Book Reviewed by Diane Byington Ph.D. – Rookie Smarts by Liz Wiseman

Are you new to your job and feeling out of your depth and overwhelmed? If so, you probably have more to offer than you realize. In a rapidly changing world, being new, naïve, and even clueless can be an asset. According to author Liz Wiseman, the willingness to learn can be more valuable than mastery, and rookie smarts is often more beneficial to an organization than veteran comfort.

Wiseman doesn’t suggest that experience is a bad thing. Nobody wants their airline pilots, or their bridge builders, or their concert pianists to be rookies. But, while experience provides a distinct advantage in a stable field, it can actually impede progress in an unstable or rapidly evolving arena. When the world is changing quickly, inexperience can be a blessing, freeing us to improvise and adapt quickly to changing circumstances. “In the new world of work, where knowledge is fleeting and innovation cycles spin so quickly that many professionals never face the same problem twice, rookies are often top performers, drawing on the power of learning rather than falling back on their accumulated knowledge.”

Wiseman cites some chilling data to support her thesis. “The total amount of information in the world doubles approximately every eighteen months. New biological data doubles approximately every nine months. In the field of medicine, knowledge doubles every two to three years.” And so forth. Her point:  When there is too much to know, the only viable strategy is to know where and how to find information you need when you need it. Rookies can’t fall back on their accumulated wisdom, so they have to ask questions, search for answers, and talk to experts. “When there is too much to know, having the right question may be more important than having a ready answer.”

Unsettling, but true.

The book is filled with great stories that will keep the reader turning pages, such as the one about how Magic Johnson, as a rookie, led the Lakers to a big win in the NBA finals.  And how Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah put on football pads for the first time in 2010 and was rated one of the top defensive players in the U.S. by 2013.

There’s more to the book than entertaining stories, though. There are numerous suggestions for how to use your rookie smarts. For example, rookies are highly adept in the following circumstances:  Exploring new frontiers and innovating, making immediate gains, when there are multiple ways to solve a problem, and when there is too much information for any one person to know.

“However,” Wiseman says, “when a single mistake is game ending, putting a rookie on the job can be disastrous.”

One of the ways to keep a mistake from ending the game is to give rookies regular and consistent feedback.  She states:  “A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that rookies seek and respond to positive feedback, whereas veterans seek and respond to negative feedback.” Wiseman suggests that smart managers need to make sure rookies have a regular stream of feedback in order to help them calibrate their performance and stay on track. Through feedback, rookies rapidly convert information into intelligence. And the managers also need feedback to help them optimize their own performance.

Wiseman makes a strong case that rookies can make significant contributions to organizations, especially the ones that are dealing with cutting edge technologies and changing conditions.

We were all rookies once and, if we’re smart, we will continue to be rookies in some aspect of our lives. Rookies spend their time at the beginning of the learning curve, and their naiveté and enthusiasm are contagious. After all, what can be more fun than learning something new and finding ways to apply it?