Are You Smart Enough To Act Dumb Enough To Get Ahead?

Are You Smart Enough To Be Dumb Enough To Get Ahead?The smartest people in the world are listeners, not speakers. If all you’re doing is speaking, how do you learn anything new?

There was once this portfolio manager I covered who had this uncanny ability to make you feel uncomfortable without saying anything at all. He had a poker face when you spoke to him, and when he felt like changing expressions, he’d go from solemn to smiles in a millisecond. We nicknamed him Crazy Eyes. It turns out that he was literally a genius with an IQ over 160. He also consistently beat his index benchmark for eight years in a row and made millions because of it.

The earliest examples of acting dumb to get ahead starts in grade school. You know what I’m talking about. Those kids who were too cool to study and too cool to sit still in class as they flicked spitballs from the back of the room. These kids weren’t just acting dumb, they really were dumb.

When you purposefully waste your opportunities growing up, you’re not only disrespecting your parents, but also the millions of other kids around the world who will never have the same opportunities.

This post will do the following:

1) Argue why acting dumb is a smart move to get ahead.

2) Provide some tips to help you look and seem a little dumber than you are.

3) Share three personal examples of how acting duhhh, has helped in work, stress management, and relationships.

WHY ACTING DUMB MIGHT BE THE SMART MOVE

There are three main reasons why acting dumb will help you succeed in life.

1) You no longer become a threat. If you have ever competed in sports, debates, game shows, or worked in super competitive industries such as finance, consulting, or law you know how cutthroat everybody is. Someone is always gunning for you if you are one of the top dogs. Online entrepreneurship is even more competitive because the barrier to entry is low, and ideas get stolen all the time.

When you are considered dumb, or at least not a threat, people stop looking to undermine your abilities. It’s natural for anybody in the work environment to feel threatened by a new hire, a lateral hire, or a superstar colleague. We all have our insecurities. The more you can pretend not to know as much as you do, and the more you can include other people in your successes, the better you will be.

2) You can more easily surprise on the upside. Getting ahead is about underpromising and overdelivering. Eager people have a tendency to overpromise and put so much stress on themselves that they underdeliver instead. The key is to contain your pride by highlighting 80% of what you can do, and deliver 81%+.

I remember improving in ranking with one client from #10 to #6 and getting praised for the move. Then with another similar client I slipped from #3 to #5 and was admonished. Because I worked for a large firm, we were always expected to be in the top 3 with clients, even though only three firms can be in the top three! But if you work at a lesser tier firm, or even a bucket shop, then just getting ranked in the top 10 was good enough.

3) You’ll have a much happier life. When you’re constantly expected to be the best, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Everybody eventually has a misstep or loses some steam at some point. The goal is to find that steady state where you can continue to progress while giving yourself room to progress a little more.

A big part about building wealth is longevity. If you burn out 20 years too early, or before your peak performing years, you’ll have a serious financial deficit to make up if you don’t have a plan. Like the Stealth Wealth concept, you don’t want to stick your head out too far out of fear of it being cut off by the government, your jealous colleagues, or nefarious characters looking to rob you blind.

WHAT IF YOU JUST CAN’T HELP YOURSELF?

Acting dumb is easy for me because I’m pretty dumb in a lot of things e.g. college level math, art, history, languages, making women stop hating me, and so forth. Just read some of the comments some lovely readers leave telling me how dumb I am for proof!

But there used to be a time when I just couldn’t help but brag about my achievements. And when you start bragging about your achievements, people start hating your guts. When people start hating your guts, you get into fights in school (check), your business model gets stolen (check) and you get passed over for a promotion or a raise (check).

The higher up you go in any work organization, the more collaborative you must be. It’s all politics up there. The “superstar syndrome” is a dangerous syndrome to exhibit because everybody higher up will act in unison to keep you down, even if you’re a pretty nice person. The one tip I can give is to NEVER use the word “I” when sending an e-mail or giving a talk about some successful business win. Always, always use the word “we” and point out individual’s names that helped make the work win a success.

If it was truly only you who made something special happen, then acknowledge the support of your boss and teammates anyway. They’ll know they had nothing to do with the win, but will appreciate your shout-outs anyway.

When we are younger, we tend to always think that we know more than we really do. Humble pie takes time to eat because it tastes disgusting. Once you eat it, you’ll stop trying to look so smart to everybody. And if you haven’t eaten any humble pie yet, then hopefully you’ll take my advice to heart.

SOME TIPS FOR MAKING YOU LOOK DUMBER

1) Dress to look younger. You’ve heard the advice to “look sharp” haven’t you? Well dressing one or two levels higher than your peers and boss is a surefire way to get your hands chopped off. Never dress more than a half-step more than your position. These steps are subjective, but if you pay careful attention to what people wear in the office, you’ll understand.

