The Rookie Advantage

Experience can be a curse. Being new and naive can be an asset. New studies show that constant learning is more valuable than mastery.

Conventional wisdom suggests that mastering a discipline would provide the knowledge worker with a competitive advantage.

But the opposite is actually true.

We are often at our best when we do something for the first time.

We often see it on the athletic field, but it also plays out in the workplace. Leadership expert Liz Wiseman and her team of researchers studied almost 400 organizational scenarios, comparing the performance of productive veterans versus productive rookies.

They defined a rookie as “someone who had never done that type of work” and a veteran as “someone who had previous experience with that type of work.”

Here’s what they found:

  • Rookies usually listen more, are more likely to ask for help, and believe they have a lot more to learn and learn faster.
  • While we might think of rookies as bold risk-takers, rookies actually work more cautiously, biting off smaller pieces and checking in frequently with stakeholders to minimize risk.
  • Rookies consistently outperform veterans!

As one who has invested many years to specialize in leadership development, this is not really happy news for me. To be brutally honest, my experience has brought habits. And once I form a habit, my brain wants to stop working. As I rely on experience, I tend to become de-sensitized to new data from the rapidly changing world around me. I want to persist along predictable paths.

Perhaps this is the reason Jesus chose a bunch of religious “rookies” to follow Him.

The religious masters of His day were too experienced, and had no head or heart space for His revolutionary message.

But there is good news.  According to Wiseman, we all can become “perpetual rookies.”
Learning how to pivot between savvy veteran in some situations to rookie in others gives us the agility to innovate and stay relevant.

For example, I launched a pioneer initiative six years ago called Freedom to Lead International®. Our focus is to provide leadership development for storycentric learners, those who learn best and are most likely to be influenced apart from literate means. To our knowledge, we are the first ministry in modern times (at least since the invention of the printing press) that has geared its program toward the 70% of the world’s leaders that are storycentric learners. This audacious project has required me to toggle between leadership development specialist and storycentric learning novice. I am often WAY outside my comfort zone, but the journey has been exhilarating. And we are impacting hundreds of leaders in South Asia and Africa that have never been resourced before.

I like being a rookie again. It certainly has its benefits.

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