On Experience

A very old, popular attitude states that experience is a valuable trait and, by definition, is the realm of the old and wise. Experience is a protective mantle and a driving force in the understanding and development of progress, and an invaluable asset. The young are, invariably, reminded that they lack it and therefore, they must pay attention to the elders, oozing with the quality.

But is experience, in reality, of any value?

Let’s start with our sport of choice. At face value, it seems that experience should be prized, but a little digging tells a different story. And it is indeed, just a little digging. The examples of the many great players that achieved considerable triumphs at a very young age is anything but short. Martina Hingis won 3 of the four slams in 1997, and reached the fourth final, at the age of 16, with, therefore, basically no experience. The list of greats that won early is extensive: Borg, Wilander, Edberg, Becker, Graf and Seles won their first of multiple slams at 17. Rafael Nadal’s first RG came at 18, Sampras and Serena Williams conquered their first US Open at 19, Djokovic won the Australian at 20 and Federer’s first Wimbledon was at 21. Again, the achievements are without question monumental, yet, almost by definition, all these players did this without any experience. A surprising case can be made of Michael Chang, who won RG at 17 (the youngest ever) but then never won another slam (he won 34 total titles). If he won so early and then proceeded to amass more experience, why was he unable to replicate that victory? Was his experience “worthless”? It seems that in tennis, the cases of Andres Gomez (RG @ 30) and Flavia Penetta (USO @ 33) are the exceptions, not the rule. Experience, it seems, is not mandatory to win slams, and it has never been. Evert and Navratilova won their first slams at ages 20 and 21, and even Pancho Gonzalez won his first USO at age 20. Again, by definition, with no experience to talk about.

How about in real life? Mathematicians have usually bloomed at a very early age: the group of Gauss, Rhiemman, Euler, Galois and Abel all did brilliant mathematics at a very young age. Perhaps no one was more precocious than the Indian mathematical prodigy Ramanujan, who “invented/rediscovered” the entire canon of mathematics, by himself, in his youth, and went to produce fantastic theorems until his death. All before the age of 33. So much for experience.

Physics and other sciences. The two towering figures in physics also did their best work early in their careers (although not as early as the mathematicians). Newton’s annus mirabilis, in which he formulated calculus, optics and universal gravitation, took place in 1665, at his ripe old age of… 23. Einstein’s own annus mirabilis of 1905, when he formulated his theories on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and the equivalence of mass and energy, came at, in comparison, the verifiably old age of 26. And the two men that formulated what can be called, at the very least, one of the most successful and important theories of all time, did so in their 20’s: Darwin and Alfred Russel started their formulations at such an early age (although separated by considerable time as Darwin was the elder).

How about the arts? Music, in the aspect of innovation, is the realm of the young. Mozart, Bach and Beethoven composed fantastic pieces from a very early age, Mozart writing full symphonies as a teenager. In modern music, youth reigns supreme: in jazz, towering figures like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and many more started an entire revolution of such art in their 20’s. And let’s not talk about Rock ‘n Roll and all related genres; you simply do not have a band that started making significant inroads while their members were in their 40’s. Music, innovative music, is, truly, the realm of the young. Heck, George Michael wrote “Careless Whisper” at age 17. Again, experience schmirience. 

Literature and plastic arts. F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrote his masterpieces at a very young age. This Side of Paradise (24), The Beautiful and Damned (26) and what is perhaps the great American novel, The Great Gatsby (29) are all the product of a young man. Albert Camus published the bulk of his work between 1942-44, but the theme was conceived earlier, at least as far back as 1936, when he was 23. Final examples, more modern: Stephen King published Carrie at age 26, but it had been written much earlier (he just could not secure publishing before that) and J. K. Rowling finished (not started) Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at the age of 28, verifiably antediluvian by the standard we are proposing, but certainly a woman of young age. By now, there is no need to mention that all the impressionist, the modern painters of the 20th century, and all those innovators, started their creative processes always in their 20’s.

Do you remember when the Board of Directors of Barnes & Noble came up with the brilliant idea of selling books via the internet? You don’t? Of course not, because they didn’t. It was a young Jeff Bezos that had the simplest yet most profitable idea ever in business. Forgot when Microsoft came up with the idea of Social Networking, launching My Space? Of course you did because, regardless of the opinion that Social Network entails, it was a very, very young, inexperienced and foolish Mark Zuckerberg that came up with the idea for Facebook (together with some other young people), not the experienced, fossilized geniuses at Microsoft, IBM, Oracle and others.

On and on, the examples of youth trumping experience pile up, easy to find and recollect. So, why is experienced so valued? Why is it brought forth as a categorical pillar of progress? Why is it always a requisite in every job application? Because “experience” is the coin of the old. The old can easily quantify experience and throw it around as if it really meant they have an advantage. The person that has been at the same desk for 25 years proudly claims so, avoiding the obvious question: “Why are you still there, after 25 years? Why were you never promoted?”. It is the badge of honor of the idiot, who after 25 years needs something to demonstrate his worth, unable to see that a fool with 25 years of experience is still a fool. Give a fool with 25 years of experience a new problem and, by definition, he won’t be able to solve it because he is a fool. Give a young, smart person a new problem and, very likely, she will crack it, because she is smart. Experience looks very good on brass plaques, easily hanged on a wall; “smarts” takes a much more dynamic method of measuring and, therefore, it is usually harder to see.

Mind you, experience is not invaluable; it goes by another name when you decide to quantify it: DATA. Nate Silver (who produced an algorithm to predict baseball value in players, at 23) makes it very clear that data is extremely valuable, but only if you can separate the signal from the noise. That is the part that is needed, and certainly experience can, recursively, assist there. But it takes the smart person to crack the initial separation, after which the algorithms become known and useful. It takes a very young and very smart Alan Turing to crack the codes for the Enigma Machines, but then it just takes moderately smart people to repeat the process.

A final example of the real value of experience may serve to close. Perhaps in the most important revolution of all time, it took a very young man to crack a problem that was in front of everybody, yet few were able to even contemplate. Nicholau Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri vi, was published in 1543, on the year of his death, at the age of 70. But the initial manuscripts seem to have been written around 1508 (age 35) and there are some indications that his initial thoughts stemmed from his time at the University of Warsaw, as early as when he was 18. In it, Copernicus proposed what we all now know: that it is the Earth that revolves around the sun, not the other way around. An idea so revolutionary that our modern use of the word comes from this instance in history. So, why did Copernicus wait until his death to publish? Because the experienced elite of his time would have put him to the stake (like Giordano Bruno) or, at a minimum, shown him the instruments of torture (like to Galileo). At the time, the men with experience were rather strict with the questioning of such quality.

Experience is a fine asset; it is useful in the hands of the smart, the nimble of mind, the intellect that knows that it is a tool and must be used accordingly. But the misinterpretation that experience is some sort of magical panacea is very, very wrong. In the hands of the smart, it can yield very fruitful results. But in the hands of the mediocre, the end result is simply stagnation. The experienced boss will request for things to be done again in the way the previous experience dictates. You must leave it to the young and smart to find new ways, oblivious to experience, for innovative success to arrive.