I currently go to work in jeans, a t-shirt, a baseball cap, and a long-sleeve fleece jacket most of the time. In other words, I look like a student even though I’m 37 years old. Being treated like a younger employee than reality is just fine by me because many of my colleagues are under 30 years old as well. Everybody dresses casually, so I fit right in. It’s also about aligning compensation and expectations so you aren’t miserable.

It’s hard for senior management to see me as an ex-Wall Street executive who ran a large business for 10 years when I come in dressed so casually. It’s hard to see that I’ve built an online business from the ground up with consistent margin expansion and operating profits that would make any entrepreneur proud. What they see is a friendly face who is happy to help, do his contracting job, and provide some occasional insights when asked upon. A larger role for me isn’t really in the cards largely because of the image I portray.

Looking younger doesn’t necessarily mean you will appear dumber. But there’s sometimes no amount of intelligence that can make up for a lack of experience. So if you can mold yourself as looking less experienced, then you will naturally seem less worthy of bigger roles.

2) Alter your speech. It almost doesn’t matter what you say in a British accent, you will still sound pretty sophisticated. It almost doesn’t matter what you say in a valley girl or a surfer dude accent, you will sound a little less sophisticated. The way you speak has a tremendous impact on how others perceive your intelligence.

The main ways to alter your speech to make you look dumber is by adding the words “like” and “umm” in your sentences. If you want to take it a step further, include rhetorical questions such as, “You know what I’m saying?” multiple times. The listener will start getting agitated and think to themselves, “No I don’t know what you’re saying you idiot!”

Clearly you must remove SAT type words from your vernacular as well. Unless you are Fraser Crain, nobody speaks with words like “pernicious,” “erudite,” “colloquial,” “nadir,” “vapid,” “boorish” and so forth. Practice speaking like a middle school student and you will do just fine, yo.

3) Slow down your response times. Don’t be quick witted and answer questions in lightening pace. Pretend like you are still calculating answers like a 286 computer instead of the latest microprocessor that you are. I’ve found myself very agitated when a friend of mine takes a long time to answer a question or recall a song name or whatever. He is clearly very smart, but because his response time is slower than mine, I automatically think he’s dumber than me even though I’m wrong.

The key is to not be so slow as to annoy the other person. During your time of rumination, you should utter phrases like “hmmm,” and “let me think” to keep the other side engaged. You can start answering the question in a round about way, until you finally zero in on the point. Better yet, let them answer their own questions to make them feel smart.

4) Smile a lot. You’ve heard the saying, “I’m going to wipe that dumb grin off his face!” right? People associate smiley people on the dumber end of the spectrum. Furthermore, smiling a lot will make you look less menacing. People will naturally smile back at you and wonder why the heck are you smiling all the time because work generally sucks! You never see an evil genius smile. They are either smirking or plotting with a furrowed brow.

5) Look a little frumpy and out of shape. Even if you are clearly an intelligent person, showing some physical weakness will help people think a little less of you. The worst is to be physically fit, attractive, eloquent in speech, intelligent in answer, and extremely hard working. You are going to be gunned down before you know it because you are a threatening machine. Buy some shirts and pants that are one size too big. Don’t cut your hair for a long time. Wear some mismatching outfits.

6) Just pretend you don’t know. If you know a lot of stuff then a lot of people will come to you for questions. You’ll be so inundated with questions that you won’t be able to get your own work done. People tend to take advantage of your time once you show a little bit of kindness. For example, I’m constantly answering e-mails from people who have personal finance questions. I would say 90% of the time I respond with a thoughtful answer. And when I do, they will ask for another answer and want me to get into more detail. So instead, I sometimes pretend I don’t have an opinion or I don’t know when an absolute stranger who has never commented here before asks me questions.

The more other people know how much you know, the higher the expectations they have of you. And if for some reason you don’t have time, or you’re past your allotted work hours and don’t want to help, they might develop a sour opinion of you if you don’t spend your remaining free time helping them out en gratis.

EXAMPLES OF WHERE ACTING DUMBER THAN REALITY BENEFITS

* Work. As a blogger for the past five years, of course I know about SEO, social media, marketing, earning online income, and writing content. Every company’s marketing department should hire veteran bloggers because content marketing is huge in the internet world. No longer do people want to just view ads. Consumers want to digest content that provides value before signing up for anything. Strong content helps build a brand and create goodwill. Bloggers have the ability to build a community, embolden a brand, growth hack with no budget, write engaging content, and understand analytics.

For my consulting gig, I went above and beyond for my first three month contract, working 40+ hours a week instead of 25 hours a week  in my contract because I have a tendency to try and always over-deliver. But I realized after three months that the more I do, the more I’m asked to do until the work hours could easily extend to 60 hours a week. It’s really hard to stop for all parties, once we get going because there’s an endless amount of things to do in startup land. Those who’ve followed me for a while know that I have workaholic tendencies that can easily manifest itself with some prodding. Heck, this post is over 3,000 words long. Who does that, but workaholics!

