Should you never be the smartest person in the room?

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Growing up, I knew pretty early in my life that I wanted to pursue Computer Science as a career. Naturally, I wanted to go to the best schools in India that offered this course — but I couldn’t make it through their entrance exams.

That was a huge bummer for me. For a brief moment, I thought I had let myself and everyone else who supported me down. But looking back I think getting into my dream university was the best thing that never happened to me.

Because I didn’t go to my dream university, I thought I had to work twice as hard to reach their level.
Because my university wasn’t popular and it was difficult to get on-campus placements — I had to work on my “Do shit and tell people” skills. I wrote blogs, contributed to open source, worked on side projects, and shared it with the world online.
Because I couldn’t find good mentors in my university — I started looking for world-class mentors online and followed their books, ideas, blogs, podcasts religiously.

Over time, I kind of became the smartest kid in my class. I was getting good at my craft and my peers would often come asking me questions if they would get stuck. I had also started getting internship offers from top tech companies and I somewhat became a nerdy popular kid in my class.

But the reality was “I was the best among the worst”, but I liked the attention I was getting. It gave me a lot of confidence to talk about my ideas without any fear. It’s an important skill. If you are always surrounded by the smartest people, you’d feel shy, uncertain about speaking in front of them.

Everything changed when I started interning at big tech companies. I quickly realized that I wasn’t the smartest by any means. I remember being overwhelmed by everyone else’s skills on my first day at my job. There were many people I admired and I wanted to be them. I valued their opinion over mine because they were more experienced. I was learning a lot, but I didn’t feel as autonomous and confident as I used to feel in my class.

But as I became more experienced, I came to realize that the best ideas can come from anywhere and not necessarily from more experienced people. More experienced people can often develop blind spots that a beginner can so clearly see. So, you should never really be afraid of speaking up in an environment of experienced people.

That’s why balance is important. In an environment of not so experienced people, I was able to cultivate skills to talk about my ideas fearlessly, lead my peers on a project, and felt confident about my skills. Also, being surrounded by smart people kept me from becoming too cocky and helped me further grow my technical skills.

I honestly don’t know how things would have turned out if I had gone to IIT Delhi but I am happy with how things turned out despite not being able to go to my dream university.

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