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Being Smart in a Less Smart World

How to fit in without dumbing down.

Smart people have a dilemma. You can dumb yourself down to avoid being seen as conceited. Or you can show your smarts and risk making people feel less-than. That can make people ostracize you or even try to get you fired: “He’s demeaning, not a team player. He’s full of himself.”

Of course, you can avoid that dilemma if you can adjust your work and/or personal life to more often be around smart people. Doing that may also enable you to accomplish more and help you grow, just as athletes, to improve their game, play with strong players.

But when you’re with lesser lights, these might help:

Couch. When offering an idea, couch it to avoid appearing like a show-off. For example, “I’m wondering whether this might work (insert your thought.) What do you think?” Couching may also help when you’re criticizing or blaming, for example, “I’m not sure I’m right, but it strikes me that (insert criticism or blame.) Am I missing something?”

Solo. If you’d feel stifled on the team you’d be on, try to get solo projects. For example, ask if you might submit a written proposal or report for the team to consider. Even if it will have to be approved by the team, unlike in a meeting, you’re not repeatedly sounding like a know-it-all. As a result, a solo project usually enables you to use all your intelligence without arousing resentment. That’s especially likely if your cover note uses the aforementioned couching, for example, “I’ve taken a shot at writing this business plan. What do you all think of it? Any suggestions for improvement?”

Acknowledge your limitations. No one’s brilliant at everything. When someone else could do the job better or even nearly as well as you could, consider asking for their help.

My wife, Dr. Barbara Nemko, even recommends occasional self-deprecation: “Contrary to the standard advice, I’ve found that self-deprecation doesn’t lower my credibility. Rather, it makes people view me as more human and accessible.” Of course, she is a top schools superintendent. If you’re not as loftily perched, you may or may not want to try self-deprecation.

Wiser to be kind or right? Your idea may indeed be smart, your criticizing or blaming deserved. But sometimes, speaking up isn’t worth the price. Use that intelligence of yours to assess whether, in a particular case, it’s wise to forgo speaking up in exchange for a larger good. Making coworkers often feel inadequate can demotivate them, just as when academically weak schoolchildren are placed in a class with scholastic stars--They’re constantly confronted with their weakness, which can be dispiriting.

Be grateful. If you are one of the sharper tools in the shed, it’s not all your doing: You didn’t choose your parents, the neighborhood you grew up in, nor the schools you attended. You probably have been pretty lucky. It’s usually appropriate to feel a little humble and grateful.