My current role as a consultant is to manage a team of writers and write content. I’ll help where I can on other things of course, but I will easily blow past my contracting hours if I’m tasked to do SEO, manage the social media platform on a daily basis, and provide copy writing for advertisements and landing pages. I’ve had a lot of fun testing out paid content promotion for various things I’ve written, but doing all that is a full-time job, which I don’t have. The solution is to therefore bring down my work hours to be better aligned with our agreement, or renegotiate my next three month contract for a higher amount. That wasn’t going to happen given I just started.

I’m optimizing for a better lifestyle where I can get paid for good work performed, interact with smart and fun people, and also have a good amount of freedom. I don’t mind consistently giving 120% effort in what I do (20% more time than agreed upon). But giving much more than 120% over an extended period of time feels off since I’ve got plenty of other things I enjoy doing. I’m currently in a happier place now because things are more balanced. If I do decide I want to work full-time again, it’s easier to surprise on the upside by demonstrating my entire repertoire of knowledge and skills.

* Investing. If you want to grab someone’s attention just tell them you work or worked in finance and they will pick your brain non-stop for investment ideas. They’ll ask you about the next hot IPO or your views on the Federal Reserve’s latest interest rate policies and how it will affect cyclical stocks. They’ll ask you to analyze their current investments and see if you have recommendation for where they can rebalance. When it comes to getting advice on making more money, people can’t get enough.

Of course I’m going to do my best to help my friends and family when they’re in need, like I spent several hours helping my sister come up with a financial plan last year. But I hardly ever tell anybody that I used to work in finance. I just tell them I’m a writer instead. The benefit is I won’t get asked for investment advice and I won’t have looks of disapproval about working in finance. Money has a terrible way of getting in between relationships, and that’s the last thing I want money to do.

When folks start highlighting their great investment wins, I simply listen in, congratulate and smile. And if people find out my background and want to really get down and dirty with their finances, I’ll happily refer them to my personal finance consulting page. Some people really end up wanting to work with me after finding out that I never bothered to advertise my services in the first place. Funny how things work some times.

* Relationships. Great relationships are hard to come by. They take work and a whole lot of listening. I really enjoy making friends with people from all over. But my biggest problem is still coming across as overconfident and a know-it-all type with younger people I meet. I have this automatic desire to teach and mentor younger folks because I’ve seen their movie before and I don’t want them to fall into the same holes I fell into. I also come from a culture where respecting your elders is of great importance, so I just assume that whatever I say to a younger person will be heard. Unfortunately, my desire to help can come across as arrogant, particularly in America. Many people don’t want mentors or teachers, they just want to be equal friends. Who wants advice about things when they haven’t asked? Nobody.

By pretending to be in the dark about many things a new or younger person discusses with me that I know about, I’m able to reduce my arrogance and create a more equal relationship. As the relationship progresses, I can adjust accordingly. And if there’s a massive trap a friend is about to walk into, I’ll definitely step up and provide some guidance. I don’t have this arrogance problem at all when I’m hanging out with older people due to my customs. I think I’ve been able to develop healthier relationships with more people over the past five years.

I’m really trying to work on better self-awareness. Developing better relationships is so important that I have a dedicated Relationships category. Lots of personal stories here, so be forewarned.

THE FINAL STRATEGY TO GETTING AHEAD

Instead of pretending to be unknowledgeable or a little dumb, demonstrate that you have so much vigor in your craft that people are intimidated by your presence. Because you are a rockstar who is clearly crushing it, other people don’t want to waste your time with dumb questions they can look up online, so they never ask. Because you are vital to your organization, management knows they can’t screw you.

You want to be a nice and collaborative person no matter your real intelligence. But if you’ve found a happy balance in your life and have a reasonable amount of intelligence, then acting dumb might very well be a great way to keep your happiness going for an extended period of time.

Related Posts:

How To Get Haters To Stop Hating You

The Stealth Wealth Movement

Things To Do Before Quitting Your Job High Roller

Readers, have you ever acted dumb to try and get ahead? What do you think about the concept of acting dumb to get ahead? Do you think those who try to act smart aren’t really that smart? 

Regards,

Sam

Sam started Financial Samurai in 2009 during the depths of the financial crisis as a way to make sense of chaos. After 13 years working on Wall Street, Sam decided to retire in 2012 to utilize everything he learned in business school to focus on online entrepreneurship.

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Comments

  1. says

    I work as a project manager and so I get paid to be in the know. And I’m quite successful and highly regarded by management because when I talk – it’s clear that I know. But I’ll let you in on a secret… I act dumb around my team members sometimes. I do not pretend to understand what they are designing. I ask questions using rudimentary technical language. I even crack out my Southern y’all. And yep, they answer my questions (perhaps because they do not perceive me as a threat, per your point). And then I take my rocket scientist brain and wrap it all up and report on it.

  2. says

    Great post, it reminds me of a Proverb I read last night: “The wise store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites ruin.”

