Dreaming about the Future

I’m a child of the 80’s. I’ve always been obsessed with computers and technology. So obviously “Back to the Future Part II” wasn’t just a movie to me, it was a roadmap; a roadmap to a time when we won’t need… insert dramatic pause… roads. This week, on October 21, 2015 we celebrate “Back to the Future Day”, the so called “future” predicted back in 1989.

So what the heck happened?!?! Where are my friggin’ flying cars and hoverboards?

The flying Delorean in
The flying Delorean in “Back to the Future Part II”.

But I’m not going to talk about flying cars and hoverboards because what they represent is far more important. These crazy technologies represent our hope for a “fantastic future” (a term borrowed from Ashley Vance’s excellent book about Elon Musk).

For a 9-year old kid in 1989 looking into the future, 26 years is a long friggin’ time. Everything seemed possible. Or said another way, nothing seemed impossible.

What if you could keep this feeling that nothing is impossible for your entire life? If you could truly believe in the feasibility of flying cars and Mr. Fusion and self-lacing shoes and dog-walking drones? Imagine what you could achieve! You wouldn’t stop pursuing your idea as soon as some “expert” told you it was impossible. After all, many of the world’s greatest inventions were once thought to be impossible by “experts”. And, even if your idea did turn out to be impossible, how much smarter would you be if you learned this through your own trial-and-error? And how many other ideas might you come up with along the way?

But sadly, that childlike sense of wonder gets beaten out of us at an early age. Kids often stop dreaming about an idea when an adult tells them it’s too hard or impossible. I’ve had students tell me this when I speak at schools! How horrible is it that? Try talking about crazy solutions to a hard problem with a 9-year old and a 16-year old. I bet you have a more creative discussions with the younger child. It’s like our imagination is filtered as we get older.

Schools reward students for memorization, adherence, and uniformity instead of problem solving, exploration, and uniqueness. We need more kids like Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys who, after watching Sputnik in the night sky in 1957, developed a passion for building rockets that drove them to learn difficult math and science far beyond their school curricula. We need more kids like Jack Andraka, who lost a loved-one to pancreatic cancer and became determined to develop a very inexpensive test for the disease. We need more kids like Malala Yousafzai, who became the youngest Nobel Prize winner through her advocacy for women and education in Pakistan. We need more kids who are allowed to veer off track to pursue their passions with an encouraging teacher or local mentor.

The thing is, I suspect most of our kids start out just like Malala, Homer, and Jack. Sure, not everyone is gifted in the same way, but I’m confident that kids who are encouraged to pursue their passions could achieve far more than if they are forced to be like everyone else. By definition, when you make everyone enter a “standardized testing” system, you’re creating a system in which some kids win and some kids lose. We all lose when that happens. And, we all certainly lose when children of lower socioeconomic status and diverse backgrounds don’t get a fair opportunity to compete and innovate.

What sucks even more is that children raised in these systems of standardization become adults that perpetuate analogous ways of thinking in the corporate world. No, I don’t have data on this, so tell me if I’m wrong… but it makes intuitive sense, right? Many kids are raised in an environment where success is based entirely on their quarterly school report cards and annual standardized tests. As adults, might these kids run companies that prize quarterly earnings reports and shareholder value rather than long-term innovation and impact on the world? What if K-12 schools graded students on a three-year-long science project? Or six years to master a musical instrument? Or two years to write a novel? Wouldn’t students encouraged in this way be more likely to pursue their dreams and think innovatively about a far-off fantastic future?

As we get older, too many of us stop thinking with wild optimism and creativity like we did when we were kids. We let our fears of criticism or our rational brains hold us back from exploring something where we might fail. We stop proposing ideas about how things could be and instead restrict our thinking to what can get implemented this quarter. We stop daydreaming about flying. We stop having imaginary friends like Hobbes was for Calvin. We stop drawing dinosaurs in our notebooks. And that really sucks. I’d love to see the person next to me in a meeting drawing a tyrannosaurus rex instead of writing an email!

Yes, the past 30 years have given us mind-blowing innovations like the Internet and supercomputers in our pockets. So we’re doing something right. But not enough people are engaged in creating revolutionary “moonshot” products or addressing real-world problems. We have way too many challenges in this world to allow this to keep happening. The fantastic future we dream of now is different than it was in the 1980s; we must also focus on offsetting the negative effects of climate change and a struggling crowded planet.

