When Not Being the Smartest Is an Advantage

“Never be the smartest person in the room,” many have said. Michael Dell once suggested that if you are, invite some smarter people in. But is a room that is brimming with brainpower detrimental to your own achievement? 

For his latest book, journalist Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that it might be. In the book, entitled David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants which hit shelves Tuesday, Gladwell looked at some numbers relating to higher education that challenges conventional notions about adversity and obstacles. 

He describes the theory of relative deprivation as it relates to individuals’ perceptions of their abilities.

“Relative deprivation is an idea that says that when we make judgments about ourselves, we judge ourselves next to our immediate peers -- people like us in the same room as us -- not to the world at large,” Gladwell said in a recent interview with author Daniel H. Pink

In the classroom setting, students assess their level of competence based on the competence of those around them. So a student in the bottom half of his class at Harvard University might be less confident in his abilities than a student in the top half of his class at a less prestigious institution. 

Gladwell specifically looked at class rank among students graduating with math and science degrees from two different universities. Few students from the bottom half of their class at Harvard pursued an education in science or math. At some point, those students had given up and moved into another academic field.

However at a less competitive school, Hartwick College, many in the top third of their class earned math and science degrees and went on to successfully pursue careers in those fields.

“Going to elite schools in other words has a cost,” Gladwell said. “If you’re not going to be in the top half of the class, you’re going to run the risk of mistakenly thinking that you are not a good student, of coming to a conclusion about your own abilities that’s at odds with reality.” 

Throughout the book, Gladwell closely examines and attempts to debunk commonly held beliefs about what it really takes to meet challenges and rise to the top. It is, after all, a story about David and Goliath.  

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