I’ve been completely humbled in the past few months as I’ve taken on a new set of responsibilities, responsibilities for which I have essentially no background. It’s like being a first-year student again. I’ve got a “course” in insurance—not just health and life but also event, building, liability, workman’s comp, and data breach. There’s also accounting, banking, payroll, and taxes.
Perhaps my most challenging “course” has been finance. I’m now the staff person who supports our investment committee. My job is to attend meetings, be sure the agenda gets out in a timely manner, carry out trades, and oversee the various reporting responsibilities associated with being a signatory for the UN Principles for Responsible Investment. It all sounds relatively easy when I list it out here, but after six months, I’m still struggling. The meetings are like an advanced seminar I don’t belong in but that it’s now too late to drop.
All this has reminded me just how hard being a novice is. I’m encountering several kinds of new information every day. And it’s not just intellectually difficult. I wake up in the middle of the night, anxious about transferring a million dollars to purchase a new investment or worried that I’ll miss an important detail for an employee during the enrollment period. It’s like taking high-stakes tests all over again. And just like our students, I, of course, have access to fantastic tutors and advisors, but I’m not always comfortable using them. I worry that I’m taking up too much of their time or that I should solve problems on my own.
Recently, I’ve spent time reflecting on just what is making it all so overwhelming and exhausting. I’ve just started down this path, but here are a few early observations.
- When you are a novice, you have no framework or schema for the concepts you’re learning. I hear a jumble of words and don’t understand the relationship of all the parts and pieces. Maturity, coupon rate, tax status, and callability are just terms until someone tells me that these are the four main features determining the value of bonds. In fact, there is so much information coming at you as a novice that you need to hear about the organizing framework repeatedly and often.
- Every area has a specialized vocabulary that is initially impenetrable and confusing. I have recently learned about caller boxes, reserve boxes, lockboxes EFTs, ACHs, wire transfers, allowances, journal entries, and reconciliations. The sheer number of new terms is one challenge. Another is that some of the terms have alternative, even contrary, meanings in everyday conversation. Still another is figuring how they fit into the schema that I’m building. In fact, knowing the definitions is of limited value if I don’t also understand the schema.
- Being a novice can mean you know you don’t understand but you can’t quite articulate what is confusing. For me, this goes back to not yet having a schema. This state of affairs is extremely frustrating for me because I don’t know what to do next. Web resources are sometimes helpful, as is asking someone for help. But that brings me to the next item.
- Being a novice means you don’t always recognize or understand the answer to your question. I have been told multiple times by well-meaning people that the answer to my question is in paragraph 2 of a memo or on page 7 of a report. I’ve been surprised by how often this is not helpful. I can read and reread paragraph 2 or page 7 and still not see the answer. Sometimes I haven’t actually asked the question I thought I did, so of course I don’t see my answer. Other times the jargon of the answer I receive is impenetrable. I’m left with bothering the person again, which is embarrassing, or looking on the web, which is time consuming, or just letting the issue go for now, which carries a certain amount of risk.
- There can be persistent mini-trauma over mistakes. Being new means making mistakes. I get that. Some of these mistakes are big. I get that too. And I expect the mistakes to bring on a fair amount of distress, from embarrassment to feeling incompetent to stress over the hours I spend correcting the error. What I haven’t expected is the wave of anxiety and doubt that overtakes me when I go to do the task again. I have to actively avoid procrastinating and manage the emotional load. These negative feelings persist even after several successes at the task.
- Being a novice is cognitively exhausting. When I know what I’m doing, I can work on it for hours, getting into a flow state. But with new tasks, 30 minutes of intense concentration is about all I can sustain before needing a break. Spending a couple of morning hours in meetings on topics I’m not already familiar with can mean I need to completely veg out at lunch. My overall productively drops, and I’ve had to learn to spread the work out when I’ve got a large project about which I know little. I don’t like not being able to think, and this brings its own emotional load.
Taking on new professional roles has been a prodigious reminder of the variety of challenges, intellectual and otherwise, of being a novice. The above is but a partial list. Writing and reading it, I can’t help but hear the voices of past students. Students who came to my office for help but could only tell me, “I don’t understand anything.” Students who could rattle off perfect definitions but could not apply their knowledge. Students who came to say, “I have read the text multiple times; why didn’t I do well on the exam?” Students who would come to me after a minor mistake—say, pouring their lab product down the drain instead of the waste material—with the certainty they didn’t have what it took to be a scientist.
My hope in writing this is that you too will recognize the voices of your students and perhaps think about their conundrums with learning not from your perspective as an expert but from your experiences as a novice.
Amy B. Mulnix, PhD, currently is the interim associate secretary in the national Phi Beta Kappa office. Prior to that, she served as founding director of the Faculty Center at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where she supported faculty across the arc of their careers and the scopes of their academic identities.
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