We’re losing many of our best and brightest people to things that don’t matter. I am frustrated by how many startups are creating apps in which “success” is defined by how often they can distract people from the world around them for fifteen seconds. Look, we all definitely want and need entertainment (I love Netflix, YouTube, Pandora, Audible, Instagram, etc.), so there’s definitely a balance to strike here. But we probably don’t need so many of our brilliant engineers and entrepreneurs graduating from college only to apply their talent towards building apps and games. Imagine what else these amazing people could do!

If we think about everyone’s talents in a society as a resource that should be deployed strategically for the sake of all mankind, I’d argue we’ve failed epically on this.

I’m not blaming anyone here. Incentives need to be aligned better. This is a systemic problem and no single group or person is at fault. I’m writing this because I want to create solutions. I think the biggest moonshot for the next decade is convincing the world to work on moonshots. And I want your help. We’ve all gotta figure this out together. I don’t need a flying car or a hoverboard, but I need to believe that we can dream of a fantastic future and have the critical mass of smart, creative people (especially children) who will get us there someday.

If you interact with children in any way, please never tell them something is impossible. Help them pursue their interests and let them discover the challenges on their own. If they have a crazy idea that you can’t help them with, find someone in your community (or online) who can help. Challenge them to think BIGGER, not smaller. When you watch movies like “Back to the Future Part II” with kids, ask them what excites them about the future. Help them figure out how they can be part of creating that fantastic future we all desire.

We need our kids to continue dreaming of a radically better future… they are our best hope!

Need Career Experience? Invent Your Own Job & Work for Free.

I often speak with students who are trying to land an internship or part-time role to get some job experience. But it’s a really competitive world, so even for these positions, most employers want to hire someone who already has experience. This presents an obvious challenge, so students always ask me:

“How do I get experience if nobody will hire me until I have experience?”

So let’s answer this once and for all. It’s actually really simple. Invent your own job and be willing to work for free. Here’s how it works…

First, you need to acknowledge that if you don’t have any job experience, you’re a really risky bet for any prospective employer. Companies don’t like risks in hiring since bringing on the right people is the most important thing a company does.

So you need to lower a company’s risk in hiring you. How do you do that? Offer to work for free… either for the company you want to go to or another one that will get you the experience first. This is worth way more than whatever salary you’ll get.

If you’re thinking that most companies won’t let you work for free, you’re absolutely right. However, SOME companies will jump at your offer to work for free. I’ll tell you how to find these companies below. Just remember that if you stick with the traditional way of doing things, you’re competing head to head with everyone else. That sucks. So, why not try something novel and give yourself a huge advantage?

Ok, let’s make this happen. It’s all about finding things you’re passionate about. So first, create a list of your favorite companies or people in the following categories. It’s better if they’re in your town and not really big or famous, but don’t worry about that right now.

  • nonprofit organizations
  • professors (if you’re in school)
  • small businesses (restaurants, retail, etc.)
  • newspapers, magazines, radio stations
  • authors, artists, bands
  • schools / departments

You’ll be surprised at how much help many of these organizations need. I guarantee it. One universal truth is that every organization looks better from the outside than from the inside. They need more help than you think.

Look at your list and imagine yourself working with these organizations or people. Think about the skills you have or want to develop. Think about what you’d love to do with them. Are you excited? I sure hope so… it’s your list!

Now, read the sentence below and never ever forget it. Burn it into your memory. Ok?

The easiest job to get is the one you invent yourself.

So, here are your five steps. Then I’ll explain them further below.

  1. identify an organization
  2. learn about their needs
  3. figure out how you can provide value
  4. make your pitch
  5. if necessary, offer to work for free

If you do those steps, don’t you think you have a decent chance of success? Certainly better than following the traditional approach of applying to a position listed on an organization’s website. When you do that, you’re competing against dozens or even hundreds of other applicants. And let’s face it, many of them will be similar to you… maybe even (dare I say it) more qualified than you. Ouch. That’s why you’re not going to put all your eggs in that basket, right?