    It’s similar to having “real” wealth instead of just “perceived” wealth. Answer carefully and accurately instead of wanting to prove your knowledge with rash or overly-quick words.

  3. says

    Really interesting post, Sam (as per usual). It’s funny – I’ve never thought of it this way before, but much of what you wrote about “acting dumb” and using it to your advantage, I find myself doing intuitively.

    There’s a time and place for everything, of course. Sometimes, you DO want to seem smart, perhaps even smarter than you actually are. But in most cases, with just about anything in life (not limited to work), success is all about exceeding expectations. “Acting dumb” is a pretty effective way of lowering the bar.

    • says

      Exactly. It really is all about setting good enough expectations and crushing them.

      If you’re too high on yourself, you’ll shoot yourself on the face with unreasonable expectations.

  4. insourcelife says

    Do your current co-workers read your blog? Wouldn’t they read this post and see right through your Stealth Smarts techniques by looking dumber than you really are?

  5. Austin says

    So much truth here. When entering a new work environment I always want to set the bar to such a point that I know I can over deliver if needed.

    Recently, I was about to walk into a data room with an exec. He started hammering me about whether or not we were going to close XYZ deal that was about 1/300th the size of what we were about to look at. He was, out of nowhere, very agitated in his questioning. I just looked at him and shrugged my shoulders in an I-don’t-know fashion. It was like magic, it completely diffused the situation and he totally redirected his haranguing on someone else.

  6. Jacob says

    It’s called “giving an inch and taking a mile.” It’s sometimes difficult to delineate boundaries. If you are working much more than expected and you aren’t being compensated, then at some point that means you are getting taken advantage of.

    There’s definitely a fine balance and an ongoing relationship for employer and worker. Dialogue brings about a happy balance.

    • says

      I’m definitely down with having good open dialogue if the other side is willing. It is frustrating to email a proposal and get no response for weeks or forever multiple times. But that’s the way it is sometimes.

  7. says

    Ok, so I’ve done this, and it totally works, but I thought I was crazy! Thanks for making me realize I’m not! I’m blonde, so sometimes I use that to my advantage too…

  8. says

    Great article Sam. Rarely jump in for comments unless there is a disagreement point/devils advocate comment.

    Here it is: disagree with point number 5.

    Previously, was seen as the “weaker” male, ie: physically weak. But you can actually use your intimidation to your own benefit.

    As an example, if you’re “jacked” or “muscled up” people believe 1) you’re dumb and 2) you’re a mean person.

    Using the rest of the tips you outlined it is clear that the answer is to be jacked and yet act like a “teddy bear”. That’s a terrible term but essentially if people assume you’re going to be a hardass then they are a bit scared of you. If you act dumb + smile and act extremely happy you get the bar of both worlds.

    1) you get to keep the initial wow favor of being physically scary
    2) you obtain their respect and admiration when you cst extremely polite, kind of dumb and happy go lucky.

    What’s the other upside? You get to be in incredible shape without it ruining your career!

    Our post on office politics agrees with practically all the other points said in a different way of course.

    PS: was point 5 just an excuse to no longer fit into your tailored/custom suits (joke)

    Keep blogging!

  9. says

    I think when you own yor business or are in sales you can’t act dumb. I am not saying you lie or pretend to know things you don’t, but you should promote yourself and your knowledge. I have my real estate blog and you have your financial advice blog. Neither one of us would get very far if we pretended not to know much about our respective fields. It was difficult for me to promote myself in the beginning, but when you see you are helping people it becomes much easier.

    • says

      Ah, but it kinda does depend on how big your real estate blog gets. Let’s say you get to 1 million visitors a month. Even if 1% email you a question, that is 10,000 emails you must respond to. Have to manage expectations as you can’t answer everyone and they’ll start hating you for not responding.

      How big is your site?

      • says

        I should be close to 150,000 visits in July. I had 130,000 in June. Right now I don’t get that many emails, I could easily handle 10 times what I get now. I also sell a product with coaching and very few people even contact me with that.

  10. Edward says

    I use “mirroring” when I deal with most people. I intentionally copy their words, their posture, their tone, speed, words, and mannerisms. Sometimes to the point of being brazen. You’d think they’d figure it out or notice, right? Nope, people can’t see it at all. They’ll automatically like you very much because you remind them of someone… Themselves. Only they can’t see themselves in your copy.
    Small talk kills me though. Absolutely slays me. I find nothing in the world so absolutely boring as small talk. I have to grit my teeth to get through “the weather out there” conversations. I’ve met people who can do nothing but small talk and can’t help but think they’re as dumb as posts.
    The one time I find it’s truly helpful to play dumb is when dealing with customs or security guards. Especially in places like Russia where they ask a billion questions (sometimes even when simply entering a museum) for no reason at all. I’ve found it best in these situations to mimic mannerisms from Cosmo Kramer from “Seinfeld”. No security person in the world wants to present their supervisor with a total idiot; best just to wave the dummy through and be rid of him.
    Good article, Sam!

