Experience can be a faithful ally, but also a deceiver with a host of traps. It can distort the past, limit creativity, diminish feelings of success, and provoke other errors of thought. To keep experience from deceiving yourself, it’s important to learn how to move beyond it and develop a healthy skepticism.
The Myth of Experience is discussed in the book, The Myth of Experience, by bichevioral scientists Emre Sawyer and Robin Hogarth. They describe the shortcomings of experience and share tips on how to question the lessons of the past.
Recorded what traps experience can set.
1. experience makes us doubt our success
If you blindly rely on experience, it can feel like you’re less successful than you really are. Why this happens:
- We compare our experience to someone else’s and realize that we are “losing.”
Because of this, even a positive event can have a negative background. For example, you were promoted, and then you find out that a colleague from another department got the relocation you wanted to the central office. And while you are pleased with your accomplishments, your sense of success is overshadowed by the comparison.
- We evaluate only the experience available to us and do not take into account what might have happened to us under different conditions.
The American psychologist Hillel Einhorn has identified four groups of factors that influence our sense of self:
- what we both want and have – circumstances that make us happy
- what we don’t want, but have – problems at work or money problems
- what we want but don’t have: a high salary or a new job
- what we don’t want and don’t have – problems that could potentially happen to us
The fourth group of factors we don’t consider until they are in our reality. Although just knowing that you have avoided the worst-case scenario can greatly increase your satisfaction with life in the here and now.
One way to keep experiences from getting in the way of feeling successful is to set success criteria with only your reality in mind. And count in your success box what you’ve managed to avoid making things worse – those events you don’t want and don’t have.
2. experience is misleading about other people’s results
Learning from other people’s experiences is tempting. Why take a risk when others have already had a negative outcome in a similar situation? It’s better to draw conclusions from other people’s fails, and then look up successful examples and go the proven way. But this approach may not work because of two factors:
- Cause-and-effect relationships.
When you’re observing a situation from the outside, it’s hard to determine the connection between the actions and the outcome because you’re never exposed to the whole story. For example, one of the founders of a startup says that the reason for its success is an innovative product plus a cool strategy. But you can’t be sure there weren’t other reasons (e.g., solid cash infusions in unsuccessful attempts).
Retrospective conclusions are not always useful for the future. For example, a couple of decades ago, a college degree guaranteed a high-paying job. Today, such experience is not necessary for career development.
To benefit from the experience of others, analyze in detail how successful situations differ from failures in the same field. For example, two companies simultaneously started in the same market with similar products, but the first has already closed, while the second is successfully developing. Don’t try to figure out the secrets or shortcomings of each company separately – compare their behavior in the market with each other.
3. Experience imposes a false right
If we act under the influence of expectations formed by past experience – they may well come true.
The mechanism is this:
- Past experiences have shaped our attitudes (our understanding of how things should be)
- We make decisions in light of these attitudes and act in ways that validate our expectations.
This is how the effect of self-fulfilling predictions works.
For example, a manager has ideas about the strengths and weaknesses of his employees. And he relies on them for every decision:
- “Strong” employees give difficult tasks, provide better resources to work with, turn a blind eye to minor malfunctions, and allow them to be more autonomous.
- “Weak” employees are given easy tasks, limit their resources and autonomy, and emphasize every failure.
The first group of employees is expected to perform better, because they have more opportunities. And the manager mistakenly attributes it to his experience and talent for spotting cool people.
To break the circle of self-fulfilling predictions, develop counterfactual thinking. Ask yourself, “What would happen if you…”
- faced the situation for the first time – what information would you rely on to find a solution
- If you make the opposite decision – what the consequences might be and how you would deal with them.
This is how you look for alternatives to the situation and develop a healthy skepticism towards the usual scenarios.
4. experience narrows the perspective of new ideas
Experience creates filters and distortions that cause us to have misconceptions about new ideas and out-of-the-box solutions. This happens for three reasons:
- Lack of confidence in innovation – experience does not allow us to assess in advance the potential of new projects. The bottom line is that innovation means a break with the past. And our experience is built on the past. And the more revolutionary the idea, the less chance to predict its success. Its value becomes obvious retrospectively, when innovation passes into the category of new experience.
- The function limitation effect – we can’t look at familiar tools from a new angle because we’re used to using them according to a certain scenario.
- Competence trap – the more experience we have, the more we believe that all the knowledge and skills that ensured success in the past will work in the future. All we have to do is repeat the solutions we’ve honed.
Experience helps us make quick decisions by relying on tried-and-true patterns. But when we need to come up with something new, the inertia of the past limits us.
To solve this problem, we need to learn about other people’s experiences. For example, in advising companies, Sawyer and Hogarth suggest that clients organize general idea-generation mitts. How it works:
- Managers from different departments get together and make a list of current problems.
- Everyone involved thinks of a solution to each problem, even if it doesn’t apply to the manager’s profile.
- At the following gatherings, everyone shares their ideas, identifies the best solutions and tests them on a small scale.
- The results are discussed and successful solutions are scaled to the entire company.
5. Experience blocks creativity
Imagine you are creating a new product and want your idea to be truly original. But as you research the issue, you realize that much has been invented before you, and you get frustrated.
Here, too, experience is partly to blame, because:
- The concept of originality stipulates that you have to be the first to come up with the idea. All subsequent versions of the solution are secondary. But sometimes your own experience isn’t enough to create something interesting. You have to involve other people to refine the solution or build on existing ideas.
- We observe success in the result, but we don’t assimilate the details of the processes which formed its basis. This is how our experience prevents us from understanding how ideas actually come about.
Originality is not a necessary component of creativity. You can get to know the ideas of others, borrow individual details, and then reassemble them into a new mechanism. The main thing is to keep your distance.
For example, as Google’s future founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page did in the 1990s. They successfully reimagined the system for measuring the value of scientific papers by citation – and created the PageRank search algorithm based on it. The inventors of the search engine were inspired by a simple idea: the more reputable scientists cite a particular article in their papers, the more important it is. After analyzing this approach, Breen and Page came up with this principle of the search algorithm: the more important a web page is, the more links to it from other pages. And, accordingly, the higher it is in search engine rankings.
To get around the experience trap, abstract away the obsession to come up with something original and don’t be afraid to borrow details of successful solutions.