When Were You Last a Beginner?


In a couple of weeks I’m taking the opportunity to broaden my leadership horizons by attending the BSA leadership course known as Philmont Leadership Challenge. It’s a course that builds on a lot of the things that I’ve been learning and teaching for the past five years. It’s designed to be a sort of capstone for servant leadership and learning how to inspire others. I’m excited to be a part of it in large part because I get to participate for a change.

Being a member of the staff for my local council Wood Badge courses has given me a great opportunity to learn the material inside and out. I love being able to teach and see others grow into leaders. It’s also inspired me to share some of those lessons here to help others in the IT community that might not have the chance to attend a course like that. However the past 3 years have also shown me the value of being a beginner at something from time to time.

Square One

Everyone is new at something. No one is born knowing every piece of information they’ll need to know for their entire lives. We learn language and history and social skills throughout our formative years. When we get to our career we learn skills and trades and figure out how to do complex things easily. For some of us we also learn how to lead and manage others. It’s a process of building layer upon layer to be better at what we do. Those skills give us the chance to show how far we’ve come in a given area by the way we understand how the complex things we do interact.

One of my favorite stories about this process is when I first started studying for my CCIE back in 2008. I knew the first place I should look was the Cisco Press certification guide for the written exam. As I started reading through the copy I caught myself thinking, “This is easy. I already know this.” I even pondered why I bothered with those pesky CCNP routing books because everything I needed to know was right here!

The practitioners in the audience have already spotted the logical fallacy in my thinking. The CCIE certification guide was easy and remedial for me because I’d already spent so much time reading over those CCNP guides. And those CCNP guides only made sense to me because I’d studied for my CCNA beforehand. The advanced topics I was refreshing myself on could be expanded because I understood the rest of the information that was being presented already.

When you’re a beginner everything looks bigger. There’s so much to learn. It’s worrisome to try and figure out what you need to know. You spend your time categorizing things that might be important later. It can be an overwhelming process. But it’s necessary because it introduces you to the areas you have to understand. You can’t start off knowing everything. You need to work you way into it. You need to digest information and work with it before moving on to add more to what you’ve learned. Trying to drink from a firehose makes it impossible to do anything.

However, when you approach things from a perspective of an expert you lose some of the critical nature of being bad at something. You might think to yourself that you don’t need to remember a protocol number or a timer value because “they never worry about that anyway”. I’ve heard more than a few people in my time skip over valuable information at the start of a course because they want to get to the “good stuff” that they just know comes later. Of course, skipping over the early lessons means they’re going to be spending more time reviewing the later information because they missed the important stuff up front.

Those Who Teach

You might think to yourself that teaching something is a harder job. You need to understand the material well enough to instruct others and anticipate questions. You need to prep and practice. It’s not easy. But it also takes away some of the magic of learning.

Everyone has a moment in their journey with some technology or concept where everything just clicks. You can call it a Eureka moment or something similar but we all remember how it felt. Understanding how the pieces fit together and how you grasp that interconnection is one of the keys to how we process complex topics. If you don’t get it you may never remember it. Those moments mean a lot to someone at the start of their journey.

When you teach something you have to grasp it all. You may have had your Eureka moment already. You’re also hoping that you can inspire one in others. If you’re trying to find ways to impart the knowledge to others based on how you grasped it you may very well inspire that moment. But you also don’t have the opportunity to do it for yourself. We’re all familiar with the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt. It’s easy to fall into that trap with a topic you are intimately familiar with.

In your career have you ever asked a question about a technical subject to an expert that started their explanation with “it’s really easy…”? Most of us have. We’ve probably even said that phrase ourselves. But it’s important to remember that not everyone has had the same experiences. Not everyone knows the topic to the level that we know it. And not everyone is going to form the same connections to recall that information when they need it again. It may be simple to you but for a beginner it’s a difficult subject they’re struggling to understand. How they comprehend it relies heavily on how you impart that knowledge.

Wide Eyed Wonder

Lastly, the thing that I think is missing in the expert level of things is the wonder of learning something new for the first time. It’s easy to get jaded when you have to take in a new piece of information and integrate it into your existing view. It can be frustrating in cases where the new knowledge conflicts with old knowledge. We spent a lot of time learning the old way and now we have to change?

Part of the value of being a beginner is looking at things with fresh eyes. No doubt you’ve heard things like “this is the way we’ve always done it” in meetings before. I’ve written about challenging those assumptions in the past and how to go about doing it properly but having a beginner perspective helps. Pretend I’m new to this. Explain to me why we do it that way. Help me understand. By taking an approach of learning you can see the process and help fix the broken pieces or optimize the things that need to be improved.

Even if you know the subject inside and out it can be important to sit back and think through it from the perspective of a beginner. Why is a vanilla spanning tree timer 50 seconds? What can be improved in that process? Why should things not be hurried. What happens when things go wrong? How long does it take for them to get fixed? These are all valid beginner questions that help you understand how others look at something you’re very familiar with. You’ll find that being able to answer them as a beginner would will lead to even more understanding of the process and the way things are supposed to work.


Tom’s Take

There are times when I desperately want to be new at something again. I struggle with finding the time to jump into a new technology or understand a new concept because my tendency is to want to learn everything about it and there are many times when I can’t. But the value of being new at something isn’t just acquiring new knowledge. It’s learning how a beginner thinks and seeing how they process something. It’s about those Eureka moments and integrating things into your process. It’s about chaos and change and eventually understanding. So if you find yourself burned out it’s important to stop and ask when you were last a beginner.

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