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How to Work With People Who Are Smarter Than You

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The disciples of Jesus appear to have been persistently afflicted with status anxiety. In three of the Gospels (Matt. 18:1, Mark 9:33-34, Luke 9:46) they are caught arguing about who was the greatest among them. Even at the Last Supper, on the night before Jesus was crucified, they were still squabbling over who was the top dog of their pack (Luke 22:24).

Of the twelve, four seem to stand out as contenders for the role of most valued apostle. Peter, James, and John were present at all of the major recorded happenings during Jesus’s ministry. And Peter, John, James, and Andrew are each grouped together at the top of the listing of disciples (Matt. 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16, Acts 1:13). Out of this group, though, Peter seems to have the most obvious claim to the title.

But then came Paul.

Peter likely viewed himself as the smartest of the original bunch. He could consider himself the intellectual equal of John, James, and Andrew who were all, like him, former fisherman. But Paul was different. The tentmaker was highly educated, proficient in Koine Greek, and had studied under the Rabbi Gamaliel (a Pharisee whom Peter and the other apostles faced in the Sanhedrin [Acts 5:17-39]). Paul was arguably the smartest of the apostles.

Of course, Peter was smart too, and he became more than competent as a theologian. Yet he appears to have also had the intellectual humility to recognize Paul’s superior intellect. Peter even admits that Paul’s “letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16), an admission of intellectual inferiority that was likely difficult to make.

Surrounded by Pauls

Many of us face a similar situation as Peter. We work for bosses or alongside peers who are “smarter” than us—that is, who have an innate intellectual ability or level of vocational knowledge that exceeds our own. We may even be above average in intellect compared to the human population, and yet find ourselves surrounded by smarter people. We’re hemmed in on all sides by Pauls. That has certainly been my experience over the past three decades.

When I was in the Marines I worked in a field (avionics) that included some of the brightest and most competent men and women in the military. Compared to them, my abilities were below average in almost every way. After leaving the service I then worked in a series of jobs at think-tanks, policy organizations, magazines, and ministries in which I was almost always the least educated and least brainy person in the group.

You might be in the same situation. You might be a new graduate entering a challenging vocation or a seasoned worker trying to overcome imposter syndrome (i.e., persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”). If so, you might be surprised to find there are benefits and advantages from never being the smartest person in the room. Here are some of the lessons I learned that might be helpful for you.

Five Lessons for Working with Smart(er) People

Take advantage of your freedom — There’s a lot of pressure being the smartest person in a group—and a genuine freedom from never having that problem. If you have a reputation for being the brightest intellect at work, you are constantly at risk of losing that status by exposing that you don’t know something everyone else knows. But if you don’t have such status to lose, you have the freedom to ask “dumb” questions that increase your knowledge and understanding.

Don’t apologize or feel inferior . . . — While there is nothing wrong with recognizing that those around you have more intellectual gifting, don’t downplay your own intellect. More often than not you’ll come across as being self-pitying or disingenuous, as if you’re humble-bragging or fishing for a compliment. Rather than bringing attention to what you might lack, learn the “secret of being content in any and every situation” (Phil. 4:12, NIV). You may not be smart enough to do anything, but you’re likely smart enough to be used for God’s purposes.

. . . But work hard to improve your abilities — We tend to equate “smart” with having a high IQ and assume it’s an innate and unchangeable characteristic. But the type of “smart” that leads to general flourishing can be increased though effort. Seven years ago the renowned educator E. D. Hirsch Jr. pointed out that the “correlation between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research.” As Hirsch adds,

Of course, vocabulary isn’t perfectly correlated with knowledge. People with similar vocabulary sizes may vary significantly in their talent and in the depth of their understanding. Nonetheless, there’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary. Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter.

Hirsch goes on to explain why a large vocabulary results not from memorizing word lists but from “acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds” and occurs through a method called “content-based instruction.” Reading broadly and often is an ideal way to become smarter (at least that’s been my experience). Another is to take advantage of the brains around you. Ask questions of your peers and tap into the knowledge they possess for your own edification. Peter might have not always understood Paul’s letters, but he likely used the relationship he had with his fellow apostle to increase his own understanding.

Serve the smart — If you’re surrounded by people who are smarter than you, it’s likely because God has put you there to serve them. Many knowledge-based occupations tend to attract a narrow range of personality types. You might have gifts, such as empathy, that are often not manifest in your particular field. Use those abilities to build up those around you.

You can also use your humility to show others how to use their intellectual gifts. As Grant Macaskill observes, knowledge and understanding are often treated as commodities, functioning within an economy of achievement and honor. They become things we acquire and then trade upon, when they should be received with gratitude and shared as gifts. “Rather than fullness of knowledge serving to maintain strata, between the wise and the foolish—the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’—fullness becomes a source or wellspring that transmits its content to others in order to communicate blessing,” Macaskill says. We can serve smart people by helping them share their gifts of knowledge with us and with others.

We can also help to show them that, as John Piper says, that if knowing is not serving others it’s not true knowing. As Piper adds, “If you have knowledge that is making you proud, rather than loving, you don’t really know anything.”

Remember: Intellect ain’t everything In every culture and economy throughout history, some physical traits or abilities became more valued than others. For hunter-gather tribes it was dexterity and visual acuity. For agricultural societies it was stamina and perseverance. And in the age of the “knowledge worker” it’s the facility to process and manipulate information.

Having a minimum level of proficiency in working with data and information is often necessary to get a job. But to keep a job usually requires other characteristics, such as integrity, reliability, and being even-tempered. If you can’t be the smartest person in the office, strive to stand out in other ways. Be the one with the most grit, what the Bible refers to as “steadfastness” and “endurance.” Be the one that has the ability to apply wisdom. Be what your team needs by bringing a different ability than mere intellect. And most importantly, be what God intends you to be by using the brains he’s given you to bless others.

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