So, do some research into the potential employers on your list. What might they need that you can do? Or, maybe you just love that organization and are willing to work hard for them doing whatever is required. Either way, write these ideas down. Start formulating these into a short 2-3 sentence pitch. You see what you’re doing…

You’re writing your own job description!

Figure out the best way to introduce yourself. If the organization is local, try to go in person. If not, email is fine too. Of course, also look through your personal network and see if you have any connections into these organizations. If so, ask for an intro.

When you speak with this organization, remember that you’re trying something unconventional. They may have no precedent for someone doing the work you want to do, so you might need to walk them through it and why you’re offering up your time. If they’re willing to pay you, great! If not, you’re going to offer to work for free.

For example, maybe you’re offering to build a website and run the social media accounts for a local animal shelter in order to boost their pet adoption rate. You should explain your background, your passion for what they do, and talk about the dog your family adopted when you were a kid. Tell them you’re excited to help and in the process build up your skills and confidence. Think about what you’ll want to say on your resume or in an interview someday, and go get that experience.

Critically, make sure the employer knows you’re not just volunteering to support the cause, but that you also have an important goal to get experience for your career someday. You don’t want your time to be abused by them. You’re there to learn. Some people will find this admirable and “get it”. Others won’t. Don’t fight it, go with people / organizations who get it. Those people may become great mentors for you and perhaps even write a recommendation letter for you someday. And, you never quite know how this will come back to help you someday. The universe is funny that way.

Trust me, this works. Not at every organization, but for some. I’ve worked with several award-winning authors and nonprofits through this approach. Some of those lead to paying jobs later. And I built up my resume in the process.

Let me end with a personal story. My first real job was as a summer research assistant for one of my college psychology professors. It was a Human Perception lab that also conducted research using Virtual Reality. Cool, huh? I had some web development and design experience, but not much… and it wasn’t too relevant anyway. I had no background in research since I had only finished one year of college. So, I went up to the professor after class one day and offered to work for free that summer. I knew I would never have gotten the job otherwise. He confirmed that years later.

I worked for that professor for four more years, we still speak regularly (now 16 years later), and he has been the most valuable mentor in my career. I even got my first post-college job through someone in his lab… and it was in Honolulu! During my eight years in Hawaii, I had a great career (and met my wife) that set me up nicely to get hired at Google. And none of this would have happened had I not offered to work for free to get experience.

Later in my career I’ve done this again and again for authors, nonprofits, artists, and more. It’s always been a great learning experience and introduced me to some incredible people. And, when you help causes you care about, you feel really damn good about your contributions in the world. And that happiness worth a fortune!

I’ve advised many students to follow this strategy and I know it’s worked for some of them. So please, give it a shot! And, let me know if it works for you too. Good luck out there!

Converting “Dumb” Luck

How Standup Paddling Lead me to Google[x] and Facing Down a Maori Haka with the World’s Greatest Ocean Navigators

Originally posted on National Geographic Voices.

Just ahead of us stood dozens of large Maori who pounded their bare chests, summoning blood until their skin glowed red. The cold gray skies and brisk ocean winds made our situation feel more grave. The whites of the angry men’s eyes doubled in size as they bulged. Tongues shot down to their chins. Weapons flashed with blinding speed as everyone jumped in unison. Powerful screams hit us with the force of a hurricane. We were fortunate that this “haka,” a traditional Maori war cry, was not to precede a battle, but to welcome us as friends and respected voyagers.

Maori haka
Maori haka

Life is full of chance events. Sometimes they even determine our future more than our own careful planning. We call this “luck.” If something happens completely outside of your control, then we call that subset “dumb luck.”

But when you convert dumb luck into something valuable, you’re demonstrating a skill, and that takes practice. When you position yourself so that “lucky” things seem to happen around you more frequently than chance predicts, then that is most certainly not luck at all. Let me explain the highly improbable yet fortunate events over the past year of my life.

Twelve months before I met the Maori in New Zealand, I set out on my standup paddle board on a hot sunny day into the blue-green tropical waters of Hawaii, claiming a few hours alone to clear my mind. Leaving the long white sandy beach behind me, I suppose now that I was paddling in the general direction of California, more than 2,500 miles away. But nothing was farther from my mind than 60–80 hour work weeks in Silicon Valley. And yet, my adventure with Google[x] was about to begin with a canoe, anchored just a mile away down the beach.

