The old adage about being the smartest person in the room has been attributed to many, Confucius being the most historical reference. But no matter who said it, there is a lot of wisdom packed into the quote. Even back in 500s BC, the time Confucius philosophized about morality and social relationships, it was evident that being around those who can impart their knowledge upon you is more beneficial than the reverse.
When we talk about the importance of being a part of a multi-dimensional community, this is the wisdom we’re drawing on. It’s not so much about being or not being the smartest person in the room as it is about the way you present yourself. When you show up, are you often the one speaking? Do you make space for others to be heard? Do you try to defend your thinking, or do you allow yourself to learn?
There is something to learn from every single person you come into contact with, no matter their age, experience, or background. When you are willing to be the learner rather than the learned, you open yourself up to endless possibilities — and that’s what being an Exploratory Leader is all about.
When we launched Studio/E in 2011, we began with the intention of bringing people from diverse industries together so they could learn from one another and help each other grow. We’ve learned a lot since we started about what it takes to be the learner amongst all of the intelligent people in the room.
HERE’S A HANDFUL OF OUR MOST USEFUL LEARNINGS:
- When you meet someone at a cocktail party, do everything you can not to ask what they do for work. What matters is who that person is, what they’re into, and more interestingly: why. Here are some sample questions to ask instead:
- What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? What about that thing interests you so much?
- What are you passionate about that few know about you?
- Who is your hero and why?
- If you lived in a different era, which would you choose and why would you have thrived then?
- What was the last book you read? What book has impacted you the most?
- If you happen to be the smartest person in the room (let’s say you are an English teacher and the dinner table conversation enters your territory, for example), carve out room for others. There’s a lot to be learned from a non-classically trained person about literature. See what resonates with them. Let them argue why James Baldwin was the best essayist of all time, and learn from their opinions. You may or may not disagree, but giving them room to speak progresses the conversation while also giving you an inside look at someone else’s apprehension of something you know so well.
- Encourage others to share their personal stories with you. Chief Inclusion Officer at U.S. Bank recently told us, “Through our stories is where we find our humanity; that’s where we find what we share in common. The titles go away and all of the things that divide us go away. If there are 50 things that define us, there are probably 5 things that divide us and 45 things we can agree on. Let’s do the 45. That comes about through sharing personal stories.” Who people are, what they believe in, and what they’re passionate about are the details that help us find important commonalities between us. These personal stories matter so much more than job titles.
- You won’t always agree with people, but that doesn’t mean you should defend your way of thinking. It’s hard to learn something new while defending your thoughts. This goes back to point number two — you’re going to get a whole lot more value out of letting someone else talk than convincing others why your ideas and opinions are correct. If you find you’re often trying to defend your way of thinking, you might want to do some personal exploration to find out why. And maybe read this Forbes piece.
- Ask how you can help. This opens up so many doors to relationships and other opportunities. Connection is like a web, and the more connections you provide others with, the more rungs on your interconnected web you will create. Asking people how you can help them creates trust, which brings us to our next point:
- Trust is fundamental to all relationships. When you are in a room of people, make it known that you can be trusted; that what others share with you will remain in that room. Global trust leader and Studio/E alum David Horsager says that trust is the greatest motivator and that it multiplies influence and impact. If you are not someone in whom others can trust, your influence will erode and all of the wonderful things you can contribute to the learning community will become less valuable.
Next time you’re in a room with somebody (this of course includes the metaphorical video conferencing rooms we’ve all been a part of lately), look around. Notice who’s there, who’s talking, and who you think has wisdom to share but isn’t being given the space to do so. They will be grateful, and you can only learn from what they have to offer. Being a part of a learning community in which you can surround yourself with people different from you is one of the best ways to learn, connect, and remain relevant.
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