    • says

      “Mirroring and modeling” are two tenets of Neuro-Linguistics Programming (NLP, google it), very helpful in communicating, persuading, and establishing an exchange of information. You might be surprised at how many people are aware of this, and as you do it they note it; they just don’t let on because they are the ones playing dumb. There is also a name for the technique of using the expressions, language or parlance of the other; it is called “down-home”.

      Small talk has value. Some people hate it, when they take it at face value. But it serves the purpose of grasping what/who you are dealing with. If you have a flat tire, and a passerby rolls down the window to ask “got a flat tire?” that person is not really asking, they can see for themselves. But if you reply with a curt “what does it look like?” they may just keep on driving. But if you acknowledge the question with a smile, a sigh and a bit of humility “yeah, story of my life!” they may stop and help or at least offer a ride or phone call on your behalf. When you walk into work and someone says “how about that traffic?” they don’t really care about your opinion on auto congestion; they are trying to decide if they are going to make an “ask” or if you are going to be in a cooperative and productive mood. They are also showing interest, and using an uncontroversial (or “vanilla” as FS likes to say!) topic to do so. If you are going to ask for a raise, or a favor, or a hand in marriage, you want to make sure of the receptiveness of the other with a little small talk.

      A large percentage of people, especially younger people, are completely uninterested in others until they need them for something. And then they get frustrated when their “ask” is not respected, or they can’t understand why people “hate” them or avoid them. They don’t understand why they need to tolerate a question about ‘the weather’ or listening to a story about someone else’s kids or cats or vacation. Feeding the ‘karma basket’ with some goodwill and a kind word (of small talk) can pay great dividends; relationships are built over long periods and many interactions.

      Bottom line, small talk is part of being interested in others. It isn’t something people are born with, it takes work and practice and can be learned.

    • says

      Brilliant comment Edward. Mirroring sounds like a fantastic strategy to build relationships, disarm people, and get them on your side.

      Thanks for the suggestions! Speaking too much too cops or security personnel is nothing but downside.

  11. BH says

    I think acting “dumb” but inquisitive, asking a lot of questions, pretending not to know the answers (but always knowing the answers) is a great negotiation strategy. It seems to work particularly well for women negotiating with men – they think you’re nice and sweet and they want to help you – and when it’s all over you end up with the concessions you needed and generally the other side walks away feeling good about making them.

    • says

      You’ve for to be careful asking too many questions without providing value in return. It can get very annoying and will eventually agitate the person you’re asking to the point they dislike you or avoid you.

      A good technique is to offer to buy them a meal, or a drink, and do something first for them.

      • BH says

        Good point – in an office context I would never want to make people resent me. I work hard enough that I’ve never felt like a “taker” or someone that people might resent. I think the value one provides at work is in the quality work, or doing things to make your superiors look better to their superiors, investors, clients, whatever the case may be. In the context of negotiating a deal, however, I think the “dumb” or inquisitive approach works well. Some people are aggressive and arrogant, and that works for them, but I’ve found that being a wolf in sheep’s clothing is much more effective, especially for women.

  12. G says

    I use this strategy all the time and YES it works. Less stress and better relationships at work. I notice people dont feel challenged around me, they relax too, I get all I need to complete my work and shine in a subtle way :-)

  13. says

    Sage advice! I find a lot of value in being an active, and rather silent, listener. Letting other folks talk and talk, without interruption, has yielded some of the most informative conversations I’ve ever had…both in business and personal relationships. If you’re a genuine listener and you ask thoughtful/leading questions, it’s amazing the stuff people will divulge! I hadn’t thought of it in quite the way you’ve framed it before–thank you for these insights!

  14. Steve says

    I don’t think listening is good enough. I will often fart loudly and drool during meetings. And yes, I’m still employed.

      • Steve says

        Serious props, Sam. Nice response. More seriously, I think there is a lot of merit in the approaches you cover in this post, particularly listening more than speaking. However, in creative development environments (i.e., software companies) and in sales-driven organizations — where the emphasis is on what you actually create/do/bring in — how you act is often less important than your DEEMED contribution in terms of ideas, creativity, execution, and results.

        • Ace says

          Quite the attitude!

          Everybody is replaceable unless you are the sole owner (and even then, there are competitors).

          It pays to be polite and humble. In fact, other people often do know things that you don’t. You learn that as you grow older.

  15. Theresa says

    Honestly this post is ridiculous. What is even more ridiculous is that apparently this advice works in certain business environments. I can assure you in the evidenced based scientific world or patient care your colleagues will believe you are an idiot and useless.

      • Steve says

        Again I have to respond. I’m surrounded by colleagues with ridiculous pedigrees — typically Ivy League undergrad followed by top 20 MBA program. So one of my favorite retorts is, “Hey, I’m just a state school guy. Ask Mr. Dartmouth over there!”

