[Life Back West] March 2009 – The Value of Experience

A little experience goes a ways, and a lot of experience goes even further. It may not mean you know the answers to the future, but it provides a data set that is significantly greater than those who are newly initiated.

I remember Todd Wanerman from the preschool our son Traylor attended (and on whose board I still sit) assuring us that despite my son Traylor’s fierce declaration – “I’m going to wear pull-ups until I’m five!” – it was unlikely that the big little guy was going to be in diapers forever. Apart from the observation that there weren’t a lot of ten year olds tooling around in pull-ups, Todd has taught pre-school for over 15 years. His “n” – the data set of kids he’s seen and worked with – numbers somewhere around 1,000, not the singular data point of “one” that is our experience with our son.

Earlier last  week I sat with a leadership team composed mostly of financial types. In a very bumpy economy, it was easily the most depressing meeting I’ve experienced in months – with most of the doom and gloom emitting from folks who were late in their ‘30s to early 40’s. For them it seemed as if the world as we know it had ended – and ended forever.  The talk was peppered with asides about this recession, and if it would ever end.

Brave new world it may be but the lessons of the past frequently apply: the application may be only occasionally linear but the trick, as it were, is figuring out what part of the teaching might be helpful.

When I graduated from college in 1974 my diploma and gas rationing (odd numbered days if your car license plate ended in an odd number, even if in even number) greeted me – as well as a two year recession. The upside was that the poor job market provided additional motivation to go to grad school, which I did.

My move from academia to the private sector was timed perfectly to coincide with the recession that occurred from 1980-82, the last time the unemployment rate matched the current 8.1%. A six-month job search – while out of work and cobbling together pieces of odd jobs to keep me fed – gave me a great network of professional contacts gained through informational interviewing (See Choose Me, Hire Me – Part 4).

When a VP of HR role I held with McKesson went away in 1990 due to the consolidation of three operating units to two, I said hello to the recession of 1990-1991. Saved by an apparent outpouring of support to keep me with company – a temporary role was created for me, and I later became a Senior VP of HR with the corporation.

When I took my consulting practice from ad hoc to part-time on a regular basis in 2001 I timed it perfectly to coincide with the recession of 2000-2001.

Pollyanna I am not, nor am I a psychic: I see, as my spouse reminds me, the glass half full with some regularity.  While I think that while there’s a world of hurt out in the economy, I also think there’s a world of opportunity. When I can see a pathway to a solution, though, my optimism is boundless since I understand that the problem has been reduced to one of execution rather than inspiration. Based on the genetics in my family towards living long lives, part of the Pollyanna karma just may help me live to past 100.

As the saying goes, the secret of wisdom is in making the right decisions, the way to the right decision is good experience, and the way to get good experience is to have made wrong decisions.

The fact of the matter – even with tough times around us – is that if you can figure out how to keep your nose above water – the recession will most likely end.  I have seen four of them, and I will be surprised if I don’t see another four or five recessions before I exit stage left.