The SuperSmart at Work

Succeeding solo, with peers, or with lesser lights.

Posted May 03, 2020

Anders Sandberg, Flickr, CC 2.0
Source: Anders Sandberg, Flickr, CC 2.0

In the past, brilliant people often chose to work solo, because by definition, the person has few peers, and most people like to work with peers or betters.

But today, most major accomplishment requires a team. So the brilliant person is more likely to try to get a job within a pocket of brilliance, for example, the innovation labs at premier companies like Google, Apple, or, Procter & Gamble, or at universities, although the hunting license for academic jobs is a long slog through a PhD and often a post-doc.

Alas, unless a person is off-the-charts brilliant and/or a connected schmoozer, it’s hard even for the supersmart to land such a job. So they often must settle for work in a more heterogeneous workplace. Key to their success there is knowing how to work with lesser lights without dumbing themselves down. Doing that reduces the risk of defensive workers’ sabotage, for example, withholding key information, or telling bosses you’re a know-it-all and not a team player but rather, a destroyer of worker motivation.  

Keys to keeping on coworkers' good side include doing much of your thinking-work solo and then requesting coworkers' input, for example, “Here are some thoughts on X. What do you think? Honest feedback more than welcome.” In meetings, restrain yourself from any tendency to dominate. Many brilliant people have an endless flow of ideas. If unbridled, that can overwhelm and disempower the group. One way to mitigate that is to make yourself wait until the discussion of a topic is nearly finished and then chime in with what I call a crowning comment, such as, "Sam raised a good point (insert.) In light of that, I’m wondering whether we should Y. What do you think?” Waiting and then making a crowning comment yields multiple benefits:

  •  Everyone will have had a chance to say their piece, so they’ll be more open to hearing yours.
  •  Your suggestion can incorporate their good ideas, as in the Sam example.
  •  Your having been silent may make some people curious what you, the group’s brainiac, thinks.

Going solo

 Of course, the supersmart person can still opt to work solo, for example, being a self-employed creator or consultant, contacting others as-needed, just-in-time.

Being a solo operator does require you to be a self-starter. If that doesn't come easily to you, these suggestions might help:

  • Ritualize.  For example, if, when working for an employer, you were willing to show up every day at the specified time, shouldn't you do that when you'll derive all the benefit?
  • Use the one-second start.  Getting started is often the hardest part. A way to make it easier is to do just the task's first one-second part, for example, naming the new file you need to work on. That could get you rolling.
  • Go 20/5. Set a timer for 20 minutes. Work hard for 20, then take 5 to do whatever you want. Repeat.
  • Remind yourself of your cosmic obligation to use the gift of your brainpower for good.

The takeaway

As I recently wrote, intelligence is among the most valuable gifts we can receive. Perhaps this article’s tips can help you make the most of yours.

I ad lib on this topic on YouTube.