Why being the dumbest person in the room is the smartest thing you can do

It's easy to fall into the ego trap of hanging out with people just like you. Here's why you shouldn't.

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
25th Jun 2018 • 7m read

In the early 1980’s, a teenage boy had just landed a job selling newspaper subscriptions for the Houston Post. Given a random call sheet of prospective customers, he sifted through the data and noticed something interesting—those with the highest potential to become future subscribers had either just been married or had just moved into a new house. Now, this boy happened to have a love for new tech and had been spending an increasing amount of time around people who were also into the new computer fad. After talking to one of his superiors about the observations he’d made, he decided to hire a few of his schoolmates to help him weed out the high-potential customers and send them personalized letters inviting them to subscribe. That year, 15-year-old Michael Dell made the equivalent of his teacher’s full-time salary while he was still at school!

Dell was insatiably curious. When he wasn’t selling newspaper subscriptions, he was spending a lot of time taking computers apart just so that he could put them back together again. Dell surrounded himself with smart people so that he could learn from them and use their wisdom to develop his own understanding of the world. He credited these early influences with helping him to build the roots of what (eventually) became Dell Computers.

At a 2003 commencement address, Dell acknowledged the power of surrounding yourself with people that can help you grow.

Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people…or find a different room. In professional circles it’s called networking. In organizations it’s called team building. And in life it’s called family, friends, and community. We are all gifts to each other, and my own growth as a leader has shown me again and again that the most rewarding experiences come from my relationships.—Dell, 2003.

We’ve all heard the saying: If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. This statement is repeated ad nauseum by successful people because it’s true.

Instinctively, we know it’s true. We know growth doesn’t happen in a vacuum—it happens when we accept the likelihood of failure and learn from the mistakes and successes of others. As students, we accepted the idea that learning from those who are smarter than us is instrumental to our own development as physicians. We embraced the opportunity to learn from people better than we were.

But as time wears on, we become complacent. We become victims of our own egos, we crave respect, and unconsciously we deny our inherent fallibility. The artist Marina Abramović believes that the moment we get caught up in our own greatness, we kill our ability to reach our potential. Ego ruins the very thing it celebrates—the fulfillment of our potential.

The ego trap is obvious. You surround yourself with people who feed your ego—people who are likely to be less than you—and thereby deliberately avoid situations that challenge the narrative you’ve created for yourself. Since you are the best, there’s no imperative to grow and you begin to stagnate. You feel stuck. Deep down, you know there’s a lot more room to grow as a person and as a professional, but your ego doesn’t play nicely with thoughts like that. It convinces you that you are fabulous as you are (or worse, that you’ll never be as great as the people you admire, protecting you by keeping you away from them)!

It’s a never-ending cycle and it sucks! So how do we keep this toxic ego from taking over our lives? The primary answer is simple—awareness. Once you acknowledge that your ego is barricading you from the growth experiences you need (for fear of being challenged) you can immediately take back control.

But what are you taking control of? You’re taking back control of the self-talk that happens inside your head, on a daily basis. When you take back emotional control from your ego, that self-talk transitions from focusing on impressing others to impressing yourself. Rather than focusing on experiences designed solely to make yourself look good, you now have the mental space to focus on experiences that will help you grow.

This is a crucial mindset change because, without it, you’ll always feel that slight tinge of intimidation around people who are smarter or more successful than you and avoid situations where you feel that being corrected (or worse, rejected) by them is a possibility. Once you’ve cultured that critical mindset shift, the next step is to begin building your circle of influence.

Growing your network of influence

William Osler understood the power of being surrounded by intelligent, successful people.

He once stated: The higher education so much needed today is not given in the school, is not to be bought in the market place, but it has to be wrought out in each one of us for himself; it is the silent influence of character on character.

