The Pressure To Always Be The Smartest One In The Room

It is embarrassing. Nerve wracking. Anxiety provoking. I do not know what I am doing. I am not in control. Everyone else has it figured out. Except me.

photo courtesy of Ospan Ali, Unsplash

What was I thinking when I signed up for this class?

I would drop it right now but somewhere in me I know I need it. I know if I can stand being the not-very-smart one, if I can deal with my own creative rumination that tells me I am drowning in my incompetence, I know it will be worth it. Maybe extremely worth it.

Kind of like learning the Argentine tango. I hated it. In the beginning. Everyone was gliding around the room. Effortlessly. Flicking their legs to and fro. Perfectly balanced strides. Unity. One body, four legs.

I was clueless. Clumsy. Nervous. Lost and confused. But, as you know, if you have been reading my blog for a while, it was extremely worth it. It took more than two years of study, practice, and more practice before I felt any sense of cluefulness. And then, more study and practice to get to the stage of maybe-I-can-do-this. And now (after even more years) I experience moments of extreme pleasure. Of unity. Sublime unity.*

You need to hear this.

I know you avoid trying new things because you have to be the smartest one at all costs. Your identity depends on your ingenuity, your winning, your solving the problem, your clever come-back. You have been told you are very smart for many years. You have such great potential. Now you have to keep proving it. Or who are you? Your sense of self has been built on your intelligence and achievements. Praise for your accomplishments. Pressure to be the best. Expectations you now place on yourself.

Am I right?

So, it is risky to try something where you are not guaranteed speedy success. Quite risky, if you want to know the truth. Not only is it terribly uncomfortable, it also proves what you secretly believe to be the case. That you are not as smart as everyone says. You are an impostor. You have been faking it all these years. You have been lucky. The work has been easy. Your teachers liked you.

You are no Elon Musk.

I feel you.

And I am here to tell you there is no better time to take that risk. Be the not-very-smart one. Experience clumsy. Try on clueless. Get lost and confused. Take that class. Dance that tango.

It just might be sublime.

________________________________________

To my bloggEEs: Do you tend to avoid trying something when you are not sure of success? Tell us about it. It is odd, isn’t it? You love learning but your fears of failure hold you back. Let us know if this is true for you (or your kids) and what it’s like. And, as always, thank you for being here. Your comments add so much.

(*Note: Sadly, I am not actually dancing now due to the pandemic.)


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Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in counseling gifted adults and consulting with parents of gifted children. The label “gifted” is often controversial and confusing. I use the metaphor of the rainforest to describe this population. Like the rainforest, these individuals are quite complex, highly sensitive, intense, multi-layered, and misunderstood. They’re also curious, idealistic, highly intelligent, creative, perfectionistic, and they love learning. I’ve been an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, and Advanced Development Journal. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, was released in June 2016 by GHF Press and is available on Amazon or at your independent bookstore. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists, was released in June 2019.

34 responses to “The Pressure To Always Be The Smartest One In The Room”

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  1. Do Mi Stauber Avatar
    Do Mi Stauber

    Oh yes, I’ve experienced this!!

    I had a related experience that I wonder if anyone shares: I tried an activity (horseback riding) that I thought would be difficult for me; I wanted to try and see if I could do it. When the teacher told me I was a natural and she couldn’t believe I hadn’t been riding for years, my reaction was a little bit of pleasure, but mostly, “oh no, not another thing!” Any insights about this?? Maybe another thing to live up to expectations about, take seriously, excel at, when all I wanted was a little try?


    1. Stef Avatar
      Stef

      Yes, that too…


    2. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Sounds like a good idea for another post, Do Mi. Thanks!


    3. The Eccentric Blogger Avatar
      The Eccentric Blogger

      This happens with me a lot! Except horse riding cause never tried that one…yet. That high I get after knowing I’m too good and something and can try anything else I want…but after a time it wears off & I’m back to doubting myself lol


      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        I’m still thinking about how to write about this! Coming soon.


    4. ewabs2 Avatar
      ewabs2

      I have similar experiences. last one was felt art. never done it before. And 3 hours in I have a nice piece of art all by my self. the technical part is easy, just stab with needle’s.
      My mom is convinced it was like painting by numbers. She refuses to believe I did it on my own ( I am 50 by the way).
      with me it is, the first time I do something I am allowed to experiment, if I mess up it doesnt really matter because it was the first time. Most of the time the first try is a succes, and then I expect myself to reach master level in a maximum of 5 tries and if not I am a total failure.
      talk about exhausting and terifing to try new things.


      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        It can be very hard to talk with anyone about how so many things come easily and also the pressure you put on yourself to make that happen every time. Thanks for sharing, ewabs2.


    5. toniokroger90 Avatar
      toniokroger90

      Exactly, all the time! Also, most of the time I am so curious about the new “thing”that I am not even thinking about who is the best in the room, I am not even aware of the room, all my attention is on the learning, I just want to figure out “the story ending” (how to perform that tango step, which are all the possible glazing techniques, what happens if I do this instead of that, etc etc). Then the “ah ah!” moment arrives, when my curiosity is satisfied, and suddenly I become aware of the other people in the room again, usually finding myself excelling without even realizing and feeling really guilty, because I really didn’t want to be the best once again (as you said, not another thing to live up to expectations about, not another thing people will be envious about), I just wanted to “know”.


      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        I’m working on that post about this toniokroger90. You might see yourself quoted in it! 🙂


  2. Maggie Brown Avatar
    Maggie Brown

    I love this Paula! If only we could do some early intervention/prevention work. Let’s post re-post this far and wide!!


