Never Be the Brightest Person in the Room; Then You Can’t Learn Anything

James Watson? Holly Hunter? James L. Brooks? Steven R. Craig? Michael Dell? Ed Burns? Orlando Taylor? Selena Gomez? Taylor Swift? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The molecular biologist James Watson earned a Nobel Prize as a member of the team that elucidated the helical structure of DNA. He did not claim to be uniquely brilliant; instead, he offered the following self-effacing guidance. Here are three versions:

  • Never be the brightest person in the room; then you can’t learn anything.
  • If you’re the brightest person in the room, you’re in trouble.
  • If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.

Would you please help me to find a citation and determine which version is correct?

Quote Investigator: James Watson did communicate this notion several times using different expressions over the years. For example, in February 2003 an article about Watson appeared in the periodical “Seed” which was reprinted in “The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004”. The journalist Jennet Conant presented this remark from the scientist: 1

“Generally, it pays to talk,” says Watson. “Oh, and another rule: Never be the brightest person in the room; then you can’t learn anything.”

Below are selected citations in chronological order.

The 1987 movie “Broadcast News” whose screenplay was written by James L. Brooks included a germane scene during which a television producer was criticized for being egotistical. The response was sharp and surprising. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

Paul Moore (Peter Hackes): It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.

Jane Craig (Holly Hunter): No. It’s awful.

The above repartee was memorable, and in December 1987 the “Los Angeles Times” printed a compressed version: 3

At one point, in Holly Hunter’s portrayal of network news producer Jane Craig, she’s rhetorically jabbed with, “It must be nice to think you’re the smartest person in the room.” Craig tightens: “No, it’s awful.”

In January 2003 the periodical “National Underwriter: Life & Health” printed a piece by Steven R. Craig who described a flourishing friend who was recruiting a group of professionals to offer advice and act as a “brain trust”. The unnamed friend employed a precursor statement: 4

Surround yourself with people smarter and more successful than you. This rule is probably best exemplified by a friend of mine who at age 39 has become an elite producer. He is considered by many to be among the smartest, most competent professionals in the insurance industry.

Yet in a quiet moment with me he admitted his discomfort. “How can I grow; who will I learn from,” he asked me, “if I am the smartest person in the room?”

As noted previously, in February 2003, the following remark from James Watson was published:

“Oh, and another rule: Never be the brightest person in the room; then you can’t learn anything.

Also, in February 2003 “Time” magazine printed an interview with Watson conducted by Michael Lemonick which included a different statement from Watson propounding the same idea: 5

If you’re the brightest person in the room, you’re in trouble.

In May 2003 computer entrepreneur Michael Dell delivered a commencement address at the University of Texas, Austin, and “The Dallas Morning News” printed an excerpt. The ellipsis was in the original text: 6

Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people … or find a different room.

The 2004 novel “The Moon by Night” by Lynn Morris and Gilbert Morris contained an entertaining thematically related comment: 7

“If you think you’re the smartest person in the room,” she rasped, “then odds are you’re the dumbest person in the room.”

In 2005 “Spike’s Guide to Success: Stupid, Ugly, Unlucky and Rich” included a chapter titled “What Doesn’t Lead to Success”. The author asked rhetorically why successful people often acknowledged that they were not smart: 8

One reason is the successful ones know that being smart doesn’t lead to success, so why brag about it? Another reason is, if you think you’re smart, you may stop learning, because you think you already know it all. Nobel Laureate James Watson, famous co-discoverer of DNA structure, said to me, “Never be the brightest person in the room because you won’t learn anything.”

In 2007 James Watson published a memoir titled “Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science”. He elaborated on the guidance he had provided during interviews: 9

Never be the brightest person in a room

Getting out of intellectual ruts more often than not requires unexpected intellectual jousts. Nothing can replace the company of others who have the background to catch errors in your reasoning or provide facts that may either prove or disprove your argument of the moment. And the sharper those around you, the sharper you will become.