Entrepreneur Jim Rohn also understood this and famously said: You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. This is unavoidable—the more time you spend with people who exhibit certain thought patterns and beliefs, the more likely you are to adopt those same patterns. Chances are, many of your friends have a similar income to yourself, similar lifestyles, similar views about the world, and similar flaws. Humans naturally gravitate to those who are most like themselves, but this arrangement generally doesn’t favor growth. Remember, growth only happens when you are uncomfortable, so surrounding yourself with people who will challenge you is necessary for continual progress.

So how do you go about finding opportunities to interact with people who will challenge you on a continual basis?

The first step is to identify which aspects of your life you want to continually improve and find networks, groups, or meetups that focus on these areas. If you want to invest in professional development, consider attending conferences in your chosen field more regularly. Augment these meetings with events hosted by your local medical organization. You could even consider starting a medical book club in your area where you take some time out each month with other physicians to discuss the latest published medical research, books published by other doctors, or just plain old self-help books.

This approach works if you’re looking to build your network. But what do you do if you’re looking for specific types of people to interact with and learn from? Having a good mentor is crucial for success—but finding one isn’t always easy!

Let’s say you do have some mentors in mind, though. You’d love to take them out for lunch to pick their brains or to have deep, intellectually stimulating conversations with. How do you approach these people?

People are usually much nicer than we give them credit for and, often, a simple email or message on LinkedIn is enough to get them interested in a chat. We sometimes fall prey to thinking certain people are unreachable, but you may be surprised by their willingness to share their knowledge.

How to send a cold email to a potential mentor

Sending a cold email to a potential mentor is far easier than you may think. It’s as simple as knowing relevant information about the person you want to contact and crafting a properly worded email or message.

Step 1. Identify potential mentors: Make a list of ten people in your extended network that you really admire or would love to chat with. Be deliberate about your choices here. Think of the specific reasons you decided to choose one person over another.

Step 2. Do some digging: Cyberstalking is totally okay for this purpose. Check out LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter accounts, and any blogs your potential mentors may have. Get a deeper understanding about each person and what they care about, focus on, and any interesting points about them. What do they like? What are they famed for? What research projects are they focusing on? Do you have mutual connections?

Step 3. Message them: Once you’ve gleaned relevant information about your potential mentors, translate that into an email that’s likely to get their attention and show them that you bothered to learn more about them. Keep it super short. The message needs to be designed to get an easy response from them. Try not to go straight into asking for a meeting or catch-up—they don’t know who you are yet and are likely to ignore you. The easiest way to get a response is to ask a question based on their interests or expertise. Don’t be afraid to engage in some flattery and tell them how much you like their work. Add sentences like “Can I ask for your advice?” or “Can I pick your brain?” People are usually flattered when asked for their opinion about something. Also, make it easy for them to get out of the obligation to write back to you. Adding a sentence to the end of your email like, “I know that you’re probably super busy and am well aware that I might never hear back from you. Thanks at least for reading this email...” can do magic! Strangely enough, adding this sentence will greatly increase your chances of getting a response!

Here’s a cold email template for your perusal:


Hi {insert name},

Qualifying sentence: (Example: I was just reading [insert journal article name] and am really interested in finding out more about your research... or, You know my friend Sam and she said you might have experience in [insert area] that could help me).

A direct question in 1–2 sentences that you could not find an answer to easily: (Example: I have a quick question I was hoping you could answer—[insert question]). Check out our post about asking great questions for inspiration.

Thank them: (Example: Any reply would be greatly appreciated... or, Thanks in advance.)

Your name

Your URL

Your social media links


Don’t be afraid to follow up with potential mentors if they don’t reply immediately. People are busy! So, sending 1–2 short emails as a gentle reminder is perfectly acceptable and won’t fall into the realm of becoming annoying! Build the habit of bringing smart, successful people into your world and you will quickly realize the tremendously positive effect it has on your life. But bumping into such people doesn’t happen by accident—you need to be methodical about meeting and learning from them!

Want to learn from medical superstars and boost your own medical career? Check out the Medmastery podcast now!