The worst gift I ever received was during a “White Elephant” game at a Christmas party a number of years ago.  After what seemed like hours of choosing and stealing gifts, I ended up with a book titled “How To Look Smarter In Meetings”. 

Maybe the gift was fine. 

I hated it.  

The book itself wasn’t harmful, about 50 short pages filled with small, humorous tidbits about the absurdities that happen in business meetings.

It was the title that really bugged me. 

Because I don’t care about “looking smart” or “seeming cool” or putting up a facade.  

I want to actually get smarter, to gain more skills, to be better. 

In his book, “The Change Agent”, Damon West tells the roller-coaster story of his life.  West grew up as a football prodigy and was hailed as the next great quarterback coming out of the state of Texas.  After a disappointing college football career, he got deep into the world of drugs and crime, eventually landing him in Dallas County Jail with a 65-year sentence. 

West told vivid stories of the gang culture in jail, taking relentless beatings on a daily basis and how his life was forever changed by the Coffee Bean parable. After seven years of pain and misery behind bars, West had the great fortune that set him free with 58 years of parole left on his sentence.  

After all of his trials and tribulations – from a loss of identity to an addiction to methamphetamines to losing nearly a decade of his life in jail – West was asked by his Parole Officer what he wanted to do upon being free.  West’s simple response: “All I want to do is be useful”.  

That hit home for me.  And even though you may not be facing a prison sentence, it’s a lesson we can all learn from. 

In my opinion, it’s much more valuable to be smart and useful than to just “look smart.”

If you just “look smart”, you may be given more responsibility – but won’t have any real skills to handle that responsibility once it’s given. Blown opportunity. 

If you actually grow your skills and become useful to others, you’ll earn opportunities and make the most of them.

Maybe I took the book too literally. 

But if you’re anything like me, you would want to know how to be more USEFUL in meetings than to just “look smart”. 

Here are three ways to do that: 

1) Be prepared and on time

It’s silly to me how many people show up 6 minutes late to a 30-minute meeting with no idea what the agenda is or what they want to get out of the meeting. If you’re prepared and came ready with a few talking points or notes, you’ll be able to make the most of whatever happens in the meeting. The best way to show respect to others – and ultimately get their respect – is to respect their time and be on time (or early).

2) Put away the devices 

It drives me crazy to see 8 people in a meeting in the same room and everyone has devices open in front of them. It’s a meeting to discuss something, not see who can answer the most emails in 30-minutes. Phone down. Laptop shut. Actively participate. You don’t think people will notice. They will.

3) Take Notes

You’re there, on time and prepared. Your devices are shut. You’re actively participating. Be the person with the notebook open, jotting down the minutes from the meeting. Not only does it help you remember what was talked about, but you can also follow up on any action items that come from the meeting. This, again, means you’re being useful to the others in the meeting.

The most useful – and successful – people focus more on the steak than the sizzle.  That is, they focus on the process and results, rather than how they look doing it. Bill Belichick once said that he is “not only in the steak business, but had contempt for sizzle.”  

In a lyrical sense, Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd St Rhythm Band once sang “It’s not what you look like when you’re doing what you’re doing.  It’s what you’re doing when you’re doing what you look like you’re doing.” 

Put simply, it’s what you do that counts, not how you look.  

Remember, the goal isn’t to “look smart”.  The goal is to be useful. And great results follow from that mantra.

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