By Jim Whitt, Contributing Editor
First thing Monday through Friday mornings, I usually post an inspirational (or sometimes humorous) quote online. For example, here’s one I posted by Oscar Wilde: “Experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing.” It was only after I launched this quote into cyberspace that I connected the dots between that quote and the date on the calendar — it was my birthday.
Marking the anniversary of my 66 years on Planet Earth gave me pause to consider the significance of Oscar Wilde’s words. It made me think of the Farmers Insurance commercials that feature the tagline, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”
If advanced age has any value, it’s that you’ve seen a thing or two, and if you catalog what you’ve seen in the archives of your mind, it is the best education you can receive. No amount of classroom education can teach you what you need to learn to survive and succeed in life. Roger Stork, the man who hired me to go to work for Ralston Purina, once made a statement that stuck with me – “I got my degree at the University of Nebraska, but I got my education at the Ralston Purina Company.”
I like this definition of experience: “The process of doing and seeing things and of having things happen to you.” The things that happen to you as a result of doing and seeing are what provide your education. The ones that are most painful that tend to be most educational.
While there is no substitute for experience, there is a close second – other people’s experience. It most cases, you’re ahead of the game if you pay attention to people who have been there and done that when you haven’t been there and done that. You can gain from their pain without having to experience it yourself.
Much of my work as a consultant revolves around working with clients to try to figure out what the future will look like and then to figure out what to do to succeed in that future. Here’s where experience actually works against the process. While exploring possibilities, a voice inside your head says, “That will never work because … .” The voice inside your head then makes its way to your mouth, and you can complete that sentence with a myriad of phrases that we’ve all heard and said while engaged in playing what if?
The voice of experience is powerful. It can keep you from stepping into a bear trap, and it can also keep you from taking the first step to building a better mouse trap. The reality is that you never know if a new idea, concept or business model will work until you try it. And as Vern Law said, “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward.”
The problem with experience as a teacher is that it is based exclusively on what you (or others) have seen and done in the past. This is one of the reasons we struggle with change. The future is a blank slate. The unknown is one of our five basic fears. The knowledge acquired from our past experience has little value when pioneering uncharted territory.
Long before Captain Kirk piloted the fictional Starship Enterprise, Ferdinand Magellan decided to boldly go where no man had gone before. Experience said that circumnavigating the globe wasn’t possible. In 1519, he set out from Spain with five ships and 270 men to sail around the world. Three years and 42,000 miles later, one ship and 18 crew members returned. Magellan was not one of them. He was killed in the Philippines. Magellan’s experience exacted a high price, but it was the first step in establishing a new, global business model. That was a revolutionary concept when not many years earlier the world was believed to be flat.
Experience is a process of trial and error followed by more trial and error. Or as my friend Mel Winger once told me, “Sometimes you just have to fumble.” You gain experience the more you fumble. Eventually, you eliminate what doesn’t work from what does work. But as Magellan discovered, that process doesn’t come without a price. Call it tuition in the school of hard knocks.
The problem with experience is that you’ll never have enough of it. Experience will only take you to where you are today. It’s what you experience tomorrow that will take you into the future. So, get out your checkbook. Tuition is due for the next semester.