Experience – Help or Hindrance?


While experience can certainly be an asset, it is not at all uncommon for it to be a severe hindrance. While I’m not prone to stereotyping, it has been my observation that there are generally two types of people: those who don’t know what they don’t know, and those who do know what they don’t know. All other things being equal, the difference between the two groups boils down to experience and discernment. Those people who don’t know what they don’t know typically tend to be either younger professionals beginning their careers who have a lack of experience, or older professionals who have not gained wisdom and maturity as they have progressed along their career path.

The Early Stage Professional:

On the positive side of the equation young, inexperienced, and energetic professionals sometimes accomplish great things because they don’t have the experience to know what they are not supposed to be able to accomplish. As a result of their professional naivete, they sometimes appear to achieve the impossible. However more often than not, young professionals operating outside of experiential and/or educational boundaries are met with failure and frustration by having what appear to be great ideas eventually unwound by unforeseen factors that only were unforeseen to them due to their inexperience or lack of discernment.

The failures and setbacks of the early stage professional can be healthy learning experiences that lead to professional maturation so long as learning actually takes place, and mistakes of naivete don’t become patterns for future disruption. It is essential that young professionals gain an understanding of where their skill sets and competencies begin and end. Once the boundaries of knowledge are understood, then definitive steps can be taken to create a plan for personal and professional growth. The decision can be made to ignore weakness by design by playing to your strengths, or you can choose to improve weak areas by closing the gap between where you are and where you want or need to be.

The Tenured Professional:

Regrettably, it takes more than time on the job to reach true professional maturity. I have personally witnessed people, 20-plus years into their careers, who have reached executive level positions and they still don’t know what they don’t know. It is all too common for these types of people to operate in a vacuum by believing that their experience alone is a cure-all for any issue or problem.

How many times have we all observed an experienced person with subject matter expertise in one area, try to drive an initiative or an agenda in another area, only to fail miserably because they didn’t know what they didn’t know? Let’s look at this issue another way; how many times have you seen an older and more experienced person fail to solve a problem that a younger and less experienced person solved with seemingly little effort? While experience is a valuable commodity, in-and-of-itself and to the exclusion of other traits and characteristics, the sole reliance on experience can be a barrier to professional growth and maturity.

That being said, I have never been a believer in the adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” In fact quite to the contrary; I believe anyone (yes, I mean anyone) can change given one prerequisite; the desire to do so. However in that vein, I feel just as strongly that change cannot be forced upon someone who does not recognize the need for change, or even worse, recognizes the need but has no desire for change.

Whether young or old, experienced or inexperienced, the best way to approach personal and professional development is to always stay in the learning zone. When you think you have all the answers is precisely the point in time when you are headed straight for the proverbial brick wall. Always seek out people who know more than you do and actively learn from them. Find a mentor or coach who can dispassionately point out your shortcomings and help you chart a path to progress.

Most things in life happen as a result of choices we make. It is clearly within your grasp to make the choice to gain an understanding of what it is that you don’t know, and determine what you want to do with that information. It’s your choice; choose wisely.