Project Practitioners > Don't Be the Smartest Fundamentalist

Don't Be the Smartest Fundamentalist

By Chris Cook, PMP

READ TIME: 5 minutes


Jiu jitsu can be a rough activity. You will get injured. The severity is not yet determined. Most of my injuries have been slight aches and pains. Nothing has kept me out for long durations of time (knock on wood).


However, some people are not so fortunate. They end up tearing a ligament or breaking a bone or life gets in the way of training, so they miss ample amounts of time. This time ranges anywhere from a month to years away from the mats.


Eventually, these individuals find their way back to the gym putting on their pajamas to roll around with a bunch of other sweaty individuals. Most think this is hell on earth. Others (like myself) find this activity addictive.


I observe these individuals who come back after long layoffs. They tie their colored belt (rarely does a white belt take time off and continue to train) and start to head over to the fundamentals class which is happening simultaneously with the advanced class. I look bewildered at the people who choose this path.


Instead of rolling with equal or above talent who control themselves during live situations, they choose to be with people who know less and have a tendency to spaz out when under pressure causing unnecessary injury.


To the person making a comeback, they would rather be the smartest fundamentalist than the least advanced person in the room. This mindset is crippling. They are settling for what they know rather than learning something new and testing that knowledge against another person who has similar or greater knowledge.


What better way to test your skill level than against someone who is controlled and better than you? They are not going to jump at a submission where your injury was. A lesser belt will definitely try and break your arm again because you are a higher belt and tapping higher belts is always exciting.


This rant about the returning jiu jitsu grappler has its place in project management. Why surround yourself with a team of white belts when you can have black belts teaching you things along the way? In being around black belts, eventually, you become one yourself. In a room full of white belts, you remain the best white belt. Who cares?


I harp on this point, but it is necessary. People are like electricity, they take the path of least resistance. The returning colored belt wants the fundamentals class because he or she will not be tested in there. They have the advantage at every turn. The prideful project manager picks the team where he or she has the most knowledge because there is no resistance. You hold the cards. You choose the game. You win.


How to avoid being the smartest person in the room:



  1. Observe

Express genuine interest in verbal and nonverbal interactions.


Take a look around the room. The movers and shakers appear very quickly. They are working their way around to everybody pitching their ideas and continually talking. No matter when you look at them, they are always talking. These individuals feel like the blue belt in a fundamentals class. They are imparting their knowledge and speaking about themselves.


You, however, are the opposite. You are observing from these people and taking it all in. You want to learn from them yet not be trapped in their web of words. Notice how they stand, how they move their hands, what they say, and so on. Even though you may not want to be like this individual, you can pick up things that are useful.


Do not focus solely on the movers and shakers. Recognize how their audience is receiving their message. Do they appear engaged or looking for a way out? Some people hold others hostage with their conversations. No one wants their time wasted in such a manner.


  1. Treat Everyone as a Professor

Approach everyone as if they have something to teach you.


The lesson does not need to be calculus or history of an ancient civilization. The lesson can be as simple as a Snapple fact. Not every moment needs to be ah-ha for it to have value. Some people will remember the fact you lent them your ear for a few minutes so they can rant about their current situation. You now have valuable information to use to improve matters and also someone who will help you do so.


How are you going to learn anything if you think you are the smartest person in the room? You will be giving knowledge instead of gaining knowledge. You do not know everything. Sounds crazy right? But we all know it is true. Decades in the game does not mean a white belt cannot open your eyes to a new path.


  1. Conversate

Do not just hear but listen.


Most people listen to respond. They hear the first few words and already have a response to bring the conversation back to them. Instead, hear the other person fully. Like until they stop talking, you listen only. No thinking about the next thing to say. No drifting off into the next person you need to meet. You are staying present throughout the full thought. A ridiculous idea that pays dividends.


It is like a comedian who starts a joke about some horrific topic, and the audience shuts down immediately. Rather than hearing the entire idea front to back and then making a judgment on its humor, most people hear the first few sentences and then tune out. There is always a swerve otherwise the humor would not exist.




Be the returning jiu jitsu partner who goes to the advanced class to learn something and roll with trustworthy individuals, not the one who goes to be the best in the class and risk being injured by an unknowledgeable, flailing white belt.


Observe the room. Take it all in. There is no need to establish yourself immediately as THE expert and start to spout off at the mouth. Be the sneaky type which presents him or herself as the student at all times. Everyone is the professor. You are the sponge. By taking it all in, you are becoming the black belt. By spouting off, you are what you are. There is no improvement or progress. You are as you came.


Those missed opportunities add up over time. Even if you have seen an armbar a million times, there is always a detail or two you can take away with every sequence. No matter how many scopes, schedules, and budgets have come your way, there is always more to learn.


The second you stop learning, your career starts dying.

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