Feynman’s quip “if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room” is well-known, but my friend Erik Erlandson recently glossed it and made me chuckle:

Every finite set has a maximum, so someone is always in the wrong room 😬

As an enthusiastic observer of human social dynamics, I don’t have a problem maintaining a high degree of confidence that, in general and for any given room, at least someone shouldn’t be there. But as someone who spent more than a few years of his youth thinking about how best to model things with lattices and semilattices, my immediate reaction was that Erik’s claim is only true if the relevant ordering is total, and it’s not obvious that every possible pair of humans is directly comparable by the “smarter-than” relation.

More fundamentally, though, it seems like looking at the problem of when to leave a room from the perspective of a “smarter-than” relation is the wrong model: people in a room can have complementary gifts and aptitudes. You may know more about historical performance practice for preclassical opera buffa than your friend Alice does, and Alice may know more about manual joinery than you do. If your goal is to build an authentic theatre dedicated to Pergolesi, you’d better both stay in the room.

For real humans in real situations, a better question is whether or not a given room offers one sufficient opportunity to exploit one’s strengths, improve upon one’s weaknesses, and benefit from at least someone else in the room while making the whole room better than the sum of the individuals therein. Engineers in particular are tempted to self-evaluate based on some perceived total ordering of intrinsic worth, but a good leader will redirect this impulse – instead of “How close am I to being the smartest person in this room?” you should ask two related questions: “Am I having a positive impact on this room?” and “is being in this room having a positive impact on me?”

No matter who’s “smartest,” there is almost always something for you to learn from the other people in the room. Make it your goal to find it before you decide you need to leave.