Anyone from Hawaii can tell you the story of Hōkūle’a, the famous Polynesian voyaging canoe that sailed to Tahiti in 1976 using only the stars, currents, and birds as her guide. She helped prove the theory of Polynesians as master navigators who regularly traversed the vast Pacific Ocean like a highway system, millennia before Columbus stumbled into the “New World.” Every student in Hawaii can explain Hōkūle’a’s critical role in sparking the Hawaiian cultural renaissance, restoring pride and bringing back a people and language from the brink of extinction. Everyone feels her tremendous “mana” — a spiritual energy that draws you to her for reasons beyond explanation.

Hōkūleʻa in Kualoa
Hōkūleʻa in Kualoa

 

As I was paddling that afternoon, I noticed crowds gathering on the shore. When a nearby paddler told me it was a ceremony for Hōkūle’a, I instinctively caught the next wave and paddled straight towards the inspirational canoe. Many others were doing the same thing.

It was pure dumb luck for me that Hōkūle’a happened to be anchored on that exact beach at that exact time. An hour later she set sail along the coast, far out of my site. Had I been there an hour later, or had I headed home sooner, none of the following events would have happened. But just as potential energy inevitably and increasingly converts to kinetic energy when an object falls, this moment of my story is where the power of dumb luck is eclipsed by focus, preparation, and a series of other “chance” events.

This is when I saw an opportunity and made something happen.

Of course I had no idea what might happen if I paddled over to Hōkūle’a and sat in the water next to her for an hour while the crew prepared for departure. Usually nothing noteworthy happens when you position yourself in the middle of the action. I “met” Bill Gates once, which is to say that I almost knocked into him at the Four Seasons on Lanai. I sat at a nearby table in the restaurant for the next thirty minutes, hoping for some way to speak with him without annoying his family during lunch. But nothing happened and I eventually moped back to my room. I dreamt of alternative plot lines for my life that began with a chance encounter with the world’s wealthiest man.

So, it was not “purely” dumb luck when someone on Hōkūle’a yelled out my name as I sat on my standup paddle board. A former colleague was on board, helping Hōkūle’a as a volunteer. We chatted briefly and followed up by email. A month later I met the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) staff to discuss using Google Maps and Street View for their upcoming circumnavigation of the Earth with Hōkūle’a and Hikianalia.

This is where worlds collide in a beautiful way…

Google[x] is the division within Google responsible for “moonshots,” which are in the “the gray area between audacious projects and pure science fiction.” The term refers to President Kennedy’s “we choose the moon” speech in 1962 when he declares the United States would place a man on the moon by the end of the decade, even though they did not yet know how to do so. From self-driving cars to atmospheric balloons providing Internet access to nanoparticles that detect cancer, Google[x] dreams of making impossible things a reality for the betterment of mankind.

There’s a Google[x] video that explains “Moonshot Thinking” in which a Google[x] engineer, Rich DeVaul, explains how this type of thinking has been critical in the history of humanity and responsible for our greatest achievements. “Think about the Polynesian islander on the dugout canoe, deciding one day they were going to go that way,” Rich states as he points his hand to a distant point off camera. “No one had ever been that way before; no one even knew if there was anything that way before. It was amazing and it changed the world.”

So, during the meeting with the PVS, someone showed me this video and asked me to contact Rich. I got “chicken skin” from this exciting coincidence. What were the odds of a Google[x] engineer referencing Polynesian voyaging?

I spent an hour writing a short email to Rich. We connected and discussed our mutual interest in Hawaiian culture. Magical things started to happen. Eventually the PVS crew came to California to visit my team at Google Maps. We also stopped at Google[x], where legendary Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson shared the story of Hokulea and inspired the audience with Hawaii’s own moonshot thinking. World-renowned scientists and engineers asked question after question with curiosity and the sense of wonder that makes children so endearing.