In 2008 “Secrets of the Rock Star Programmers” by Ed Burns included this comment from the author: 10

Ed: In the realm of being the smartest person, I have this theory that if you’re the smartest person in your work group, then it might be time to consider changing jobs.

In 2009 Orlando Taylor who was a Professor of Communications at Howard University delivered a speech to the new graduates of Denison University, and he employed an instance of the expression: 11

“I hope you’ll all commit to a lifetime in learning,” he said. “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”

In 2014 “The Boston Globe” printed a remark from U.S. pop singer and actress Selena Gomez which she credited to prominent singer-songwriter Taylor Swift: 12

‘She just kind of looked at me and was like, “Selena, if you’re the smartest person in the room, I think you’re going to be in the wrong room.“‘ SELENA GOMEZ on “The Talk” sharing advice she got from Taylor Swift

In conclusion, several people expressed a matching idea in 2003. Hence, QI believes that similar expressions were probably already in circulation before 2003. Yet, James Watson, Steven R. Craig, and Michael Dell may all be credited with helping to popularize the underlying idea.

Image Notes: Illustration of DNA double helix from Clker-Free-Vector-Images at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Richard Bentley and James Callan whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Callan asked about a closely related but distinct expression. Additional thanks to researcher Barry Popik for his work on this topic. Popik presented citations beginning in April 5, 2006.)

Notes:

  1. 2004, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004, Edited by Steven Pinker, The New Celebrity by Jennet Conant, (First published in Seed, February 2003), Start Page 38, Quote Page 39, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  2. YouTube video, Title: Favorite scenes for the movie Broadcast News, Uploaded on August 30, 2009, Uploaded by: Suzclips, (Quotation starts at 2 minutes 57 seconds of 3 minutes 7 seconds), Description: Scenes from the 1987 movie Broadcast News. Screenplay: James L. Brooks. (Accessed on YouTube.com on February 21, 2019) link
  3. 1987 December 17, Los Angeles Times, Section VI, TV NEWS: New Visibility in PBS News Department, Start Page 1, Quote Page 9, Column 6, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 2003 January 6, National Underwriter: Life & Health Edition, Volume 107, Issue 1, Some ways to reach your next level of success by Steven R. Craig, Publisher ALM Media Properties, LLC. (ProQuest ABI/INFORM)
  5. 2003 February 17, Time, Interview of James Watson conducted by Michael Lemonick: “You Have To Be Obsessive”, Start Page 52, Quote Page 52, Column 1, Time Inc. New York. (Verified with microfiche)
  6. 2003 May 25, The Dallas Morning News, Graduation speakers take advice to new degree, (Michael Dell, The Dell Computer Corp. chairman and chief executive spoke at the University of Texas in Austin on May 17, 2003), Quote Page 34A, Dallas, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News)
  7. 2004, The Moon by Night by Lynn Morris and Gilbert Morris, Series: Cheney & Shiloh – The Inheritance Book 2, Chapter 14: Moon Ghosts, Quote Page 188, Bethany House, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Verified with scans)
  8. 2005 Copyright, Spike’s Guide to Success: Stupid, Ugly, Unlucky and Rich by Richard St, John, Section B: What Doesn’t Lead to Success, Chapter: The Smarts Myth, Quote Page 291, Train of Thought Arts, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Google Books Preview)
  9. 2007, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science by James D. Watson, Chapter 6: Manners Needed for Important Science, Quote Page 114, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 2008, Secrets of the Rock Star Programmers: Riding the IT Crest by Ed Burns, Chapter 4: Chris Wilson, Quote Page 93, McGraw-Hill Companies, New York. (Verified with scans)
  11. 2009 May 18, The Advocate, Denison president’s advice to graduates: Don’t take shortcuts by Seth Roy (Advocate Reporter), Start Page 1A, Quote Page 6A, Column 5, Newark, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 2014 October 23, The Boston Globe, Get smart, Quote Page B16, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com)