Why rookie smarts matter

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One year ago, I was a rookie on a professional adventure. A new job, new team, new industry and a move from North Carolina to Florida. As I gratefully jumped into this adventure, I picked up the book, “Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work” by Liz Wiseman. I discovered Wiseman’s inspiration through Jon Gordon.

Wiseman believes rookies can be categorized into four groups. While these categories may differ, there is a common theme: possibilities abound and rookies have nothing to lose. As Wiseman puts it, rookies are able to “find new practices to fit new realities.”

Let’s explore the four categories.

The boundless Backpacker

Backpackers are unknowing and unencumbered. They’re removed from current organizational contingencies, conditions and restraints. This equates to being “intellectually unconstrained,” according to Wiseman. I equate this to being wholly receptive in new, raw ways that evoke vulnerability – but in a good way.

In this chapter, columnist and editor Doug Larson states, “Some of the world’s greatest feats were accomplished by people not smart enough to know they were impossible.” For Backpackers, the rookie mindset operates without boundaries. As a result, imagination flourishes and possibilities are endless.

The curious Hunter-Gatherer

Hunter-Gatherers like to ask questions. They seek out experts to gather more information. Wiseman believes that by asking ‘green’ questions, strategy is often clarified.

I’ve been a Hunter-Gatherer this past year, as I went from working in higher education for thirteen years to newbie status in the healthcare industry. I’m a strategist at heart so my pursuit of experts and ‘green’ questions provided insight into the language, culture and operations of healthcare.

The calculated Firewalker 

Rookies can also be categorized as Firewalkers. This group engages quickly but proceeds with caution. Firewalkers seek feedback along the way to gauge their performance. They move forward with calculated steps while soliciting opinions and thoughts of others. This approach allows Firewalkers to pace their endeavors while ensuring their efforts align with key stakeholders.

The improvising Pioneer

Pioneers create new tools and pathways by improvising. They live in the moment and figure things out as they go. As rookies, Pioneers tend to push boundaries while taking responsibility for their outside-of-the-norm ideas and decisions.

I’ve also been a Pioneer in my new role. I’ve gathered context while boldly exploring new, strategic approaches. It’s been a self check system that connects discovery with my new knowledge and creativity.

The value of a rookie  

Inherently, we recognize the value of seasoned professionals who offer applied experience. However, we do not readily recognize the value of a rookie’s fresh perspective and purposeful thought leadership.

Clinical psychologist Henry Cloud states, “Certainty is one of the weakest positions in life. Curiosity is one of the most powerful. Certainty prohibits learning, curiosity fuels change.” Cloud is extolling the benefit of exploration. In other words, rookies should feel empowered by their curiosity to seek, ask and question.

Rock music, economics, religion and rookies

The takeaway for rookies and organizational leadership? Boldly…break boundaries, foster curiosity and embrace improvising. Need further convincing?

“The less you know the more you believe.” Bono, U2 lead singer.

“It’s like having a good friend who is a devout believer in another religion. You can learn a lot from a friend like that, even if you don’t pray in his church.” Robert Shiller, Economist and 2013 Nobel Prize winner.

“It is better to travel well than to arrive.” Buddha.


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Mary Michaux · at

Great job, Deb! I loved your topic and ideas! Great references also!

Iqra Javed Gulzar · at

Thanks for sharing, great post Debbie! I constantly kept trying to figure out which one I am! Probably the Firewalker…

George Pastidis · at

I loved your blog Deb!

Kay Myers · at

Loved this Deb. Great insight. Passing on to my children. They are rookies in the making and I hope they will be empowered by their curiosity.

Robert Barnhill · at

Nice post. Although I haven’t been a rookie in my professional life for more than a decade, I identified with the boundless backpacker and the hunter gatherer. Many of the salient points are applicable to personal life as well. As a real life (well occasionally) backpacker, I didn’t know you’re not supposed to do one of the toughest stretches of the Appalachian Trail for your first multi day section hike. Was it tough? You bet! But, it gave me the confidence that I could tackle any part of trail after doing it. If you’re never uncomfortable, you cease to grow.

Martha · at

Interesting, Deb. As I was reading I could not help but make the comparison in the upcoming presidential election – a newcomer and a well seasoned person. Hmmmmmm.

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