Two steps to enjoy not being the smartest guy in the room

How my first three years at Google have helped me embrace who I am and overcome insecurities.

I’m not usually the smartest guy in the room these days. This is a good thing. It’s taken me almost three years at Google to fully embrace that. And it is a liberating realization.

As a Product Manager (PM) at Google, I’m always surrounded by brilliant engineers and innovative designers. My entire life I’ve always had some insecurity knowing that while I was very smart, I wasn’t always the SMARTEST. There’s always been “that other guy” (or girl). The one who everyone else just looked at and said “wow”. Think back in your own life. You know who I’m talking about. Yes, THAT guy.

I’ve finally recognized that intelligence isn’t the most important thing everyone brings to the table. That it’s just fine that my peer feedback never ever says, “He’s the smartest guy on our team”. That all those years in school would have been much happier had I accepted this, and focused on more important things.

So what’s changed? Why don’t I care anymore about being the smartest? Two reasons. One is practical, the other is personal. Consider these two steps to free yourself of this burden.

First, let’s be practical. Either you’re the smartest person in the room, or you’re not. And you’re probably not (especially if you’re working at a company where everyone else is used to be the smartest person in the room). So, accept it. Don’t try to prove otherwise. You’ll look like an ass. And then, guess what… you’ll be the biggest ass in the room.

So stop trying to be the smartest and instead (here’s step two) do what you do best, whatever that is. Be the “____-est person in the room”. Let’s call this the “blank-est”.

So what’s my blank-est? For me it’s “passion”. Or maybe “persistence”. As a Product Manager, these are the most important parts of my job. I need to be the most excited person in the room about our products. The guy with the most passion for helping our users. The one who tells the most stories about how our product will be used. The person who doesn’t often take “no” for an answer (walking the fine line between “persistent” and “stubborn”). The scrappy one who tries to figure out how to make something happen despite the odds. Yes, everyone on a team should have some of these qualities too. But come on, he’s the smartest. She’s the most creative. She’s the most analytical… so give me this one, ok?

Let’s dive into an example where being the smartest is not what was required for success.

I’m the PM for Photo Sphere, which is one of the modes in the new Google Camera and first launched in Android 4.2. Photo Sphere creates impressive 360-degree panoramas thanks to some of the smartest engineers I’ve ever met. But in the early days, the results were, umm, underwhelming. Scarier still, even in the not-so-early days (read “getting closer to launch”) there were still significant problems.

So what did I do? Remember, I’m a PM, not a computer vision guy. I couldn’t write any code. From day one on these products I set out to be the number one evangelist. To be the most passionate user of the product. I would take the most photos. File the most bugs. Figure out how to create the best results. Make using these products part of my life and my vacations (thank you to my patient wife). I would send my best photo spheres to our leadership and be too liberal with exclamation points!!! I would make sure their inboxes had a stream of beautiful images. I’d show them how excited I was and hope that feeling was contagious.

And while I was being The Most Passionate User, the engineers kept improving the algorithms. Soon, more and more of our testers really liked their photo spheres, so we were able to launch in Android 4.2 in October 2012. And people have loved it. I’m as active as ever sharing my favorite photo spheres on my Views profile and my Google+ page. Most importantly, I’m having way more fun not trying to be “the smartest”.

Alright, so let’s summarize. If you’re not the smartest, take a deep breath… and admit it. Say to yourself, “I’m not the smartest guy in the room.” Perhaps this is the first time you’ve ever explicitly done that. Take another deep breath… Embrace the freedom. That’s step one. You’re half way there.

Now, for step two, figure out what quality you have that helps you succeed. Reflect on this. I suspect it’s often something your elementary school teachers said about you as well. If you don’t know (or even if you do), ask your peers for feedback. Google has a peer review process that makes this easy. If your company doesn’t do that, suggest it to HR. It’s infinitely valuable to your growth as a person. Of course, you might hear some bad stuff too. But, handling constructive criticism is a story for another day…

What helps YOU succeed despite not being the smartest person in the room? Let me know!

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