Cultivate a ‘beginner’s mind’ for ongoing growth

Learn to ask for and accept help when needed, even after years of believing you have mastered your craft


Remember when you were a brand-new firefighter?

Depending on how long you’ve been on the job, these memories may have morphed over the years. But take a moment now and try to go back to that time when you first got on the job. Remember how excited you were? How nervous? How full of possibilities?

Over time, these feelings and attitudes have probably changed. You’ve become an expert in some aspects of what you do, feeling comfortable in your position. You’re a solid, dependable member of the organization. But there is something to be said for being a beginner as well.

You’ve become an expert in some aspects of what you do, feeling comfortable in your position. You’re a solid, dependable member of the organization. But there is something to be said for being a beginner as well.
You’ve become an expert in some aspects of what you do, feeling comfortable in your position. You’re a solid, dependable member of the organization. But there is something to be said for being a beginner as well. (Photo/Indianapolis Fire Department)

Think back to being a sponge

As a new firefighter, you were eager. You didn’t hesitate to throw yourself into any duty or project and go the extra mile. You asked for help. You listened to others and learned from their experiences and insights.           

I remember spending hours sitting around the kitchen table in those early years on the job, just listening to stories. Sometimes these stories conveyed specific task-related information, but just as often, and just as valuably, the stories reflected culture and history of the organization. I loved those rambling conversations, and I always had questions for my coworkers.           

These are key components for success for being new in any situation. You eagerly participate. You pay attention. You ask for help. You listen, and you ask questions. Most importantly, you recognize that there is a lot you don’t know, and you are ready to learn under any circumstances.

Re-learn to listen

How many of those attitudes and behaviors persist in you today as an experienced firefighter, officer or chief?

Too often, experienced firefighters get complacent. They know what their responsibilities are, they do their jobs, but they don’t routinely step up to do more. They maintain competence and expertise but don’t necessarily work to develop new skills.

Listening is a skill that must be developed and practiced. As a beginner, you listen to everybody, assuming that everyone on the job might have some wisdom to impart. But as time passes, most people start filtering who they pay attention to. They listen for specific information and ask closed-ended questions with a narrow purpose in mind. This may work for focused problem-solving, but much can be missed if this is the only kind of listening you do.

Try a different approach. If you are battalion chief, go have a conversation with the newest firefighter. Make it a real conversation, not one where you are expounding and they are sitting silently. Ask some questions: Where are they from? Why did they want to become a firefighter? What did they do before coming on the department? What aspirations do they have?

This should not be a formal interview. The more casual the encounter can be, the better. But hold onto what you learn. Not only will these insights allow for better assimilation for the new person, but you might also learn that the member has critical skills and experiences that can benefit the organization.

Ask for help

Asking for help from a position of power and authority can be difficult. Many people feel that asking for help makes them appear weak or incompetent. One trait among firefighters that gets them into trouble, both on and off the job, is the belief that they are always there to give help but never to need it themselves.

How can you learn to ask for and accept help when needed, even after years of believing you should never do that? Being a beginner again can help with this process.

Once someone has experience and expertise in a particular area, certain expectations follow, and asking for help is not part of that set of expectations. People lose the ability to ask for help over time, something that came naturally to them when they were new on the job.

Learn something new

In breaking this pattern, it can help to be a beginner again yourself. Make the commitment to learn a new skill, something you are not already (or naturally) good at. It doesn’t have to be job-related. Take a class on cooking or woodworking, or start learning a foreign language. Few things are more humbling or more empathy-producing than working to learn a new language as an adult. Allow yourself to be new again at something – and to make mistakes. Genuinely experience the pride and sense of accomplishment when new skills are mastered.           

Then take this experience back to the job. Encourage others to question their assumptions, to try new things, to listen better and to make honest mistakes in the effort to learn. Try being a beginner again, and model this attitude to others around you. You will personally benefit from this effort, and so will those around you and the organization you serve.

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