    • says

      Yes, if you act too dumb. It’s a fine balance when setting expectations. So long as you act dumb enough to not get taken advantage of or run over at work, but consistently BEAT expectations people have of you and your work, then you will continue to get promoted.

      Once you get promoted, try to act very humble and go back to acting dumber than you are to rebuild your credit bank.

      • A says

        I totally disagree with this post. Especially if you work in services, if you advise clients and give an impression of being dumb, they won’t want your services as nobody wants dumb advice. In general, if you look and act dumb, people will assume… that you’re dumb and will treat you accordingly.

        Also, Goldman is such a strong firm partly because many clients believe that its employees are the smartest in the sector.

        • says

          Of course you should look and act smart with clients. The clients are who will get you paid and promoted with enough support. Nobody can take away you’re client base. Your clients are not your competitors, they are your huge support group if you service them well. But there are instances where in order to deflect rage, it’s best to not know, let them cool off, and get back to them with a solution.

          The relevancy of this post is more directed within your workplace setting. Sorry if this is not clear. Please share with us your experience and story. Thx

  16. says

    Sam – fantastic insights on the dumb! This post actually serves as I nice reminder to remain humble and maintain humility.

    Playing dumb isn’t hard for me at all. As a trucker, I am typically stereotyped as dumb to start out with – so I just need to play the part.

    Where I need to be careful is in letting my day job cohorts in on the not-so-secret side hustle gig that I have going. Pride wants to jump in sometimes and say, “look at me – I’m not as dumb as you.” I really have to be conscious of this and try to hold back.

    • says

      Matt – Given your site is called “Dump Passive Income” and you are a trucker, then you’ve got it made! Well done! :)

      I would NOT let your trucker colleagues know about your site, especially the more it grows. But, definitely try and rain in those expenses! Your apples to apples expenses are much greater than mine.

  17. Rob says

    I enjoy your articles but the promoted content ads are too risqué. Also they seem strangely unrelated to any of the subject matter of the actual articles.

    • M says

      Those ads are specific to each individual and change based on your web/search history — so what have you been searching that gets you risque ads?

    • Rob says

      This is where I admit that I was reading the article on a work computer during a break. I know about ad targeting but this explanation doesn’t quite suffice since someone else noticed the same on a different computer and those kinds of searches are blocked here and therefore not done. Nonetheless, thanks for your response and keep up the good work.

  18. says

    I never thought of it as acting dumb. I listen much (75-90%) more than most. It is my way of learning. I usually ask a lot of questions too. I also surround myself with people much brighter than me. I hate dressing up so dressing younger or down is natural to me. In teaching, you have to relate to your students and I try not to ever talk down to them. I don’t think it is any different n a work environment. Showing you are smart or smarter than your coworkers only creates problems. My best decisions are when I can get consensus because they bought into the decison.

  19. says

    Admittedly, I’ve spent my entire career listening more than talking and, when I’m asked questions, I do tend to pause and reflect before I answer. I’ve often thought that this behavior hasn’t been rewarding, in the sense that people who do more talking and respond quickly with less thoughtfulness tend to do better, but I’m happy to stay as I am.

    • says

      There’s definitely a balance Mike. Yin Yang strategy. Can’t always be a listener. When you have an opportunity, you’ve got to really speak up and be as visible as possible. Not easy to do no doubt.

      • says

        Yeah, no doubt; I’m mainly interested in how some of the biggest talkers are the ones who often seem to go the farthest. Perhaps this has something to do with self-promotion ultimately.

        I mainly think people should listen and think more and speak only when they have something meaningful to contribute. We have too many people who like to hear themselves talk. An interesting topic for sure…

  20. says

    You are a freakin’ genius. I wish I had read this post a long long long time ago.

    Maybe the issue is that stupid people talk a lot, brag a lot, and give advice a lot, so when smart people do those three things (which on the face of it, seems like a good idea), they get mis-labeled as being stupid.

    It’s such a shame – why can’t we have a world where smart people give advice 24/7 and we can all just listen and absorb it?! :)

    • Ace says

      I don’t like calling people stupid. People are complicated.

      But, my observation is that the “big talkers” tend to be much less knowledgable than advertised.

      The smart people are usually more quiet and kind of studious. These are people in which you need to go out your way, in order to seek advice/info. Often this is worthwhile!

  21. ODWO says

    Odd. I was telling by boss about this the other day. He asked how did I know about [the work topic/problem we were discussing] and I mentioned that I can pretty much learn everything I need to know by just acting – not being a know it all. He mentioned that “acting dumb isn’t a good idea … “what do you think others are going to think about you?” I always say that (in my field and work) my work speaks for itself, not what comes out of my mouth. I learn from not being a “know it all.” There’s way too much ego in people. Like you mention, talking is not listening. I also told the boss that I watch body language too (I took a few courses in such many years ago and not just reading a book or google hit, but full fledged courses they give to mid-upper mgmt.) . That has paid off throughout the years. (think the TV show: Lie to Me)

    I agree with the others who mention self promotion. As Mike said – Listened more than talked. I don’t do it enough, if at all. Just not my style. There are those who are good at what they do, and toot their horn too often … but (I think) that when they fall it’s a lot harder for them than if someone else falls. The latter you want to help, the former you just smile.

