Misunderstanding Experience

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about experience, what it means, and how it impacts us.

In most cases, I think the idea of being experienced offers delusional confidence. This is especially true when people can’t differentiate between experience and expertise. We often mistakenly assume that experience leads to expertise.

Even if it did, it would carry little value long-term. Being an expert today doesn’t mean you will be one tomorrow [1]. If you were an expert in transportation when horses were around, you were a rookie in the Henry Ford era. If you think you’re an expert in transportation today, you certainly won’t be one in a post-autonomous world (unless, of course, you sustain your current level of intensity in the field for the next decade).

I’m definitely not trying to argue that expertise is unimportant, but I am arguing that your perception of yourself as an expert can be harmful. This perception almost always starts formulating as a by-product of experience. Experience can lead us to assume we have achieved some level of expertise that is eternal.

I’ve noticed that experience builds a strange type of ego that eliminates some necessary amount of naivety and risk-taking. I especially notice this when I talk to people who are very experienced in a certain industry. It seems like their experience gives birth to some sort of subconscious gatekeepers that reject the hypotheticals — the outlandish ideas and propositions — that shock the foundations of what their experience has led them to believe in. These beliefs they hold are mostly a consequence of their familiarity in the current conditions of their discipline.

When you take this to an organizational level, the implications can get pretty concerning. Having gatekeepers with mindsets so engraved in the present condition can make them oblivious enough to bring down the very company they were trying to grow.

Perhaps, this is why some entrepreneurs who aren’t “industry veterans” create the most successful companies. They know just enough to have a fresh perspective that spurs an idea or vision, which then disrupts the status quo in their industry.

I have started to take the advice of very experienced people with a grain of salt. This is definitely not to say that I disregard their advice. But it does mean that I question them as much as I would question anybody else, including a 10-year-old [2]. I feel like it helps keep my perspective on the world a lot fresher. :)


[1] For some technologies that are still far from being commercialized, I realize this statement might be false.

[2] Seems like an obvious thing to say, but after some personal reflection, I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve found myself believing in someone’s arguments solely based on the fact that they were very experienced.

I originally published this on my blog at www.afraj.com. Feel free to subscribe. I’m on Twitter @afrajgill.