Throughout my career, I've found myself in rooms, literally or virtually, full of people well above my paygrade.
In my first unpaid gig as a blog-writing intern, the company's founder would call me for advice on content strategy. As a fledgling blogger in 2013, I was invited to join the launch team for a new website, The Write Life, with long-time editors, authors and business owners. As an editor at the personal finance website The Penny Hoarder, I work on projects and sit in on meetings with directors and VPs.
Last year, I sat on a panel at the ACES: The Society for Editors conference with top editors from The Washington Post. Even as an Inc. columnist, I'm a first-time manager and a freelancer in the company of successful founders and CEOs. No big deal.
Sometimes I think there must be some mistake. Or maybe I've hoodwinked everyone. Or they're humoring me for some reason.
A room full of people with way more experience, knowledge, and clout is intimidating. I'm always afraid some dumb question or mundane comment will give me away as an obvious interloper.
It's tempting to say no to these opportunities. I'm not ready. I'm too busy. That's not in my job description. Surely someone else is more qualified.
But saying yes has invariably moved my career forward.
That internship turned into my first steady paid writing gig. The Write Life's founder became the most important mentor in my career. Participating in the ACES panel made me confident in pitching my own session for this year's conference, which I'll lead in just a few weeks.
It's uncomfortable to feel like the dumbest person in a room. But if you want to grow in your career, it's exactly where you want to be.
Being the dumbest -- i.e. the least experienced or lowest ranking -- person in a meeting, team, event or conversation means two important things for your career:
Someone believes in you enough to invite you to the table. You have the skills and potential necessary to contribute to this group of superstars -- and this is a chance to show it.
You get to see how the decisions are made. Even if all you do is listen, these experiences can move your career forward because of everything you'll learn from people with more experience and knowledge.
You might enjoy being the smartest person in a room because it lets you show off or keeps you comfortable. But who are you showing off to? What are you gaining from the experience?
To grow, you have to get out of your comfort zone and reach beyond your station. You have to feel dumb once in a while.
Here are a few tips to embrace opportunities when you think you're not good enough:
Say yes. Every time.
Listen when you're addressed, of course. But I'm also a big advocate of eavesdropping here. Soak up what you can about how these people interact, how they think and what they're working on.
Ask questions. Ask the smart ones that show you know what you're talking about -- and ask the dumb ones whose answers will make you smarter.
Make friends. This is tough for me to recommend as an introvert. But I do it, and you can, too. Chit chat, make jokes, ask about people's kids. These connections let you learn from someone you admire without burning them out on work-related inquiries.
Be useful. Turn this opportunity into the next one by volunteering for the next steps and letting everyone know how you can help with future endeavors.
Notice I don't suggest you use these opportunities to show off to your bosses. You'll probably just annoy people if that's your first instinct whenever you're in a room with people who outrank you. Instead, respect their experience, and be useful -- those traits will be much more impressive than self-adulation in the long run.