    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh yes, please share, Maggie!!


  3. veroniqz Avatar
    veroniqz

    There is also something else involved: I hate to waste! Waste time, waste materials, waste food… so I love to draw but hesitate starting a new drawing, in fear of wasting time and material if it doesn’t come out right… And love to cook and bake healthy stuff, but what if it’s no good and I’ve wasted ingredients… And I’d love to learn new things, but what if I am not good enough and can’t find a job doing that? Waste of time and money! So, yes, there is a lot of hesitation…🙄


    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Interesting ideas, veroniqz. Not wasting. Thank you.


    2. Someti Avatar
      Someti

      I usually think that kind of things too!
      For example: when I was at university, I sometimes wondered if all of what I was studying was enough and if it was worth to make an effort. A few years later (now), I can tell that it turned out to be more than enough and definitely worth it. I am happy with that.
      So if you allow me to give a piece of advice: pursue your dreams and try to do things as good as you can. That way it will be enough, it will not be a waste (of time, or of any other matter) and you’ll find “the purpose” of it all. At least: that’s the way it worked fine for me. 🙂


      1. veroniqz Avatar
        veroniqz

        Happy to hear that. And thanks for the advice. It can be quite complicated, though, to find out which one dream is the true one to pursue, and not keep switching from one thing to another…😏


        1. Paula Prober Avatar
          Paula Prober

          For many RFMs, there are many dreams and it can be fine to develop one for a while and then move on to the next. It certainly is complicated!


          1. veroniqz Avatar
            veroniqz

            Yes, it sure is… After a few decennia still not having a career – jumping from one thing to another – depresses a bit, giving that feeling of wasting my life…


            1. Paula Prober Avatar
              Paula Prober

              Maybe there’s a way to measure the value or interests of these various jobs/careers to see what you or others have gained from them. Perhaps that way you can see that they have not been wasted time, veroniqz. That said, there may be other factors that you might consider. Perfectionism? a loud inner critic? difficult family dynamics? If more is going on in addition to multipotentiality, it would be worth exploring other factors to see what else is underlying the jumping from one thing to another. Make sense?


              1. veroniqz Avatar
                veroniqz

                All of the above, I guess…😏 Not found my purpose yet… Thanks, Paula!


      2. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        I am so glad you found a career path that has worked for you, Someti. What a blessing!


  4. Илья Avatar
    Илья

    Taking the time to over-prepare will immediately increase your confidence in the room. Don t go into the room thinking that you have to be the smartest person in the room, or that you have to try and compete with the subject matter experts. You were invited to the meeting for a reason, so take the pressure off yourself.


    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      It sounds like being over-prepared is a strategy you use. Thank you! Yes, let’s take the pressure off!!


  5. Nimue Brown Avatar
    Nimue Brown

    Getting to feel safe while not being the best student has been a really interesting learning experience for me.


    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Safety is such a basic need for all of us, isn’t it? Thank you Nimue.


  6. Cheri Miranne Avatar
    Cheri Miranne

    So encouraging to try something new! I know you miss dancing, Paula. Maybe sometime soon. 🤗


    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thanks, Cheri. All those things we took for granted, right? I hope we’ll all be dancing soon!!


  7. Gail Post, Ph.D. Avatar
    Gail Post, Ph.D.

    Great article, Paula. I actually have NEVER felt like the smartest in the room, haha. So I don’t suffer from it. But I also know what it is like to try something that is really difficult. I loved taking ceramics, for example, even though I was the worst in the room, which isn’t the most comfortable feeling! I often encourage clients I work with to take on something they want to try – especially if it is new and difficult. It is a great learning experience.


    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes, Gail, the smartest person in the room experience is also not mine either! But I know it is for many of my readers! I do have the angst, though, around feeling like the “dumbest” person in the room! 🙂


  8. Eliette Avatar
    Eliette

    As for me, the issue is not that I am the dumbest or the most unskilled in the room, the problem is, I know that I can do better but I fail to prove it to myself!


    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Sometimes, Eliette, RFMs can set very high expectations and standards for themselves. I wonder if that’s part of your experience.


  9. cfidel Avatar
    cfidel

    I read your blog not for myself (I’m so not a Rain Forest Mind!!), but for my son. He’s 14 and has yet to find something that truly challenges him. He feels “bad” for often being the only student who raises his hand in class, so sometimes will stay quiet and suffer the consequences of not “participating in discussion”. I’m hoping that now he’s in high school, academics will challenge him. After all, the independent school’s primary boast is “challenging education” (as an adjective and a verb). We homeschooled 1st-7th grades, then he started at the school last year for 8th grade. The biggest challenge was figuring out the system and process of attending a brick and mortar school, early mornings, long days, etc. He was just hitting his stride when the pandemic sent everyone home. He adjusted seamlessly to remote learning because that’s his groove, and he co to use to do well in the remote learning model for 9th grade. I’m thankful he’s not struggling greatly, but I would like to see him break a sweat now and then. He has never thought of himself as “the smartest one in the room” and doesn’t strive to be that person, he just usually is that person. I really appreciate your insights and info.


    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      It can be hard for parents to find challenges for their kids if so many things come easily. Sometimes it can be sports or music or auto mechanics! Thank you for sharing, cfidel.


  10. The Eccentric Blogger Avatar
    The Eccentric Blogger

    Can’t express how relatable this is!!


    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes! 🙂

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