Being the smartest person in the room?


March 6, 2023

Growing up, I think I was a lot slower to learn the skills in school that came easier to others. It took me a while to learn how to read properly and perfect my handwriting; I never scored high on any of our elementary school math tests (which seemed like the biggest deal at the time) and I was never picked as the lead in the school play or the soloist in choir (I mean, I’m still not the best singer so there’s probably a good reason behind that one). I wasn’t the back of the pack but I was never the exceptional student either. It wasn’t that I was lazy or oblivious to what was going on, I just never thought that I could be anything special – so what was the point in continuously trying and coming up short everytime?

That might sound self-deprecating, but it’s the honest truth about how I spent the first half of my life. I grew up in a supportive environment at home but at school it was drilled into me that in order to get any recognition you had to be the smartest in the class, the most-liked by teachers, and the most outgoing. There was a very successful archetype of what a “promising” or “talented” young person looked like; those were the people who were going to succeed and do well, and if you weren’t picked to be one of them then it just meant that you were sort of mediocre.

Part of me knows that in the real world this is sort of how it works – it’s competitive out there! You have to advocate for yourself, be able to carry a conversation, and think on your feet in order to succeed. But the problem I have with my early school days is that this was preached to us in a very specific way: you had to be the smartest person in the room in order to be important and if you weren’t that person, you were sort of left behind. I take issue with that because after going through college and navigating the early part of the career world, I don’t think that is true at all; there is not one narrow and extremely specific method that leads to success and happiness. I think that the most important method of success is an understanding of who you are and a sense of confidence to back yourself.

That might sound a little preachy and like a self-help book, so allow me to tell you my story a little.

I moved to Dubai from London when I was twelve and I think that was the point where I was starting to get fed up with being labeled as “mediocre” or “average” and I started to put myself out there more. When we first moved to Dubai I was grappling with all sorts of changes in my surroundings and I think school work was one of the few things that was a constant so I channeled myself into that. I was doing well in school but again just kind of thought that I was plodding along doing well but nothing exceptional.

A year later I moved to a different high school and I think that’s where I really started to get an idea of my own self-worth and what made me capable and successful aside from academics. I started to get interested in service work, took on leadership roles, and volunteered my time. I was slowly learning that there were a ton of other skills that were important aside from just being book-smart. I started running cross country, trained everyday, and competed in competitions; I was building up different parts of my identity such as determination and commitment. I worked really hard and sometimes I was in fact top of the class, but I was learning that the things that made me stand out were not grades in a book but soft skills such as confidence, determination, and attentiveness; those were the things that people recognized me for and it felt pretty good!

Fast-forward to college, after a year of online classes I finally got to Georgetown and went through a ton of learning. I by no means felt like the smartest person in the room when I got there and I felt like an imposter a lot of the time. In an intimidating new setting it would have been easy to fall into the trap of trying to appear capable in the same ways as everyone else; mimicking the same interests and asking complicated questions with big words, but instead I think I had an understanding of what made me unique in my own sense. I followed my interests in my own way, reached out for help when I needed it, found a lot of mentors at college, applied for positions I was passionate about and really focused on “building” me not just trying to become the smartest person in the room.

That might sound like a hippe rejection of the rules, but I can guarantee you it’s not. I’ve still done well in the traditional college sense, being successful in classes and exams and having great internships lined up. That was my goal in going to college; it’s a big investment and I wanted to exit on the other side having learned a lot and with ample opportunities on the horizon. However, what I hope to explain in this post, is that the things that helped me get here was not this idea that I was somehow smarter or better than everyone else but an understanding of what made me unique.

I recently went through a big milestone for me at college. Last summer I had the opportunity to work for a company doing really amazing things and I wanted to pay this experience forward to other students. I spent the past six months working with my university to bring a couple of speakers from this company to campus and moderated the event. It was a really big deal for me, having the confidence to make this event come to life and putting myself out there. This was something that was completely voluntary and won’t go on my CV or anything, but it’s just something that I wanted to do because I wanted to give other people the experience that I had over the summer.

Something that I grappled with after the event was a feeling of worthiness. I still sometimes have that feeling of being an imposter and question, what makes me worthy of sitting up there on the stage leading the conversation? Was I good enough? And are there better people out there for the job? After feeling a bit down and insecure about all of this I did some reflecting on these questions and came to a conclusion that ties in with the rest of the stories I’ve shared in this post.

I have to learn to back myself. I don’t think backing yourself is about making yourself think that you’re the smartest person in the room. But I think it’s about reflecting on what you bring to the table. Sure, I think I’m smart, I’ve certainly made it this far. But I think that I bring a sense of authenticity, passion, and care to anything I get involved in – those are my unique traits. Through school and college I tried my best to be authentic in how I presented myself; I never had an interest in hiding behind the fluff and big words in conversations, but instead focused on showing my personality and being passionate about what I’m involved with. When I think back to the big achievements in my career so far like internships I’ve gotten, I think that the things that have made me stand out are the realness and passion I brought to the table and the care I put into each opportunity and person I met across the way.

This event followed that same thread, it wasn’t about sitting up there proving that I’m somehow “better” than the other students in the room but instead being authentic in my desire to pay this learning opportunity forward, showcasing my passion, and caring about the experience of every person in that room – that’s who I am. This experience taught me that even when other people in the room might get competitive or try to make me feel like I’m not worthy, I think being able to back myself and know what I brought to the table is the most valuable asset I can hold. I still work extremely hard and put myself in uncomfortable and slightly intimidating settings in order to learn, but I can hold this quiet confidence close to my heart that I am in fact worthy of being there and I do bring some value into a situation.

So I challenge all of you to think about how you back yourself and advocate for different opportunities. Are you constantly trying to prove that you’re “the best” or do you think about what you bring to the table? When applying for a role are you trying to get the recruiter to think that you’re the smartest or are you trying to establish a connection and really show who you are? Unlike what I was told back in elementary school, there is not a singular narrow way to be successful and bring some value to the world. There are many ways and the most important skill is to be able to recognize and live out the reason why you’re different.

See you next week,

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