Business

The Illusion of Experience

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often smiled when job adverts were sent around work. A lot of the time, they wanted applicants with more experience than the person in the job. It never made sense to me.

Companies tend to think about experience along one dimension. Years. And the more years of experience, the better. Which leads them to value older people over younger ones but when you think about it, how can experience, measured in years, be a useful data point?

Most companies are in business to make a profit. To earn profits, you have to deliver something people will pay for. To make something people want, you need to be better or different. To be those things, you need to think differently, work harder, or spend less.

As a result, I’d argue the recipe for success in business involves some combination of

  1. Creativity
  2. Risk-taking
  3. Determination

But it’s been proven that creativity and appetite for risk both fall as we age. I don’t need to prove that energy levels decline as we age, too.

So why do employers insist on years of experience?

Clearly, if you’ve done a job before, you won’t need as much help or training. Your employer can leave you be, by and large. If you’re new to a job, you’ll need training, which costs time and money. And a lot of business repeats itself. Mistakes come up time and again. So, if you haven’t seen common traps before, you’ll probably fall into them. An experienced person can avoid those stumbles.

Plus, if you take an inexperienced person and train them up, there’s a risk you lose your investment when they decide to leave. It’s worse when they go to a competitor.

Finally, most jobs don’t need innovators. Most companies are structured like machines, where employees embody the machine’s parts. Components don’t need to be innovative, they need to be functional and inexpensive. It matters more that they’re ‘cost effective’, safe, and last a long time.

That’s why I think companies look for experience. It’s the safe option that’s less hassle for managers. It boils down to simple incentives, and it comes with a bonus: experience is easy to measure. You can’t spot potential as easily as you can ask for experience.

But simple, safe, short-term fixes rarely turn into rewarding long-term strategies. It’s fine but if you’re in the business of doing great things, a long CV should count for little.

You don’t need to look far to understand why.

Business

The best five companies in the world, defined by shareholder value, were created by ‘kids’ in their teens and twenties. The oldest founder amongst them, Jeff Bezos, was 29 when he left Wall Street to build Amazon.

Of the next five biggest companies in the world, the oldest was Henri Nestlé, an outlier at 52. The average age of founders, at the time they started building the biggest ten businesses in the world, was 31.

Science

Then there’s science. The engine of human innovation.

Albert Einstein wrote his Annus Mirabilis papers, which gave us E=MC2 and other revolutionary concepts, when he was 26. James Watson was 25 when he discovered the double-helix structure of DNA with Francis Crick, who was 47.

Charles Darwin, despite publishing his famous book, On the Origin of Species, when he was 50, first conceived his theory of natural selection at age 29. He did the bulk of his research on the Beagle voyage, which left England when he was 22.

James Maxwell first published his famous equations, which defined the electromagnetic field, when he was 30. His discovery changed the way we live by bringing us radio, television, radar, satellite navigation, mobile phones, and inspired Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

Isaac Newton, by comparison, was old when he published Principia Mathematica, in which he stated his laws of motion and universal gravitation. He was 45 at the time.

It’s entirely possible that there’s no correlation between age and success, simply coincidence. But Thomas Kuhn, in the early 1960s wrote a seminal book on the history of science. Specifically, he was interested in the structure of scientific revolutions. How and why did they happen?

His research said we shouldn’t be surprised that young people are capable of extraordinary achievements.

“Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change. And perhaps that point need not have been made explicit, for obviously these are the men who, being little committed by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, are particularly likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them.”

Sport

Sport is perhaps the only field that understands this age-old argument.

The average age of athletes at the last Olympics in Rio 2016 was 27. In sport, you become a veteran at 30. Why do we accept that you can be a world class athlete in your twenties but not a world class businesswoman or man at the same age?

You could argue that athletes have trained for decades by the time they’re 27. And bodies age faster than minds. Athletes, then, should peak earlier than business folk.

Research disputes that too, though. In line with the traditional argument, the average age of CEOs in the FTSE 100 is 55. Whether we want to become CEOs or not, around that age, we expect to be in the most senior positions of our careers, commanding responsibility and high salary.

But research published in the journal Psychological Science shows that by 55, we’re well passed the peak of our brain’s ability to process information and recall short-term memories. We’re also passed the peak of our ability to empathise and understand emotions. The only thing we’re still getting better at is what they call crystallised intelligence, which boils down to accumulating knowledge.

To be clear, this isn’t an argument against older people. Businesses need balance and experienced heads are important. There are also many older people who do and have done extraordinary things. In business, sport, science, wherever.

Nothing is black and white.

This is an argument against our system that blindly values years of experience, which creates an improbably high barrier for young (or old) people to jump over if they haven’t owned a specific job title for a precise number of years.

History and science say it shouldn’t be strange to find people in their twenties and thirties sitting on boards of big companies. But it is.

So here’s my advice.

If you’re looking for a job, find an employer that doesn’t care how old you are or how much experience you’ve got. If they want experience, take it as a warning sign that they’re in the business of doing things the easy way. Find an employer who embraces the facts of youth and goes out of their way to hire on the basis of potential. They’re likely to be more successful in the long-run.

Or, if you’re thinking of going your own way, just know you can’t be too young to succeed.

April 2, 2021
by 
Dom
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