Author Q&A: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work

Advice & Stories, Earning Power
on December 8, 2015

New to the game? Well, you may already be winning. When it comes to achieving your highest potential and proving your value in the professional world, sometimes it’s more about what you don’t know than what you do know. In a market that operates by the practice of “out with the old and in with the new,” that rookie status we’ve always considered cringe-worthy is now one of our most valuable assets—when wielded wisely.

Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work

Harper Business

Internationally renowned leadership thinker and bestselling author Lisa Wiseman explores this norm-shattering theory in her new book Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work. Through her innovative look at the surprisingly marketable skill of “not knowing,” Wiseman explores how newbies in the job market can work their inexperience advantageously, while encouraging seasoned professionals to prioritize questioning and learning over simply meeting qualifications.

We connected with Wiseman to discuss the qualities she considers of top value in the “new game of work,” why managers can and should take a little inspiration from the new guys, and the beauty of the rookie mindset.

Smarty Cents: The notion that not knowing might ever actually be better than knowing is a fascinating one—what inspired you to explore it? Was it a specific event in your own life? A trend that you noticed?

Liz Wiseman: I joined Oracle, a bold, rapidly growing software company, at 23. And by 24 years old, I was thrown into management and given big jobs with responsibilities that outsized my nascent capabilities. I was forced to scramble up the steep learning curves. It was a thrilling ride, but, eventually my learning curve flattened, and I found myself, at last, qualified for my job. I felt knowledgeable, capable, and like a professional grown up. But, honestly, it was depressing. I left in search of something I didn’t yet know how to do – which led me to become a management researcher and author. As I left the cradle of my career, I held a lingering question: Why does what we know get in the way of what we don’t know, but need to learn? I also had seen too many high-flying companies go from “hot” to “not” and wondered how both professionals and companies could maintain their vibrancy and relevancy as they grew.

SC: You reference “the new game of work” prominently—right in the title of your book, in fact. Can you describe what you see as the new game of work and what specifically about it makes the rookie a valuable player?

LW: The world is moving faster than ever before. We are now in a new world of work, where knowledge is fleeting and innovation cycles spin so quickly that many professionals never face the same problem twice. In today’s reality, it isn’t how much you know but how quickly you can learn. In this environment, experience can be a liability, and being inexperienced, being new, naïve, and even a bit clueless, can be an asset.

When we gain experience, sure, we gain confidence, credibility and knowledge. But, once we know the patterns – once we’ve seen it before – we stop seeing new possibilities. We stop asking why, and we just do. We build up scar tissue and learn to be afraid to go down certain paths. To protect our reputation, we don’t let ourselves fail. We, essentially, acquire adult-onset learning disabilities. Once we stop learning, we stop having fun, and we stop succeeding.

On the other hand, when we are doing something for the very first time – when we are rookies – we ask why. We consider what is possible. We see the wonder and magic in simple things, which in turn allows us to keep things simple. We don’t know that things are impossible, so we try. We haven’t yet learned to be afraid, so we make mistakes and then pick ourselves up quickly and try again. We learn, not because we aspire to learning; we learn quickly because we have to. And we find that when we are new to something – whether we are 25 or 65 years old – a learner’s advantage kicks in. In the process of wondering, asking, and discovering, we do our best thinking, often outperforming those with experience, particularly in knowledge work that involves innovation and speed.

SC: In Rookie Smarts, you identify four distinct modes of the rookie mindset: the backpacker, the hunter-gatherer, the firewalker and the pioneer. Can you elaborate on how your research allowed you to identify each facet of the rookie mentality?

LW: My research team and I studied over 400 scenarios, comparing how people with experience approach a particular type of work compared with people without experience (regardless of age). We analyzed the data by performance level, looking for the key differentiators between how rookies and veterans approach their work and the situations in which they excelled. I found four distinct modes that characterize how we tend to think and act when we are in a rookie assignment. I refer to these as: Backpacker, Hunter-Gatherer, Firewalker, and Pioneer.

