combination of talented, experienced and prepared.

    I can see how someone who see’s themselves as really talented might not be as consistently motivated to do the work and preparation it takes to have consistent performances. I can also say that the people I know who perform well tend to credit the work they do to prepare rather than emphasize inborn abilities.

    I think in any kind of performance enhancement situation, how one responds to success or shortfalls in performance comes down to one’s self belief in success being primarily due to nature vs. nurture. If one thinks it’s nature, well, there’s not a lot that can be done to change one’s lot. If one thinks it’s nurture, it’s simply a matter of doing the right kind of work and preparation over an adequate time period for improvement.

    In your scenario, you have an individual thinking they are smarter and hence THINKING that they are winning the battle. In a race, it’s not so easy to fool oneself. You either cross the line first or not. I do see how talent-focus can lead to a flash in the pan career, while preparation-focus will more likely lead to consistent performance over time. You could relate this to time delay or time horizon issues.

    Another topic that I’ve seen crop up on your blog and other places is the question of self control. Best preparation means controlling the things you CAN control and wasting NO energy on the things you can’t. Your Make Better Decisions By Being Emotional blog post and this interview with John Bargh ( highlights the many ways we can think we’re in control but are not. It’s my sense that the more we know about the ways we fool ourselves, the more semblance of influence we can have toward a specific future outcome because we know better where not to waste our time.

    What we can do, however, is deliberately adjust our environment over time so that many subconscious influences on our behaviors be more advantageous toward meeting particular goals. An example of this would be making adjustments in our social group. I recall a study where it was shown that people are less likely to stay with a diet or exercise program if they continue to hang with the old poorly-eating, non-exercising social group.

    Another comment I’d like to make on nature / nurture and athletic performance. World class athletes are both tremendously talented AND do the work. These days, you can’t get away without both pieces of the puzzle. There is some discussion that nature (inborn temperament) MAY partly influence a person’s willingness to work hard consistently over many years towards peak performance. The rule of thumb is that it takes 10 years.

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    FYI, y’all: Alicia, besides being competent in many other ways, is a champion athlete. She was fourth overall and first in her age class at the 2009 USA Triathlon National Championship. This after taking last year off to have a baby. (Who seems to be good at keeping her reflexes quick!)

  4. Indeed, what a great post/comment.

    I’m the least IMPORTANT person in the room where I work, but I’ve used letting others think they’re smarter many, many times for my own “manipulative” purposes. Makes people want to help you later, at least in my case.

    I don’t make money off them but I do get them to do some of the work for me (work that I hate so much I feel like I’m going to die when I have to do it–even my boss does a goodly amount of this work when I’m on a roll) or at least be happy to go above and beyond to give me information so I don’t have to hunt for it.

    One of my spies told me that she heard my boss say, about me: “she weird but lovable!”

    In my own workplace I’ve noticed nobody wants to help the people who want to be the smartest.

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