    I hope this isn’t considered too talkative, or advise. I tend to be more comfortable sitting back and being support. But if no one leads, I do tend to take the adage of Lead, follow, or get out of the way….. For those of us who watch, and listen more, I’d like to believe that one day our day will come. “There will come a time … when your time has come!” As far as my boss goes, he mentioned that he’s started watching people and has beem able to handle some of their concerns. Even the loud ones … despite the self promotion still show signs in their body language. But he’s also now looking more at those who just “do their work” and tries to help them where they need it and promote their strong traits. Being the boss isn’t an easy task. :) And (as I think of it now) probably hears a lot more they see. It’s convenient. But when the sheets are tallied up, and work hours to profit is calculated, those are the stars. Loud or quiet. IMO, those are things [I] can deal with and make headway moving up. For more introverted people, it’s a great way to stick out above the extroverts in the workplace. Buying the boss lunch here and there helps too! ;)

    Great topic. (Very) Thought provoking too. Thanks.
    I rarely post much here, but do read as time permits. Cheers.

  22. Virginia says

    I didn’t start off agreeing with this post but I think I see where you coming from a little better now. I hate the idea of having to pretend to be someone who you aren’t to fit in or get ahead but it sounds like you have had some success with it.

    Glad to hear you are working on optimizing the quality of your life. Success comes in many forms.

  23. says

    I’m more for acting like myself, but I am not a Harvard graduate so I don’t think I’ll ever be the smartest guy in the room. I stick more with the common sense approach in most situations and if it calls for working extra and promoting myself to get ahead I”m doing it. However if the situation calls for just getting the job done and receiving your small raise and bonus regardless of the effort, I will take the common sense approach and coast along.

    • says

      Hard to disagree with a common sense approach. The one thing that becomes somewhat cumbersome is when you get to a level where lots and lots of people want to take advantage of your time. You can’t help everyone, so you’ve got to act a little dumb so as not to offend anyone.

  24. says

    Sam,
    This is the first time I’ve read someone’s take on this subject. It’s really interesting though and this is something I have done most of my life. I always flew under the radar in my career as a financial advisor and never wanted to get into a pissing contest with all the hot shot brokers.

    I tried to keep expectations low so I would surprise people with what I could accomplish as well…

  25. says

    Most of the time I just act like myself. But I have acted dumb on occasion. I hear what you’re saying about management having really high expectations that can be unreasonable. I’m also into dressing down. Mostly that’s because I find business attire really uncomfortable, but I also want to be perceived as laid back and approachable, which I think I am.

  26. says

    As I enter my twilight years of employment I do practice this and do wish I had adopted this personna earlier. It’s much easier to look good when expectations are lower. It doesn’t come naturally to me, because I’ve been pretty much a workaholic most of my career, but I’m a quick study so that counts for something.

  27. says

    Such an original post, Sam. I’m walking a bit of a tightrope at my current job, as I like it so much. I get to work from home, and I’m good at what I do. I want to do well, but don’t really want to do too well, and then move up. I think I’m a better individual contributor than I would be a team leader.

  28. says

    Had a similar piece of advice from a colleague who has been with the company for a while. I recently got a promotion, and when that happens people try to solve every problem the company faces. I had some ideas I bounced off of him and he said they were great but cautioned not to push too hard when you get a new position. I’m guessing it’s for the same reasons in this post that you don’t want to be perceived as a know it all and subsequently, a threat. Plus it’s a big company so change takes a long time anyway.

  29. Jon S. says

    Playing possum….the Ali “rope-a-dope”…Saying very little yet collecting information… These are all techniques I use in life. Being underestimated by others truly is a gift. Great article.

  30. says

    It’s like you wrote this for me. :-/ I run my mouth more than I listen, and it always gets me into trouble. Trouble with my boss when I’m not laid off, trouble with my wife, trouble with my family…it’s hard to help it though when people say stuff that’s stupid!

  31. says

    The main problem with acting dumb is it can become a hard habit to break, especially habits of dress and speech.

    Working in Silicon Valley tech companies and research labs I’ve worked with some scary smart people.

    However, the truly impressive smarties are the ones who are smart enough to adjust to your level invisibly so you never know just how smart they are. Whatever your interaction with them, it’s fun, successful, and you go away from it feeling that they’re smart and wonderful, but nothing exceptional. It’s only when you see them interacting with other scary smart people that you realize just how truly intelligent they are. And the odds of you ever finding out? Slim.

  32. JW says

    Sam, your “Final Strategy to Getting Ahead” is spot on.

