“Just because you’ve been walking for 55 years doesn’t mean you’re getting better at it.”
– K. Anders Ericsson – professor of psychology @ FSU
Time on the job doesn’t necessarily mean as much as you might think. Here’s why: There is a point where you just aren’t going to get better at performing the same surgery, building the same widget, or extrapolating data unless you add a little something to the mix. Unless you branch out. Unless you ask “what if.” Unless you experiment a little bit… or a lot. Unless you have the talent to do so.
According to the good doctor, what separates elite performers from other folks with simply “lots of experience” is this:
“Successful people spontaneously do things differently from those individuals who stagnate. They have different practice histories. Elite performers engage in what we call “deliberate practice”- an effortful activity designed to improve individual target performance. There has to be a way they’re innovating in the way they do things. (…) In general, elite performers utilize some technique that typically isn’t well known or widely practiced.”
Based on my own (limited) experience, he is absolutely correct: Elite performers are the folks who can’t help but find ways of doing things better. They’re the ones who develop new techniques, or perfect existing ones. They are the innovative, adaptive commandos. The agents of change. The trailblazers. The pioneers. They rise to the top of their professions or help pave the way for future generations of professionals because it’s what they do. Because it’s in their genes.
Trust me on this: Talent is a big part of the equation, regardless of the discipline. People without a natural talent for innovation cannot innovate, no matter how long they’ve been on the job. Same with musicians, artists, military strategists, engineers, designers, and just about every profession. Even in manufacturing, you can observe assembly line workers and spot the ones who have a natural ability for putting stuff together, and those who don’t.
What made Picasso and Dali so damn good? Was it their ability to paint inside the lines? (No.)
What made Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan so good? Was it their ability to master textbook techniques? (No.)
What made Steve Jobs and Bill Gates so successful? Did these two guys have thirty years of experience under their belts when they launched Apple and Microsoft, or did they have talent for innovation, insight, and business?
Experience helps you avoid costly mistakes, sure. Experience helps you navigate otherwise uncertain waters because you’ve already been there. Kinduv. Experience can help make you more efficient. It also gives you a certain measure of confidence. One of the great benefits of experience is a thick rolodex and a wealth of knowledge… But experience alone tends to be overrated.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to imply that experience isn’t important, but at best, experience is a facilitator, while talent is a catalyst. Talent, not experience lays the foundation for innovation. For exceptional work. For everything remarkable to happen. No question.
In a perfect world, you want a healthy mix of talent and experience in your organization or project team (and in individual team members). But given the choice between staffing my organization with “experts” or talented visionaries who just got out of school, guess what? I will pick talent over experience every time. In other words, on a five person project team, I would rather have 1 person with a wealth of experience and 4 people with outstanding talent than 1 person with talent and four people with loads of experience.
Think about sports.
Think about design.
Think about art.
Think about business.
I’ll give you a simple example: I know these web designers. They’ve designed a few dozen websites now. They’re still pretty young, haven’t been in business for 30 years, but their work is second to none in this market. They have more talent than they probably know what to do with, and they rock. Another company approached me about doing a design for me several months ago, and their sales pitch was this: We’ve designed thousands of websites.
Wow. Really? Thousands?
Yeah. Thousands. No one has more experience than we do in this industry.
Intrigued, I checked some of their stuff out. It all sucked. Their best work was mediocre at best.
Talent vs. experience, in a nutshell.
Sure, it’s kind of a simplistic way to look at things, but the question of one versus the other forces us to make some concessions here.
The point is this: I’ve worked with folks who only brought experience to the table. I’ve worked with folks who brought only talent to the table. The first didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. They didn’t solve any problems. They didn’t get anything done that was worth talking about. They were invariably the guardians of the status-quo. The talented ones, however, brought new ideas to the table. They brought new ways of looking at problems and dealing with them. They brought enthusiasm, great instincts and whole new horizons of possibilities.
More than anything, they always asked the right questions. The experienced guys didn’t. Because they had experience, and I guess they didn’t feel the need to ask questions anymore. They already knew so much, you see.
1. Experience can be gained. Talent can’t.
2. Talent, by its very nature always accelerates experience.
If you’re a company looking to hire a new individual for a position or partner with a services company to work on a project with you, don’t fall into the “experience” trap. Just because they’ve worked in advertising for 20 years doesn’t mean they know jack shnabble about creating great work for you. Just because they’ve been VP of this or that for Fortune 100 companies doesn’t mean they know how to do anything other than sit in an office and kiss ass. Investing in talent yields a hell of a lot more ROI than investing in something as common as experience.
My advice to you is this: Listen to the voice of experience, but go with what the talented guy’s idea. It might be risky, but you’ll get a lot further faster. (And you’ll have much better stories to tell.)
And if by some chance, you come across with someone with both talent and experience, do whatever you can to get them onboard, or someone else will.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Feel free to disagree… if you dare.