Nainoa Thompson navigating without modern equipment
Nainoa Thompson navigating without modern equipment

Several months later, a position on Rich’s team in Google[x] opened up for a new project he was starting (unrelated to anything I’m discussing here). I jumped at the opportunity to work with someone as accomplished and inspiring as Rich. Independently, I continued to volunteer my personal time helping PVS best use Google’s products to achieve their goals of communicating the voyage to a global audience. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to join their crew and meet up with them in New Zealand, where I took part in the Maori welcoming ceremony.

Reflecting on the events of the past year, this all still sounds like fiction to me. Too good to be true. So many chance events. So much luck. So much joy. You couldn’t engineer something like this. Or could you?

It didn’t have to unfold this way. Nothing would have occurred if I didn’t paddle across the bay towards Hōkūle’a to put myself in the middle of the action. And while these events lead me to Google[x] and Hōkūle’a, I can imagine an infinite number of alternative plot lines that would have seemed equally improbable that day. Some good. Some bad. Maybe one in which I ended up sailing to Samoa and working with a Nobel Prize winner. Or another in which I nearly drown and get fired from my job. Those sound crazy, but only because they didn’t happen.

I believe that you can create your own “luck.” You need to be observant, willing to take some risks, and comfortable with wearing your heart on your sleeve. Put things out into the universe and ultimately something incredible will occur. And when it does, you should be grateful that dumb luck gave you that moment, but you’ll have yourself to thank for all that follows.

See more photos of Hōkūleʻa & Hikianalia arriving in Waitangi, New Zealand.

Hokulea at sunset

All photos copyright of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

The 10-Second Résumé

You’re not a homogenous list of boring bullet points.

My theory* is you have 10 seconds to make an impact with your résumé. I’ll explain why and provide some tips to pass the “10 second test”.

Talented people, bad résumés

Countless books and articles explain how to create a résumé, but there’s room for one more. How do I know? Because I see a LOT of terrible résumés when I interview people. The candidates are often brilliant and creative, passionate and successful, but their résumés simply suck. This is sad. I don’t like seeing such amazing people fail.

I occasionally do career mentoring and the people I speak with tell me that the résumé tips below are very helpful. So I decided to share this more broadly. I hope it helps you, too.

Résumé: a short document that turns a creative, intelligent person into a homogenous list of boring bullet points.

What we’ll cover

  1. Evaluate your résumé through the eyes of the person who will read it
  2. Test your résumé with a friend
  3. Fix your résumé to make it pop

Evaluate your résumé

I used to assume that people who read résumés carefully read every word. This was naive. It’s critical you understand the reality: they don’t! The process is more similar to how you scan a menu at a restaurant.

Have empathy for the reader
Do you know who is reading your résumé when you apply for a job? Sometimes it’s a recruiter and sometimes it’s a regular employee who wishes he or she could get back to their normal job. They are going through a stack of résumés from people with many of the same talents and experiences that you have. They are thinking about their job, their family, their next vacation, or what they’ll eat for lunch (mmm, grilled cheese).

This person cares, but they’ve got other things to do too. Put yourself in their shoes. Please. Now let’s continue…

Why you?
If there are a lot of applicants for this position, you can assume plenty of them will be just like you in most ways. Especially on paper. Great experience, proven leadership skills, strong academic background, blah blah blah. So, what makes you stand out amongst the other highly qualified candidates? Often, sadly, there’s not much.

So, here’s my theory…

“The 10-second test”

My theory is that your résumé has just 10 seconds to get across the most important points. If it does, it’ll buy you 20 more seconds. These are the 30 critical seconds that determine if your résumé gets tossed aside or considered for the next round.

Your résumé is your elevator pitch, not your life story. You just need to get to the next stage of the interview process. Period. Now, remember the busy person reading your résumé? Make absolutely sure they see your most important accomplishments first. Make them jump off the page.

Test your résumé

Find someone who doesn’t know your work very well. Let’s call him “Jim”.

Hand Jim a printout of your résumé and tell him he has 30 seconds to read it. But, after just 10 seconds, grab the paper back. Ask Jim what he knows about you from this.

If what Jim says about you is how you’d pitch yourself to the hiring manager, then give Jim back the paper so he can spend 20 more seconds reviewing it. Now, ask Jim to tell you what else he’s learned.

