In a little over two months I’ll be fifty years old. It’s one of those life milestones that call for contemplation and reflection. Or at least it’s supposed to be. I do ask myself, “Is this middle age? Am I half way through?” But these questions seem meaningless, even nonsensical to me.
I’m not going to suggest that “50 is the new 40” or anything trite like that. There’s no way that I can avoid recognizing the aches and pains that fifty years of wear and tear leave on a body. But then again, I have a new appreciation for what working out can do. I feel strong and see a long path of getting even stronger. Who knows if I have another fifty years? With advances in medical technology, I might be only a third through, maybe just a quarter.
The same goes for my work and the experience I’ve gained over the last twenty-five years. The things I’ve learned! And not all of them come from successes. I’ve tried things that have been wildly successful. Others have been, well, let’s just say that I have a few honestly earned scars on my resume as well as my body. I have a t-shirt that proclaims, “Scars Are Tattoos With Better Stories.”
Experience is such a valuable commodity. It is both that ability to deeply understand how to do a thing and the evidence that you have done it. It is really knowing what will work and what will not work, and realizing it is not simply being interested in trying out something new.
But experience is more that a dismissive “been there, done that.” It is a combination of skill, thought, and repetition. And the more repetition, the better. See The Talent Code for some excellent cutting edge science and examples on building world-class talent and skills, as well as coaching and training.
One of the most important things you can ask when you approach a new job or task is this: is there someone out there that already knows how to do this? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to reinvent the wheel for an employer or client. My starting point for any task I don’t know how to do is to see if there’s someone I already know with the skills and experience I can call on or include on my team for the project. I want their experience to help make the project a success. And I want to learn from someone who has already mastered the skill.
That’s the key to gaining valuable experience: find someone who has it, apprentice yourself to them, and get your hands dirty.
If there’s no one like that available to me, I then look for someone who’s written up the documentation – set out the best practices for the task. There are very few things that can be done that haven’t been documented.
Perhaps the most useful thing anyone can use when approaching a new task, especially big, expensive projects, is a third party to provide you with that much-needed second opinion. I often do this for clients. Think of it as hiring a lawyer to look over a contract before you sign it. You need advice and oversight for anything new that you try. It’s sometimes very useful to have a trusted and experienced person who is not directly doing the work to review your plans, give you a sounding board, and point out “well, here’s your problem.”
I’ve hired a lot of people over the years. Here’s what I look for when interviewing an applicant:
- What have you done and what evidence is there that you did it?
- Tell me about a failure you had, how it happened, and what you learned from it.
If they can’t or won’t tell me about a failure, they’re either not being honest or they haven’t been in the trenches long enough. There are times in which it’s OK to fail – as well as those times when it is absolutely NOT OK. Experience is what helps you know the difference.
While it’s tempting to hire someone fresh, someone with no experience, mainly because they’re cheap, I often find that paying more for someone with real experience – someone who is properly seasoned works best. Someone with experience can start faster – hit the ground running. They can bring in outside experiences that will help to solve problems. The “spin-up” difference alone is often a significnt cost savings.
More often than not, experience is less expensive in the long run.