Originally published on Medium — May 2nd, 2017
When I got to college, I knew just about nothing. I was going to major in film because I liked making stupid videos with my friends. I thought girls would like me for my “personality.” I took Beginning Piano because I thought college was about “exploring the world.” I used air quotes like they were going out of style (okay, maybe I still do that one.)
And guess what? Film was a terrible major for me. Girls were a lot more complicated than expected. And I got a C- in piano. When I got to college, I was the dumbest person in the room. But instead of staying dumb, I learned everything I could from everyone I met. I did internship after internship, specifically focusing on learning. I even was willing to sacrifice my grades for those experiences because I felt like I learned more from the real-world exposure I was getting.
I may not be a genius, but a lot of people would’ve considered me one of the more well-prepared, successful members of my graduating class; in other words, NOT the dumbest person in the room.
A 60 Minutes segment included an oft-quoted belief about people in my generation: “You have [millenials] coming into the workplace who have grown up with the expectation that they will automatically win, and they’ll always be rewarded, even for just showing up.”
Another form of believing you’ll always be rewarded and successful is believing that you’re always right. That attitude that a lot of recent college graduates have is, perhaps, one of the most frustrating attributes of the rising generation. One executive at VALUED Empyrean said it this way: “Every time I’m explaining something, I cringe to hear that same answer; ‘I know. I get it.’ People who have recently graduated from college have that same misconceived notion: ‘I know what to do,’” but the reality is, most people don’t really know what’s going on.
As I leave college and enter the real world, I’m not terrified to leave behind the world where I feel comfortable. Instead, I embrace the opportunity to be the dumbest person in the room again. One reason people are afraid to let their ignorance of anything show is the fear that they have no way of bridging that gap.
Some people call that feeling ‘the imposter syndrome.’
Carl Richards, an artist for the New York Times explains it: “The moment when you’re most vulnerable that all your doubts come crashing in around you. When I first heard that voice in my own head, I didn’t know what to make of it. The fear was paralyzing. Every time I sent something into the world, I worried the world would say, “You’re a fraud.”
Millenials have been called a lot of things, but secure has never been at the top of that list. And because we feel insecure, we fake it until we make it. Unfortunately, a lot of us never make it. Instead of offering tips for how to better ‘fake it’ and lowering your expectations of ‘making it,’ I would suggest one simple cure: embrace your time as the dumbest person in the room.
Learn to ask the best questions and to soak up everything you possibly can. As you move higher up in a company, you have fewer and fewer excuses to ask questions without people wondering why you don’t already know that thing. Embrace the metaphorical dunce-cap on your head that represents your ignorance, and ask a question!
Lee Watanabe wrote a great piece focused on the importance of learning to ask the right questions. “Go forth and question. Be a 3-year old all over again. Love the discovery. Stay curious.”
While at Amazon, I was exposed to their famous leadership principles, one of which is “Learn and Be Curious.” This doesn’t mean asking for step-by-step instructions. There is a balance between being the dumbest person in the room, and being a hard worker. You have to do as much as possible so that when you ask the questions, you’re known as someone who will legitimately learn, and not just use the answer as a handout that lets you avoid work.
As I start work at my new job, I’m eager to be the dumbest person in the room, because I’ve never learned more in any other situation.