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Too Young/Too Old

Throughout my career’s early years, all I heard was, “You need more experience.” We all know the catch twenty-two about acquiring experience, “How do you get it if no one will give you a shot without it?”

First, having experience doesn’t mean they are good at their job. It doesn’t even mean they know anything about their job. It may mean they know how to execute the same task they’ve been doing for years.

In the 80s, I worked as a hardware engineer at ITT Defense. I was assigned to the Shuttle program and the GPS program. (At that time, the Global Positioning Satellite program was a classified government system). My immediate supervisor, Paul Gallo, was incredible. He had been a Lockheed space program engineer since the early Apollo missions.

Most of what he shared with me was about something other than engineering. He referred to engineering knowledge as “book stuff .” He thought mentoring me on what you can’t learn in a book was more important, like navigating your career and befriending the right people, when to speak up and when to shut up.” His list of “success survival tools” was almost endless.

The mentoring moment I remember the clearest and the one I repeat to others constantly came out of a high-level meeting regarding the Challenger’s failed launch. In attendance at this meeting were Generals from all branches of the service, NASA engineers, senior engineers from every major Avionic and Spacecraft manufacturer, and ME hahaha. Well, me shadowing Paul.

I listened intently at this meeting, knowing I was about to hear brilliance. How could I not, considering the collective experience gathered in this one room. In contrast, what I heard was a lot of confusing circle talk, no clarification, and no defined path forward. I now understand that that was just one of the dozens of investigative meetings and that things at that level move slowly. But it still seemed like a lot of nonsense talk, and I heard nothing about how these brilliant “experienced” minds would solve the mystery of how and why the Challenger exploded after launch.

As Paul and I walked out of the meeting, heading back to our office, I innocently said, “With all those brilliant minds and their years of experience, how was it possible no one offered up a strategy or solution.”

Paul’s reply was brilliant, “Just because someone has been doing the same job for twenty years doesn’t mean they have twenty years of valuable experience. It may mean they have one year of experience and have been doing that one year for twenty years!” Bam!! That statement blew my mind.

Over the years, I have learned the word “experience” is complicated. As in Paul’s statement, some people have years at a gig but have retained only what they need to keep that gig.

Then there are people who have years of experience and have expanded their knowledge but only in one area.

How about the experienced folks who have gathered knowledge and skills of value BUT are resigned to their way is the only way and will blow you off with, “You’ll understand once you have as much experience as I do.”

There are also people who have gathered years of experience in dozens of areas yet haven’t mastered anything.

Knowledge and experience do not necessarily go hand in hand. Neither does time on the job mean they’ve gathered skills of value.

Many of us with experience are too quick to ignore a minimally experienced person’s new idea because, based on our “years of experience,” we know it would be “difficult to accomplish, and there is no other way to accomplish it easily” in many cases that is true. Doing it based on our accumulated experiences would make the idea challenging to complete. But it could also be because we’ve forgotten how to do things differently or to listen to a new approach.

The inexperienced or minimally experienced person can approach a project with blue sky vision. They are not burdened with all the practical experiences that restrain a more experienced person from evaluating a new idea with no bias. That unburdened approach leaves a minimally experienced person capable of thinking in blue-sky scenarios without regard to past failed experiences.

Their lack of experience becomes an issue at the point of execution. With no experience, they lack the necessary tools to problem solve when the project goes off the rails. Causing either complete failure or creating complex, unnecessary problems as they struggle to complete the vision.

In the early part of my career in both music, technology, and broadcast, I lacked the experience necessary to create in those areas as I shifted my career’s focus. Looking back, I understand I was blessed to have found groups or individuals in each field with open minds who respected my ideas and did not crush me right at the start. They tempered my enthusiasm with practical restraints based on their professional experiences allowing me the freedom to develop new ideas and learn how to modify those ideas into a realistic format.

The solution should be obvious to you by now. The best team is a team composed of both experienced and minimally experienced.

  • Both groups need to approach the task with open minds.
  • Listen and let each other walk through their strategy or vision completely before commenting.
  • Have an appreciation of what the others are bringing to the project or task.
  • Those with minimal experience need to understand that their idea is not being shot down when an experienced person mentions the flaws in their strategy.
  • The experienced person needs to listen and evaluate the possibility of a new approach blended with their practical experience.

Communicating those ideas to each other is the KEY to everyone’s expanded success. But don’t forget, as my brilliant mom used to say, “It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it.” Words to live by.

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