Here’s to Not Knowing the Ropes

Posted by Tommer Peterson, Apr 09, 2010 3 comments

First off, you need to know how hard it was not to type “Knot knowing the Ropes,” but I managed to resist at least for a few seconds.

Inexperience, like a bad pun, is undervalued.

By that, I don’t mean ignorance of one’s field, or bring unprepared, but being free of the self-imposed limits can easily come with working in a field for a period of time. Our new and (in the best sense) inexperienced colleagues are often a great source of new ideas and creative solutions. And this creativity is often born of not knowing the “best practices” or the traditions of our lines of work.

A GIA board member once advised me in the midst of a difficult hiring decision. “ Go ahead and take a chance on the younger applicant. Sometimes people can walk through walls because they don’t know they are there.” The image has stuck with me for years. Walk through walls because they didn’t know they were there. How often did I not pursue a line of a creative solution because of a barrier that I perceived to be a barrier? How often did I assume something was impossible based on what someone more experienced had told me? How often was that later proved to be wrong.

There are areas, like IRS regulations for example, where knowing the ropes can be very important. There are others, like program development, planning, creative endeavors, etc., where we need to make sure we give emerging practitioners enough latitude to shine.

3 responses for Here’s to Not Knowing the Ropes


April 10, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Yes, Marc, I completely agree. My post was not meant to de-value traditional skill-building, but to recognize and promote the role of the simple "street smarts" that younger staff and people new to the fields they are working in can bring to the table.

When I first started advising Washington Ensemble Theater, I had a meeting with actor Darrick Clayton (who I hope forgives me for telling this story) to look at the "books" he was keeping for the company. It was an amazing tour. Darrick had intuitively re-invented non-profit bookkeeping from scratch. Absolutely everything that needed to be there was there - the vocabulary and structure, of course, were entirely of his own invention, and bore little resemblance to accounting practices. He had an excel file with at least 20 worksheets all linked that tracked restricted income, unrestricted income, broke out expenses against budget for every show and project. It gave this group of actors and artists (not a manager among them) everything they needed to know to run the company. I balanced to their bank account and projected future shows. All in all, a masterful Rube-Goldberg invention.

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April 09, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Having spent almost a decade figuring out how to produce sketch comedy and how to get people (well, critics, funders, studio execs, prospective board members, my relatives) to take a group called Killing My Lobster seriously (well, sort of seriously), I am deeply appreciative of what can be accomplished when you don't know any better. Not knowing the rules is definitely liberating.

Having said that, though, I also know that I wasted a lot of time because a lot of the time I had no idea what I was doing. I never took the class in budget forcasting (or in how to use Excel for that matter) so creating organizational budget spreadsheets were a time-suck and a disaster until a board member MBA slapped me around a little and helped me up my game.

I never watched someone look a prospective high-dollar donor in the eye and ask them for $25,000 so I spent far too long asking people for $25 when they could have given a lot more if I'd known how to ask.

And perhaps most importantly I think my merry bunch of comedians could have struck a healthier and more-fun balance of creating art and doing the admin work to support it if we'd had help - or even guidance - about how to do the things that didn't come naturally. Ask a group of young actors to create a comedy show about death with an upbeat musical finale? Sure, no problem. Ask them to create a marketing plan, coordinate a bulk mailing, negotiate a multi-party intellectual property contract? Um...well...that's gonna take a while.

I neither want to diminish what can be achieved when you're self-taught (Jimi played the guitar pretty well, even if he strung it backwards) but neither do I want to glorify what it's like to hit your head against a wall (or the Filemaker Pro Database manual) knowing that there is a smarter, faster way to get something done.

Is there a healthy balance to be struck? I think so.

Are mentorships, skill building classes, and networks part of the answer? I definitely think so.

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Ted Russell says
April 09, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Tommer, you're onto something. When I was at business school, I came across a survey of successful entrepreneurs and was stunned by one response in particular. That if they knew the obstacles they'd have to overcome to succeed, most of them wouldn't have even tried to start their businesses. Here's to Knot knowing the Ropes!

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