I think what most of us Gen-Xers found amusing about HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan’s recent interview with Adam Bryant was this notion that “at least in the tech world, gray hair and experience are really overrated.” You read that right, experience is overrated. For now, we’ll leave aside the fact that he likes to nap a lot, and focus on the absurdity of his pandering to the Gen-Y folks HubSpot employs.
Interestingly this idea, that experience doesn’t matter, is immensely popular among Gen-Y. My own sister-in-law ( b. 1981 ), once told me the same thing. Only she couched it inside a notion that a person’s ideas were just as good as anyone else’s and the lack of experience doesn’t mean that one cannot have good ideas. Which is true. Until the person with experience listens to the good idea and realizes they’ve been down that road before and even though it sounds good, it never really works out. Kinda like “Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen!”
At the end of the day, our brains are hardwired to quickly identify and eliminate risks from our environment. Experience is the primary driver behind that capacity -> risk confronted + successful survival = experience. That the younger generation believes they know better is nothing new. In fact, the older generations have been complaining about this for some time.
Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.
Sound familiar? It sounds like any number of commentators over 50 on CNN or CNBC. In fact, it was this guy.
Experience saves lives, time, and money. Bad ideas that sound good are plentiful and it is experience that allows us to be able to have a fighting chance at squashing them before they get off the ground.
As some of you know, I did a stint as an Outward Bound instructor in my early 20’s. Outward Bound was founded in 1941 in the tumultuous waters of the North Sea during World War II, to provide young sailors with the experiences and skills necessary to survive at sea. Named for the nautical term for a ship’s departure from the certainties of the harbor, Outward Bound was a joint effort between British shipping magnate Sir Lawrence Holt and progressive German educator Kurt Hahn.
The birth of today’s Outward Bound began somewhat humbly with the opening of Gordonstoun school in Scotland in the 1930′s with only two students. Here, founder Kurt Hahn refined his philosophies into a practical curriculum. In addition to achievements in the classroom, the curriculum rewarded the development of physical skills such as running, jumping, and throwing as well as learning to live in the outdoors through an expedition and embarking upon a hobby or project.
After relocating the school to Wales, the next step of Outward Bound’s evolution came via a joint effort with British shipping baron Sir Lawrence Holt to teach young British sailors the vital survival skills necessary during World War II. With a curriculum based mainly on Hahn’s belief that character development was just as important as academic achievement, the new school became the wellspring of experiential learning in the post-war period. Hahn found that people who were put in challenging, adventurous outdoor situations gained confidence, redefined their own perceptions of their personal possibilities, demonstrated compassion, and developed a spirit of camaraderie with their peers.
That right there is the value of experience. It can be accelerated, but it mostly comes with time. And age.
Part II ( additional thoughts from later on in the day )
When people say experience is overrated, it might be that they are saying a long resume does not guarantee that a person is any better at solving a given problem than someone with a shorter resume in the same line of work. Indeed in that narrow definition, this might be the case. That said, it is not really what is largely being meant by the folks from Gen-Y.
When a younger person says experience is overrated, they are largely ( and in the case of Gen-Y, boisterously ) espousing a position along the lines of: “Hey, I may not be as old as you, but my ideas are just as valid – even if I have no experience in the area of expertise that we are currently speaking of.” Which is essentially the problem.
Most people probably don’t know as much as they think they do. When put to the test, most people find they can’t explain the workings of everyday things they think they understand.
Don’t believe me? Find an object you use daily (a zipper, a toilet, a stereo speaker) and try to describe the particulars of how it works. You’re likely to discover unexpected gaps in your knowledge. In psychology, we call this cognitive barrier the illusion of explanatory depth. It means you think you fully understand something that you actually don’t.
The interesting thing about the illusion of explanatory depth is that it seems to be highly positively correlated with complexity. That is to say, the more complex the system in question the more likely we are to delude ourselves about the completeness our understanding of the thing. The difference then, in attitudes about the value of experience, might be driven by the school systems of the late 80’s and early 90’s who were obsessed with boosting self-esteem.
A large, important study (“Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem,” by Roy F. Baumeister, Laura Smart, and Joseph M. Boden (Psychological Review, 1996(5, Vol. 103, No. 1).) adopted a novel approach to separating self-esteem from all its cause and correlates. The researchers measured how each individual rated himself or herself compared to how that person was rated by others who knew him or her. They were particularly interested in the category of people with inflated self-esteem—the ones who rated themselves higher than their friends rated them. This after all, is where the self-esteem movement leads: Concentrate on getting kids to think well of themselves, regardless of actual accomplishments. The researchers had no difficulty finding plenty of students who fit that category. They are, in a sense, the star products and poster children of the self-esteem movement.
And what were they like? The researchers’ conclusions did not paint an encouraging picture of health, adjustment, or success. On the contrary, the long-term outcomes of these people’s lives found above average rates of interpersonal and psychological problems. A second study, with laboratory observations of live interactions, showed these people to be rather obnoxious. They were more likely than others to interrupt when someone else was speaking. They were more prone to disrupt the conversation with angry and hostile remarks. They tended to talk at people instead of talking to or with them. In general, they irritated the other people present. Does any of this sound familiar? This is what comes of inflated self-esteem.
The picture is one of a self-centered, conceited person who is quick to assert his or her own wants but lacks genuine regard for others. That may not be what the self-esteem movement has in mind, but it is what it is likely to produce. In practice, high self-esteem usually amounts to a person thinking that he or she is better than other people. If you think you’re better than others, why should you listen to them, be considerate, or keep still when you want to do or say something?
Could it be the case that Gen-Y just thinks they’re better than the rest of us?