Back in high school and undergrad, I was an excellent student: high marks, attended every class, and generally did what a model student ought to do.1 I was also pretty cocky — at least in the narrow domain of academic related things. Although I didn’t think myself as being smarter than others (just having a better system for school), I was pretty confident in my abilities to do well and wasn’t afraid to let others know about it.2

When others were complaining about the workload, I assiduously did all the required work. Other times they would complain about the poor teaching skills of the professors (especially in math-heavy courses), where I usually didn’t have too much trouble following along (and where I did have trouble, I wrote everything down, went home to review the notes as required, which usually resolved things). I once scored a perfect grade on a mid-term where the average was close to failing (and also had a perfect grade for a calculus course due to a 100% weighting of the final exam as an option). It’s not too difficult to see a young man who otherwise isn’t very exemplary in other respects, cling onto the one thing that he excels at: academic excellence. Cockiness aside, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t a jerk about it (I hope), I just didn’t hide the fact that I didn’t find things difficult as others, and in many cases thought it was easy. If I had stayed along this path, I’m pretty sure things would have not turned out as well as they did for me. School is an incredibly artificial construct that rarely resembles the real world. And if I kept up with that attitude, I was probably in for a rude awakening, or worse yet, be in denial about it. Luckily some smart people (literally) helped me along the way.

Graduate school was a formative time in this respect. I was simultaneously studying for my Master’s (and PhD later on) while working at a startup my advisor founded trying to commercialize his research. The lucky break I had with this opportunity is that I met a couple of folks, one of my advisor’s students and one at the startup, who set me straight. But they didn’t do it directly, in fact, I’m pretty sure they didn’t even know or mean to do it. All they really did was be great colleagues and give me the opportunity to work alongside them, except for one very important detail: they were obviously smarter than me.

Now smart can be defined in many ways, but however you define it, occasionally you meet someone who is just on a different level than you. It’s not that they just have more experience or work harder (sometimes it’s both or neither), their brains just work faster than yours. They’re quicker, get to the conclusion faster, frame the problem in ways that you hadn’t imagined, and all around are just clearly better than you at solving precisely the types of problems you think you’re good at. And for me, meeting not one but two of these fellows, gave me the great privilege of being greatly humbled.

Here I was this hotshot who did so well in school, but felt completely dwarfed by these two folks. I soon realized that I wasn’t the smartest in the room, and I had to adjust accordingly. And it was probably done in the best way possible where these two folks would actually mentor me and help me learn. What better environment can there be than to have super smart nice people help you learn and grow? This is one of the reasons why I look back so fondly on my graduate school days even though it was (at times) tortuous work being on the paper publishing treadmill while simultaneously working for a struggling startup.

Since then I’ve had the opportunity to work with a few others who were on another level and it’s been one of the great joys of my career. And it’s not only been on an intellectual level. I met others who were just on some higher plane of thinking in other areas such as emotional intelligence, leadership or salesmanship. It’s been so rewarding learning from them, often times just by working alongside them. Growing alongside smart folks who are nice enough to have me along for the ride has been one of the great privileges I’ve had in my career.

Nowadays, I’m a lot less cocky about most things (but I think others would agree that I’m still not quite modest). If I were to guess, some of it ironically stems from the confidence I’ve gained in my abilities that has allowed me to eschew that unnecessary crutch. However, I know at least a big part of it is due to all the amazingly smart folks that I’ve met and worked with along the way. Without the opportunity to work alongside them, learn from them, and grow with them, I would be in a very different place in my career. If you haven’t had a similar experience yet, I highly recommend it, because it’s probably one of the most impactful things that can happen in your career.

  1. This is kind of an ironic statement in a post about humility but I quantitatively was a very good student. I had the highest graduating grade point average in my high school and second in my region. In my undergrad, I actually had the highest average in my graduating class and got an award to that effect. Although for my undergrad it’s a bit misleading because I believe someone in my program-year had a higher average than me but that year they had two computer engineering classes so technically I was first in my class but second in my year. []
  2. In other matters though, I was a complete novice, dating being a good example, but that’s a story for another post. []