Rookie Smarts

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“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.” Stephen Hawking

Liz Wiseman is the author of Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work and she wants to change the way we view people who are new to their role. “My hope is that we begin to see the term rookie as a badge of honor, rather than a burden.”

Wiseman views what she calls “rookie smarts” as an essential quality for success in a workplace that’s rapidly changing. She says that most companies face a marketplace that would be classified as VUCA. VUCA is an acronym commonly used in the military to describe an environment of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. “These sorts of environments require heightened awareness and situational readiness,” she writes, “because conditions can change quickly, mistakes are easy to make, and surprises lurk around every corner…. The implication for professional excellence is clear: When work spins faster, learning cycles must spin faster, too.”

Wiseman says that rookies can actually outperform veterans in situations where no one can know how to do a task or what might happen next. Rookies don’t assume they know everything – of course they don’t. So they go in with a sense of humility and eagerness to learn. They don’t hesitate to ask questions, since there’s no shame in not knowing the answers. And the people they ask are patient and non-judgmental – they don’t look down on rookies. In fact, they’re happy to help.

Veterans, by the time they gain expertise, also develop a defensive posture.  They worry about maintaining appearances, so they stop asking questions (in case they might seem uninformed or less intelligent) and they stop asking for advice (I’m supposed to be the one who gives advice.)   They tend to rely on what they already know, instead of working hard to learn everything they can about the current situation.

Early in your career, Wiseman says, you might have been expected to store a vast amount of knowledge about your job, your market, or how things work. “However, when you can google just about anything, knowledge acquisition becomes more important than knowledge retention,” she writes. “[Now] we must learn to operate like our mobile devices, all data-processing power and negligible data storage.”

If you have deep experience in your field, you can become hidebound and resistant to change.  Maybe it’s time for a rookie makeover. Here are the characteristics of a rookie smarts mindset, according to Wiseman:

  • Be like a Backpacker: Wiseman says that backpackers travel light, unencumbered by old ideas, best practices, and assumptions based on what happened last time. They’re free to explore all roads and ideas because they don’t have to find the one right answer. Veterans, on the other hand, tend to want to do what they know works. They’re invested in the status quo because that’s what made them successful.
  • Be like a Hunter-Gatherer: Rookies don‘t know what they don’t know, so they pay close attention to their environment and reach out to others for guidance. They scan the area and seek out experts who can provide valuable advice and guidance. And since they’re new to the team, they don’t just ask the “best” person; they don’t yet know who that is. They ask many people for advice, which them diverse perspectives and more ideas to choose from.
  • Be like a Firewalker: Rookies tend to move cautiously, but quickly, since they know they need to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible. They take small steps, tread lightly, and keep moving. Veterans may cruise for long periods, assuming they’re doing a great job. Rookies don’t make assumptions – they constantly ask for feedback to stay on track.
  • Be like a Pioneer: Rookies are often traveling new ground without knowing what’s ahead. They have to make their resources last, so they keep things simple and make sure the basic needs of the project are being met. They don’t get distracted by “nice to have” agenda items. Their mindset is one of hunger and relentless pursuit, writes Wiseman. Once they have crossed a boundary, they create value for those who follow, but they don’t settle in.

Do you have a Rookie Smarts mindset?  Do you have the courage to develop one? More on why it might just save your career in a future post.

2 thoughts on “Rookie Smarts

  1. So we should replace every human with neural network based robots and / or neural network based computer programs? (Once available, of course.) Just kidding.

    I am not a robot—as many comment capchas now ask. Patiently awaiting your future post. 🙂


  2. […] art of maintaining a rookie mindset is knowing when to toggle back to a veteran mindset when it’s needed. Veterans who know how to […]


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