Experience: The good, the bad, the ugly

Experience is a hot topic around Spreadshirt. Over the past few years, Lukasz, Michael, and Matthias have built a terrific team that exemplifies the Gen Y workforce described by Jay Adelson in Business Week’s “Digg This: Talking to Gen Y”. A few weeks after I joined, I wrote to Harry Nellis, “our” partner at Accel, and told him that I could feel at Spreadshirt what Adelson describes as the ideal for Gen Y:

“…create an excitement about the company’s achievements, but more important, help employees recognize their role in accomplishing that mission.”

I love seeing and feeling this at the company. So, what’s the hot point? Well, Gen Y also means younger, which means fewer years of experience. Since we have a great, motivated team… why do we need experience? Our discussions have led me to these thoughts:

We know the good:

Experience brings us the possibility of learning… from mistakes, from success… mostly from mistakes. Mistakes can give us that “hand on a hot stove” imprint in our brains… you remember not to do it again from the OUCH. The important thing is that you step back to learn from your experiences, and [Alert: hard part here] do your best to — without bias — understand why something failed. It is only then that you can actually apply your experience… and not be doomed to repeat history.

We know the bad:

A fun example of the curse of knowledge is given by Stanford professor Chip Heath in Made to Stick (which gets an A++ rating from me… I’ve followed Chip’s work for a few years and am a believer). In a Stanford study, participants were assigned either a “tapper” or “listener” role. The tapper would tap out a very well-known song and the listener would have to guess the tune. Before the answer was revealed the tapper had to say whether the person would guess the song or not. The tappers said that the listener would get it right 50% of the time… reality… the listeners got it 2.5% of the time. The reason: The tappers had the curse of knowledge; they heard the full song in their head with complete accompaniment, while the listener heard some form of Morse code. When you are applying your experience, remember that you are hearing the full symphony, while others could likely be hearing you tap on the table… or it gets bad.

I’ve recently discovered the ugly:

Closely related to the good and the bad is my recent discovery of the ugly. With the Spreadshirt exec team, you are rarely lacking in critical analysis, which is awesome 95% of the time. The ugly is the 5% of the time when you just can’t explain why something is wrong. But, you have seen it so many times in so many different ways that you know what will happen — and, you don’t want to stick your hand on that stove or see others go through it. Ugh. While your gut (which, IMHO, is your inner self expressing your experience) tells you it is wrong, you can’t justify why. And, the arguments contrary to your gut are compelling. When this happens for me, I try to get to what experience is driving my gut. When that doesn’t work… call it ugly, decide whether you can live with the decision either way, make your case, and move on.

Along with my intro story, another story goes well with what’s on my shirt today. Harry recruited me for this position. As I talked to him more about the opportunity, I admit to being surprised when I realized that they were recruiting me as the gray hair for the org. I did think that I had a couple more positions (not just a couple of years, but a couple of positions!!) before I was the gray hair. But, alas… here I sit as a:

gen X geezer

8 thoughts on “Experience: The good, the bad, the ugly

  1. Thing is, experience makes failure less scary, so it is easier to learn from. Fear of failing can be worse than the actual failure — at least until you fail a few times.

    Hmm, I think I need to get myself one of those t-shirts 😉

  2. Hi, Jenny,

    Experience develops calluses? That’s why it is less scary?

    I do agree… it isn’t that you are less afraid of failing almost, but more that you know you can pick up the pieces if something bad does happen.

    Oh, you are killing me… I NEED TO GET MY SHOP DONE. Can someone please make a “more hours in the day” widget? Surely that’s Web mashable! 😉

  3. Speaking of experience – after suggesting several other methods for solving out a programming issue, the person I was talking to commented, “That’s why you’re an architect.”

    I responded that I’ve just been around and tried so many things. He then came up with a great line for a t-shirt: “I’m not smart, just scarred.”

  4. Jana Eggers says:

    Matt… I like this to much, I’m definitely making it a shirt. Highest compliment that I know! 😉

    I love the play with the words… smart has some consonance with scarred; scarred is close to scared, which also plays a role. Words are so fun.

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Experiences should help create the WHAT IF checklist in any task. The discipline of what if will reduce big failures and often be the architecture of better products, services and relationships.

    Example- believe it or not. Prior to pilots having pre-landing checklist. They routinely forgot to put the landing gear down. Today- Pilots the do not read their pre-landing checklist routinely forget to put the landing gear down.

    What if is an exercise that requires stepping out of the box and being objective.

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