Experience is overrated

more is not always better

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We assume that more experience is always better. Take the magnificent stag pictured above. 

Those impressive antlers tell of years lived and challenges overcome. That’s something not every deer has. It’s something to aspire to. You could learn from him, if what you want is to get a set of antlers just like his.

But maybe there’s more to the world. What if you aspire to see what’s beyond the forest and the herd, and live a bigger life? Then relying on years of in-forest living is at best wrong-headed and at worst, dangerous.

Years ago, I worked with a man who had big aspirations. He was a few years senior to me and our career paths would diverge after a year on the same team. He was very good at his job, but not the kind of person to invite to dinner; arrogant and insensitive. He said one thing that has stayed with me to this day.

Don’t be dazzled by people with more experience than you. It might be ten years of varied experiences, or one year of experience ten times  over.

His words resonated with me as a young professional used to being patronised for being a greenhorn, amongst other things. True experience comes when you learn and enlarge your knowledge, rather than treading the same path over and over.

Eventually all you can see is the walls of a deep rut, comforting and familiar but also confined and restrictive. So much energy has been expended in making the rut, that the thought of doing anything different is unthinkable.

In every fairy tale set in the woods, the heroine is told to stay on the path and stay safe. She should listen to the voice of the wise elder. But we all know that the real heart of the tale, the real learning experience, only happens when she strikes out to risk the unknown.

When we have some experience, we expect to command respect. Too often, people think that more years and grey hair entitle them to a louder voice. Well, that depends. While you’re growing bigger, heavier antlers, a hunter is fixing you in his crosshairs. You might wish you had listened to the little bird who flew over him, and tried to warn you.

Walking a different path

Often creatives are exhorted to do this, or avoid that. Being an artist is flaky, you can’t make money from writing, poetry is old-fashioned, you won’t make it as a musician. Get a steady job (if such a thing even exists any more.) Sometimes these statements are well meaning, meant to protect you from the supposed negative consequences of your actions.

But at their heart is fear: the fear that if you do try and maybe even succeed, the adviser’s own failure to follow their own path will be exposed. They might have had a different, bigger life. But they stayed on the path and played safe. Now they want you to do the same.

It’s the crabs in a bucket scenario. If one tries to climb out of the bucket, the other crabs pull him back down. It’s scary out there, they say. You don’t want to risk your security. It’s safer in here.

So when someone uses “experience” as a trump card in an argument, consider the source. A parent, older sibling, friend or colleague may be telling you to follow them, or to do what they say based on the view from inside their limited horizon. 

Wisdom is built, not received

My colleague knew his worth and relied on his own vision to reach his goals. He wanted me to do the same by asking questions of anyone who tried to dispense sage advice based on their experience.

Have they done what you hope to do? Have they ever taken a risk? 

Do they have skin in the game?

If not, think again.

You can spend years growing the wrong skills, in the wrong forest. You can walk a hundred miles yet not move at all.

And the hunter is coming.

Originally published at on August 18, 2017. 

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