The price of experience is arrogance

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We adults have a bit of a problem.

I was listening to “Think Like A Child,” an excellent episode of the Freakonomics podcast focusing on the inflexible thinking strategies of adults and how we can all move toward the good habit of kids to ask tons of questions and expecting the unexpected.

Truth is, adults get tangled up in our own experience.

We’ve done it before, seen it before, tried it before, failed that way already. And the older we get, the more the weight of our accumulated experience crushes the impulse to think differently.

But it’s more than just an unwillingness to shush the din of past failures and successes shouting down the other ideas in our heads. I think we adults suffer from a bad case of experience-driven arrogance.

Granted, it’s a very humble arrogance. We clothe it in beautiful phrases like “You might be right, but….” or “I’m not saying you’re wrong, it’s just that…..” Or maybe we prefer our humble arrogance served straight-up like a good whiskey – as dogmatic rejection, or the tendency to jump too quickly to conclusions or leap into decisions before having all the facts necessary to make it a good one.

Scary thing is, the more successful we are, the more likely we are to cash in our experience for arrogance. If I ever achieve the status of expert, guru, or CEO, it will be so easy to justify stubbornness as determination, closed-mindedness as wisdom, or hasty judgment as decisive leadership.

I tend to snap to judgment pretty quickly, and I often come across as far more dogmatic than I actually feel. Both are habits I’m working to break (or at least bend into a more useful shape). Feel free to call me out. Really.

Children struggle against their own inexperience, and novice workers in any field are by definition inefficient. Those of us who have gone around the block a few times can bring a lot of great advice based on our deeper knowledge. We assess problems a little more quickly and a little more accurately. And that’s hella useful and truly awesome.

But arrogance is always ugly.  It’s a bad use of all that hard-earned wisdom.

Why does this matter? Well, for one, arrogance in a decision-maker often leads to bad decisions – decisions that don’t fit the situation because the leader didn’t take time to learn enough in the first place.

Second, arrogant people have blind spots that they cannot see — not until they’re willing to recognize that their own personal experience might not be sufficient grounds for moving forward. Everybody has blind spots. The trick is remembering that you have them, and finding people in your life who will be honest enough to tell you. Hold on to those people.

And third, arrogance prevents leaders from recognizing the value in alternate points of view. Often a business or organization has multiple people around with deep knowledge of how things work, why certain decisions were made in the past, or who holds real power to get things done. The organizational knowledge resting in the minds of long-time employees is worth so much  — yet a leader who’s relying too much on his/her own experience may not place much value in the voices coming from below.

To put it another way, we make better decisions and we’re more creative when there’s divergent opinion – even conflict. When everyone sees the same picture too quickly, the danger is that we might have missed the actual image.



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