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Aim to be a competent novice, not an expert


I’m working on writing some new hire onboarding training at my work and it’s tempting to want to include a lot of tips and tricks that I’ve learned over the past few years. As if reading my mind, my colleague reminded me that what I’m writing should be “an introduction—not a comprehensive exploration. We’re creating capable novices, not experts.

Yes! That’s a great mindset, not just for keeping my writing lean. When tacking anything new, aim to be a capable novice, not an expert.

In his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Chris Hadfield sums up a similar idea of how he strived to be competent before he could think of himself as extraordinary:

The best way to contribute to a brand-new environment is not by trying to prove what a wonderful addition you are. It’s by trying to have a neutral impact, to observe and learn from those who are already there, and to pitch in with grunt work wherever possible.

Over the years, I’ve realized that in any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.”

When you have some skills but don’t fully understand your environment, there is no way you can be a plus one. At best, you can be a zero. But a zero isn’t a bad thing to be. You’re competent enough not to create problems or make more work for everyone else. And you have to be competent, and prove to others that you are, before you can be extraordinary. There are no shortcuts, unfortunately.

If you skip right to assuming you are an expert, experience shows that you’ll inevitably miss context, skip steps unintentionally, break things, hurt feelings, and generally make an ass of yourself.

Setting a goal to be expert-level is fine, but you must pass the competent gate at some point on the way.

You might as well work on being a capable novice first.

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