    The comments and rationale that lead up to the “Final Strategy” leave me a bit lost. I understand how your examples can cause someone to believe you or I are dumber than we are and I understand how these moves, when used strategically, can benefit us. The problem I see is that if applied universally, operationally – in all situations, at all times – someone will find they’re getting passed by as opportunities for better work, advancement, or more responsibility are given to those that are clearly acting the part (or smart enough to do the work.)

    I work in consulting, and I realize my daily work experience may differ from others. In my work I’m available for advancement and promotion only after I’ve been able to prove I can do the next job before being promoted, in essence I need to be smarter, more capable, than my current role requires to continue to advance. I’ll admit that I do “act dumb” with clients, particularly when trying to understand their business, but in reality it’s not acting dumb as much as realizing I don’t know as much as them until i’ve spent time with them.

    If I slow down my response times my boss will ask the guy/gal sitting next to me to do the important work next time. If I change my speech to sound dumb I’ll lose credibility with my colleagues and clients. If I pretend to not know the details when I’m asked about them I’ll appear to not be taking my job seriously.

    You’re right that perception (for right and for wrong) means a lot. If I perceive that someone on my team isn’t understanding the content or capable to deliver the work I need him to do i’ll give that work to someone else – if he/she is “acting dumb” they’ve wasted my time and they’ve allowed themselves to miss an opportunity.

    • says

      There are certain industries such as teaching, consulting (anything that requires advising etc), medicine, research that acting smart is the way to go no doubt. And you should absolutely demonstrate your smarts and know-how in these professions until you reach a happy state in your career. Then, acting dumb to get ahead in lifestyle is a decent strategy to consider b/c you might reach a point where you become inundated with work and absolutely unhappy with all the stress and pressure.

      Most jobs just don’t require THAT much intelligence, at least not as much intelligence as needed in school. Therefore, if you stand out too much you will probably get hammered down unless you are a super nice person who tries to bring EVERYBODY up with you.

      • JW says

        Got it, that explanation makes a lot of sense.

        I do have one more question though – can you be that person that tries to bring everybody up with you? Can you include me in the group you label as “everybody”?

        I want to go to where you’re going!!!

  33. says

    This is great advice that I learned early in life, without even trying to or in many situations being smarter than those around or above me. Another thing I’ve learned it that whatever we are, there is always someone who is more or less, better or worse. It is sad to know that even as an adult, playing down my accomplishments or ambitions truly makes others feel that I am not a “threat.” Funny, I never perceive others as threats unless we are talking about criminal behavior. A person’s accomplishments are theirs and even if I don’t like them or vice versa, I can certainly learn something from them even if it’s only from simply closing my mouth and observing.

  34. Nick J. says

    Sam,

    I sure loved this post. I noticed several tactics that I have used so far in my career to great success, and I learned several new ones as well! Keep up the good work!

  35. K says

    Love this post!

    It also prevents anyone from ever being able to say, “you KNOW better than to do something like this!” Just kidding.

    Yeah I learned about this a many years back when people kept trying to use me for my very “useless” degree (English) and would have me edit EVERYTHING. Long story short now I just don’t correct any of my typos and say that I forgot what learned in college…but it made me a really good person, resourceful, and a hard worker! :)

    And uh…. I actually JUST picked a guys brain about his stocks stuff in the break room just now. New hire. He told me a month about how he was trading stocks since he was 13. I just meant for it to be small talk but you are so right that that’s what people do once they catch a whiff.

    But now I also know why you don’t respond to my comments sometimes. I’m hurt! jk

    All good advice though. All very very true.

  36. Jim says

    I am slowly learning this concept. I used to get frustrated that things would get dumped on me, and I’d pick up others slack. I liked the recognition that came with being “needed”. Now I’ve realized how foolish that was. For the past 2 years, I’ve been acting dumb, asking lots of questions, and delegating wherever possible. I never “know” anything off hand- always have to do “reasearch”.

    Seems to work for me- I have plenty of time at work, and never work more than an 8 hour day. If I get laid off that would be an added bonus. My current “success metric” is how much time I atually spend having to do work.

  37. says

    I both hate and love this article. I hate it because in a way it encourages fitting in with mediocrity–the standard nowadays it seems like. I love it because what you write is SO TRUE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OMG….

    It’s not that I think that I am better than others–ok maybe sometimes I do, but it really is sad to see others who will chose to prefer mediocrity as a way of life and it’s not that there’s anything wrong with it… but it just makes it so much easier to rise to the top almost effortlessly… I didn’t quite understand the concept of “le creme de le creme” until my current boss explained to me that “the top quality cream always rises to the top”.

    Unfortunately, hater’s gonna hate and they will do what they can to pull you back down into “mediocrity land” and blending in really is the way to keep things cool. The key is to always remember who you REALLY are.

    p.s. love the website name… financial samurai.

      • says

        I was doing a completely unrelated search that included the words “dumb people” because of a comment I heard was supposedly made by a Facebook executive. Alas I didn’t find what I was looking for but your website was the third or fourth link and the title got my attention so I opened it to check it out :)

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