Is it possible that we are at our best when we know the least? That is the question posed by Liz Wiseman in her book “Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work.”
I recently had the privilege of hearing Liz speak at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit. As she spoke, I couldn’t help thinking that my life this past month has been a case study in what she terms “Rookie Smarts” (how we tend to think and act when we are mindful that we are doing something for the first time). And apparently, I am never too old to be a “Rookie.”
On August 1, I officially began my new “job” as part-time grant-writer for Alive and Well Women. On paper, I am completely unqualified for the role. I helped write one grant proposal in July. Period. On my first day of “work” I went to a community college class to learn what a grant-writer does (which I thought might be helpful). It didn’t seem too hard….after all, I researched companies and wrote tons of responses to RFPs during my corporate career. How different can it be? And since the nonprofit world is presumably kinder and gentler, I figured raising, say, $400,000 by the end of the month seemed totally reasonable. Rookie mistake!
I quickly learned there is just as much research required in finding grant money as there is in finding corporate project money. The go-to database for searching foundation grants is a paid subscription service, but available for free at certain local libraries. No longer having the deep pockets of (or paychecks from) a Fortune 500 company, I trudged off to the closest library site, which is in a particularly rough neighborhood of Pasadena. After fumbling around for a couple hours on the computer terminal, I signed up for a free one-on-one with a librarian the following Friday.
That Friday, I put on make-up and my best shorts and showed up for my appointment with Darrell at the library. He was a very kind, soft-spoken African-American gentleman who met me in the non-profit research center room, and who I was fairly certain would not care a whit about Alive and Well Women. I was itching to get started on the training, but instead of turning on the computer, he leaned back, looked at me, and asked, “What are you trying to do?” I explained I am co-founder of a nonprofit and need to learn how to use the Foundation database to find grant money. “OK, what is your nonprofit all about?” “What are your goals?” “Who is your target audience?” “How do you expect to accomplish your objectives?” “Do you have a functioning Board?” “Have you received 501(c)(3) status?” Before we ever looked at the computer, we had a 45-minute in-depth discussion about organizational planning, goals, resources, and mission. “The reason I’m asking you these questions is that I want to see how far along you are in your nonprofit, and how well you are able to articulate your vision.” To my utter astonishment, Darrell then shared his positive assessment and detailed thoughts about where he saw the need for Alive and Well Women, which was a stunning confirmation that he actually tracked with my rambling presentation.
It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but it was exactly what I needed. By the time we finally turned on the computer, we were ready to effectively search for foundations that shared goals with Alive and Well Women. After we compiled a list of hundreds of foundations that were potential matches, Darrell gave me the homework assignment of going through each one of them to narrow the list. “Then I start calling them?” I asked. “Nope, then you do more research,” Darrell said, pointing to the volumes of resources in the shelves behind him.
Since then, I’ve spent countless hours poring over records of foundations, looking for grant limitations that would exclude them from my list, finding their stated mission and goals to see if they align with ours, and then reviewing their Form 990s for additional financial and grant information. The work is tedious and time-consuming, and I haven’t been as efficient as I’d like, and I already know I’d love to hire a intern to help someday, but I also know it is necessary for me to learn. It is almost the end of August, and I haven’t raised a dollar. But, I have become familiar with hundreds of foundations, whittled my list down to 10-15 strong matches, and assembled a good profile of each. In the process, I’ve gained a better sense of how to do research and where to find information. And in spite of my occasional frustration with the pace of progress (I must remind myself that I’ve only committed two afternoons a week – God continues to work with me on patience) I do feel a sense of accomplishment.
According to Liz Wiseman, it’s not what you know, but how fast you can learn. The Inexperienced benefit by being unencumbered by assumptions. We (I’m putting myself firmly in the Inexperienced column) solicit information by asking questions and seeking information. Rookies have a steep learning curve, and often don’t know how hard the work is at the outset. We move in baby steps at first. But rookies achieve quickly because we learn fast (we are desperate!) and are resourceful. Liz says the learner’s advantage is that we tend to do our best thinking when our challenge level goes up. And, importantly, our satisfaction also goes up.
This past month took me back to various times in my life and career when I was new to jobs or projects or roles. It wasn’t always enjoyable, in fact often stressful, but there was also excitement and contentment in meeting the challenges. Although I don’t have the same level of risk or anxiety associated with being a “Rookie” in my current situation (I’m not worried about losing a job or salary) it is still a sharp learning curve. Liz Wiseman reminds us of the benefits of re-igniting our “Rookie Smarts,” even as leaders or at advanced stages of career or life. She warns us that when we plateau – when things are smooth, we have all the answers, we get positive feedback, when we’re busy but bored – we start to die. On a learning curve we find the divine, the satisfaction, our greatest joy. We can and should strive to be Rookies…no matter our phase of life!
Notes to self:
- Look for opportunities to be a Rookie again. Put yourself at the bottom of a learning curve. Volunteer for things you’ve never done before or look at things you’ve done before with Rookie eyes. Sometimes backward is the best way forward.
- Be open to unexpected mentors (like Darrell at the public library) and learn all you can from them.
- Be willing to mentor other Rookies when they need help.
- Be aware that Rookie Smart Mode can be stressful, but look at the anxiety as a sign of growth.
- Don’t be afraid to think like a Rookie in any situation!