Are you too smart for your own good?

Why what you learn in school and what you need to know to advance your career don’t mix well

If you’ve ever held a position, no matter what level or industry you are in, and you’ve been told “you’re too smart for your own good” by your manager or a higher-up, you can say goodbye to any promotion or career advancement.  From my own experience, and the anecdotes I’ve gathered over time from others, this is never a compliment in a professional setting and seems to be stated when someone with a lot of academic background tries to use tools and techniques found in a classroom in order to work an angle at getting promoted.  Whatever you did that preceded the statement, “you’re too smart for your own good” violated the unspoken boundaries of your work culture and you’re in trouble.

What happened?

Below are seven scenarios where someone is saying, “you’re too smart for your own good”, but they really mean something else:

1) You should have stayed in your lane

Your manager didn’t assign that role or work that you took the initiative to do and you’ve inadvertently stepped on someone else’s toes (maybe even your manager’s toes).  You probably made them look bad or caused them to assume extra work that they were not yet prepared to begin.  Your manager won’t say this to your face, but you just made someone’s life a little harder (once again, this could actually be your manager) and caused drama that didn’t previously exist.

How will I demonstrate what I learned in school and show others that I can do more than what I was hired to do?  I learned so many things in school and I really want to show off what I learned so that I can be promoted!

2) You are impatient

Your timing isn’t good in bringing up your concerns and discoveries.  You’ve interrupted people that have other things to do that are more urgent, but you might have not known that.  The urgency of the work your colleagues were milling away at may have been kept out of your visibility because it didn’t involve you directly, or you have your own pile of daily responsibilities that are your focus that others are assuming are part of your core responsibilities and should take precedence over anything else.  Long story short, what you brought up isn’t as important as you think, and your discovery could have waited to be brought up at a more convenient time.

But, what I discovered is important!  This could affect how we do business!

3) Your delivery is terrible / you have no tact

Your manager has a four-hour backlog of things to do which puts your manager in the office well past closing time today and you stated that you need a whole hour to discuss what your voluntary and unscheduled research uncovered.  You could have given a 60 second summary to your manager of what you found and scheduled time when there are lulls in the office (read: no back log) to assess the application of your research, but you didn’t.

OK, but my time is important too!

4) You are absolutely correct, but we do not like you

No, nobody is going to say this to your face (most polite people won’t).  You come forward and tell your manager or your team that you found a way to save the business money, time, resources, and so on.  They listen, and nothing comes out of it.

What happened?  Wasn’t I correct? 

You probably were correct, but nobody likes you.  It’s not personal, and this part is going to be invisible to you as well, but you aren’t playing the politics of your office culture.  You aren’t considering other peoples’ time, limitations, feelings, or some other facet.


5) You are incorrect, and dealing with you is a pain

You weren’t correct with the conclusions of your research and you missed some important pieces in your research.  The team and and/or your manager realize this and are avoiding discussions with you outside your responsibilities in order to get you to drop it and move back to your responsibilities.

I’m great at what I do and I want to get some kind of recognition and visibility.  The work I do day-to-day isn’t bringing me into the spotlight.

6) Your performance in your core duties isn’t sufficient

Your manager sees that you aren’t putting enough hours into your work and the quality of your work isn’t sufficient.  Couple that with your side projects that you are likely doing on company time and it is leaving a sour taste in your manager’s mouth.

7) Your thinly veiled agenda is obvious / this is about your ego

We don’t think that you are actually doing this for this organization and we think instead that you are trying to get extra attention around the office – to get a group or certain individuals to validate your intelligence and purpose for being employed (and help you with your insecurities).  Also, you are using your degree to angle at a promotion that you think you are capable and suited.  You’re probably competent enough to do it, but since you don’t know how to work with your cohort and management in a way that looks like a group effort, we think that you are acting on an illusion of superiority and your own narcissism and not in the interests of the organization as a whole.

You took the saying, “you’re too smart for your own good” as a compliment – and you are oblivious

The title speaks for itself.

The Walkaway

So you realize that “you’re too smart for your own good” wasn’t a compliment and that you’ve let things fall to the side that should not have.  What do you do now?  Everyone’s approach to this is going to be different, but here’s what worked for me:

  1. Ask for Genuine Criticism – be prepared to get blindsided pretty hard.  Ask people you respect that will not hold any punches on you.
  2. Don’t Aim for “Smart” – I’ve never seen anyone advance their professional goals on the basis of just their intelligence alone.  There’s other skills that must be worked on that make being educated a useful tool to have in a professional setting.  Arguably the most important is really solid interpersonal skills: knowing how to ask for feedback, being genuinely interested in how others are doing, promoting a positive working environment, having an open dialogue with your boss, and so on.
  3. Check your Ego at the Door – you think you’re smart, but you really aren’t.  If you were, you would have seen this coming.  You would have known that your flexing of your knowledge would have gotten you nothing, or else why would you have done it?  Nobody that you respect will say anything worthwhile to you unless you can listen to what they say with humility
  4. Learn How to Communicate with Your Boss – I saw a great article about this very subject.  Here’s the link.  On top of this, I would say that learning how to “actively listen” is an invaluable skill that I wish more people possessed.

Did this hit you hard?  Not so much?  Leave me a comment and tell me what you think!


Nathan Albertelli

QmeSpotlight Ecosystem – Co-Founder | Managing Partner


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