Don't Be Swayed

Smartly sizing up people and relationships.

Is 'Experience' all it's cracked up to be?

Is 'Experience' all it's cracked up to be?

When I was fourteen I was brave enough to start taking guitar lessons. I've never really been the musical type, I had zero guitar experience, but I always liked the instrument. So when my mom suggested/pushed me to give guitar playing a chance, I went for it. For a whole year, every Saturday, I walked to the community center carrying my guitar to join a few other teenagers who came together to learn.

My progress was slow but steady. I learned all the basic chords, advanced to the bar chords, and even memorized Canon in D Major and 'Holiday' by the Scorpions. I stuck with learning to play the guitar and it was paying off.

Then one day, about a year into my guitar playing lessons, in came a new student. He was younger than me, probably only twelve, and he also had no guitar playing experience. I don't remember his name, but I remember that he was super nice. Well, only a couple of weeks later he had already mastered everything I had learned in an entire year--and, to top it off, he was able to hear a song on the radio and immediately play it on the guitar. Unbelievable. What can I say, the kid had talent. And it didn't take a genuis to notice that my year's worth of experience didn't amount to much when you compared it to his abilities. Now, it's not that there was any competetive energy between us, he was the most genuine and down-to-earth person you can imagine. But this marked the first time when I realized that experience has its definite limits.

The forumula for success, at least according to my teachers, had always been that if you put your heart and soul into what you loved doing, and if you kept on practicing--if you gained experience--then you could master absolutely anything. And, when you're young it seems to work, whether with learning how to read or finally figuring out how to factor algebraic equations. But when it came to playing the guitar, I realized that although I could improve if I continued to practice (and, yes, there was definitely a lot of room and potential for improvement), I could never be as good as the kid who had the natural knack for it. That shouldn't stop me from playing and having fun, but my guitar talent was limited. Experience could only take me so far. 

You hear a lot of talk about experience in the news these days. First it was Obama who didn't have enough of it. Now it's Palin. But the media is confusing experience with skill. If you wanted to put together a band and you had to choose between me who had a whole year of experience and the new kid who only had a couple of weeks but was already better than me, you'd be crazy to choose me. Or look at Donald Rumsfeld. He had decades of leadership and political experience that did him and the rest of the country absolutely no good when he was Secretary of Defense. I'm sure he has many talents as an individual, but when it came time to put together a working plan for dealing with Iraq, his skills were about as promising as my guitar playing abilities.

When I was in graduate school training to be a psychologist, I was also a memeber of the univeristy's swing dancing club. I love dancing and, as an aside, it was the perfect way of getting to release energy from all the academic demands I had to deal with. I got better and better as I danced, but as far as skill went, it was like guitar-playing dejavu. I'm not a natural guitarist nor a dancer. Not surprisingly, several new swing dancers were able to surpass my level within a few short weeks. My lack of knack for swing dancing didn't stop me from having fun and enjoying myself--and I still love to dance--but I remember thinking of how interesting it was that when it came to learning the skills of therapy it was a completely different world for me. It felt natural, I didn't have to think about it. It just flowed. But with swing steps, like guitar chords, I had to learn them over and over and over again and still didn't manage to master them.

It's not that experience doesn't matter, but it makes a difference intra-personally. In other words, if I now decided to pick up the guitar and play for a few hours every day, I'm sure I'll get better. But when we compare across people--whether who's going to be the best guitarist, dancer, president, or therapist--it's the skill level that counts. It's about how comfortable the person feels in the position--does he or she have the "it" factor? If they do, experience becomes secondary. And if they don't, then experience can never make up for it.

Psychologist Rom Brafman has a private practice in Palo Alto, California; he's the co-author of Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior.

more...

Subscribe to Don't Be Swayed

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?