If you like what you hear from Jim, you’ve passed this first test and are way, way ahead of most people. If at either stopping point he doesn’t cover your most important points, then you need to fix your résumé. After you fix it, repeat this process until you pass the test.

Fix your résumé

Let’s fix your résumé starting at the top with the Objective Statement.

“Start with why”

I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek, who wrote the book “Start With Why” (watch his TED talk). His simple but powerful idea is, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. Once you understand someone’s motivation and their personal story, then what they’ve done (their “Experience”) becomes evidence of their determination to execute on their passions and principles.

If you begin your résumé with a strong objective statement, you create a framework for the reader to understand WHY you worked at Company X on Widget Y. Make this statement really powerful. Never ever say that your objective is “To get a position as a Blah Blah Blah…”. You’re applying for the job, so everyone already knows that.

If you don’t know how to write a great Objective Statement, ask yourself why you’re applying to this specific job at this specific company. Ask your friends and family why they think you’d be great at this position. I hope you’re passionate about the work you’ll do there and I’ll assume you really want this job (no?). So make sure your résumé expresses WHY you want the position and how it helps you achieve your personal goals.

Resist the list
Everybody sadly organizes their résumé in reverse chronological order of their previous jobs or projects. Within each section, there’s a set of bullets that are the projects, responsibilities, accomplishments, and skills developed. It’s a list. And it’s tedious to read because there’s no information hierarchy. Nothing looks important. In an attempt to be comprehensive, people dilute their most significant achievements.

Don’t do this! Organize things in a way that makes sense thematically.

I invented a time machine… and did some other stuff too.

As I said before, you want to front-load your résumé with your most important accomplishments. One or two significant accomplishments, given proper context and explanation, should be enough to get the recruiter’s attention. If you’ve done something really impressive, make sure it shines and don’t let anything else risk being a distraction. This needs to pass the 10-second test.

One great accomplishment can get you to the next stage. Don’t let your part-time job at a coffee shop distract the reader from seeing what matters most. I see new college grads make this mistake too often. It’s unlikely that anything you did in your fraternity or club matters to the hiring manager (unless it’s really relevant to the position).

Drop the B.S.
Avoid statements that have no backing to them. Here are some examples of useless sentences and how I’d interpret them if I read them in your résumé. You’ll see they’re now wasted words.

“Brainstormed new ideas for Product X” becomes:
“Sat in a room for a few hours and talked with my co-workers”

“Helped with research on new methods for doing Process Y” becomes:
“Did miscellaneous things in proximity to someone impressive”

Be specific about what you did and what you accomplished. Numbers help demonstrate this. If you can’t do that, then don’t include the sentence. It makes everything else you say look weaker. And it makes me skeptical of all your other accomplishments.

Customize it for each company
If you’re applying to many companies, I doubt you have the exact same reason for wanting each of these positions. So, don’t use the same objective statement for each company. You might even want an entirely different résumé for different companies and different roles.

If this sounds like too much work, then perhaps you don’t want the job badly enough. Beware, someone else will. Spend the extra time if you care. If you do this properly, and show some enthusiasm for the specific role, this will separate you from most people and give you a fighting shot.

Make it pop

Now that you’ve deleted all the excess and irrelevant details, you should have some extra space to make the important parts really pop off the page visually. You might not be a designer, but with a few simple adjustments in font sizes and text alignment, you can make sure the person reading your résumé sees what you want them to see. Make the important items slightly bigger than you’re comfortable with. Explore creative layouts only if you’ve got a good eye for design

Once you have something you like, squint your eyes (yes, literally) and you’ll see if the right things pop. This is really helpful.

I love seeing photos, graphics, screenshots, etc. in résumés, but only do it if this makes sense for your position. Don’t put in anything just for eye candy.

Bring it all together

You should now have a résumé that:

  • passes the 10-second test
  • keeps everything else short and sweet
  • starts with why you’re excited about this position

These tips have helped several people already, so I hope you find it useful as well. Please let me know if this makes a difference for you.

Good luck!

Note: These are my personal opinions and not those of my employer (Google). This is not a how-to guide to get a job at Google. My strategies may not be as relevant for companies that don’t value the same things as me. I’m not a professional career advisor; use my advice at your own discretion.

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!