  • In Backpacker mode, rookies have nothing to weigh them down and nothing to lose: they are open to new possibilities, explore new terrain, and act wholeheartedly.
  • In Hunter-Gatherer mode, rookies are disoriented and lack know-how: they are forced into a sense-making mode that causes them to pay close attention to their environment and reach out to others for guidance.
  • In Firewalker mode, rookies lack situational confidence: they operate cautiously but take small, quick steps in an effort to close a knowledge or a performance gap.
  • In Pioneer mode, rookies are traversing uncharted and often uncomfortable territory: they improvise and work tirelessly to provide for basic needs.

SC: In what ways (if any) can veteran workers in any given work setting benefit from adopting a rookie mindset? How would you recommend they do that?

LW: To stay relevant in changing times, leaders don’t need to forsake their hard-won wisdom of experience. They just need to maintain access to their rookie smarts – toggling between their veteran and rookie modes, sensing when it is time to use their knowledge and when it is time to be the learner.

Here are a few ways veteran professionals can keep their rookie mindset sharp:

  1. Unencumber their minds – Periodically, veteran leaders need to shed the assumptions and the baggage that come with experience. To do this, they need to ditch the empty jargon that clutters our language and thinking and instead ask the naïve questions.
  1. Seek out new experts – It is easy for experienced leaders to become the “go-to-person” for their teams, but the more critical skill is tapping into what others know. The next time a leader is faced with a challenge that falls within their area of expertise, they should avoid the temptation to jump in. Instead, they should reach out to at least five other experts with their questions, thus bringing in new expertise to bear on the challenge at hand.
  1. Move cautiously but quickly – At the beginning of a project, leaders will benefit from starting slow and taking some time to listen and learn. But, once they see what needs to be done, they can jump in quickly. They should play it like double-dutch jump rope where they first study the rhythm and watch for an opening. Once they see it, they can jump in fast and keep their feet moving.

But, perhaps the best way for veteran professionals to maintain their rookie smarts is to take a job for which they aren’t fully qualified. Whether it’s a job in a new domain or a big stretch in their current role, the situation itself will summon once-natural rookie smarts, forcing the leader to build new capabilities through improvising, getting scrappy, and working with a new-found hunger.

The wisest leaders don’t linger too long in a job they are qualified for. When we focus on climbing new learning curves rather than climbing a corporate ladder, we find greater joy in our work and stay relevant in a quickly changing world.

SC: For the true rookie—the first time applicant fresh onto the job market—what advice would you offer for selling his/her rookie status as a positive as opposed to a negative?

LW: If you’re not given the chance to use your rookie smarts, you’ll have to create your opportunity. It’s probably not wise to announce that rookies are likely to outperform the experienced staffers, but you can let your leaders know that there is research showing that inexperienced staffers are far more capable than most managers realize. Let them know you’ve got a track record of success in rookie assignments and what you’ve learned to do really fast. If you are carving out an assignment to prove yourself, scope it to something you can deliver in 2 weeks.

As you approach your first few assignments, remember to operate with the humility and hunger of a rookie: Ask the naïve questions, seek out experts, move fast, admit your mistakes and, by all means, stay humble.

SC: On the flip-side, for employers, do you have words of wisdom that might allow them to make the most of the rookie talent they may have at their disposal?

LW: Rookies are more capable than most people imagine. They come whole and full, but they do need good leadership and guidance. They need leaders who give them freedom to explore new possibilities coupled with enough responsibility to propel them up a learning curve. Rookies need managers who know when to rein them in and when to unleash them, and they need to be placed in an environment conducive to learning and insight.

When managers offer rookies their best leadership, they will in turn work at their best, offering the organization new ideas, energy, and a hopeful outlook that just might be infectious across the team.

But, remember: the most valuable rookies probably aren’t the young and the restless newcomers to the organization. The greatest value will come from keeping the most seasoned leaders working in the rookie zone.

SC: What one thing do you most hope for readers to take away from Rookie Smarts? 

LW: My hope is that we begin to see the term rookie as a badge of honor, rather than a burden. Instead of lowering our expectations, perhaps we should raise them in acknowledgment of a brilliant new way of working and thriving in today’s changing world of work. I hope professionals will be more willing to step into a stretch assignment and that managers will be more willing to give their employees not just a pat on the back but also a push out of their comfort zones.

Liz Wiseman is an executive advisor and the author of Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work and Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. She is a former executive at Oracle and has been listed on the Thinkers50 list and named one of the top 10 leadership thinkers in the world.

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