In a rapidly changing world, experience can become a curse while inexperience can be a blessing. Experience becomes habits and dogmas trapping us in old ways of thinking, knowing and doing; while inexperience frees us to learn, improvise and adapt quickly to changing circumstances.
I’m sure you’ve heard stories about experienced drivers who repeatedly failed their driving tests after moving to a new country, particularly if they were driving on the other side of the road, while new or novice drivers pass their driving tests more often. This appears to be counterintuitive, but Liz Wiseman, in her insightful book Rookie Smarts, states that according to studies and researches “inexperience can work to your advantage: It can spark a dazzling performance and help you compete with, if not surpass, even the most talented, experienced players.”
Wiseman explains that experience creates dangerous blind spots. People form habits out of experience, and with habits, our brain stops working. We become desensitised to the world around us, we stop seeking feedback and we stop exploring new domains and paths. Similarly, Jonah Sachs, in his thought-provoking book Unsafe Thinking cited a research concluding that while expertise can make us enormously efficient at playing an established game, it can also make us slower to realise when the game has changed and less able to respond to those changes. For example, imagine that the rules or the size of the Tennis court has changed, certainly there will be new names who will defeat the top seeded international Tennis players.
Sachs admits that it feels good to be an expert. It is a mark of accomplishment, intelligence and hard work. It brings us esteem and makes us feel needed. That’s all good. The problem starts when the expertise leads us, unwittingly, down the path of overconfidence. When we are overconfident of what we know, our identities and our egos become attached to the unique knowledge networks that confirms our beliefs. This will lead us to defend our expertise from any challenges, whether from new information that runs contrary to our accumulated knowledge or from people questioning our views.
In addition, we generally tend to credit ourselves with having more expertise than we do. Many studies have documented this “better-than-average” phenomenon. For example, 93 percent of US drivers rate themselves as above average behind the wheel. Even drivers currently laid up in the hospital for accidents they themselves had caused were similarly found to overestimate their abilities.
The trio of overconfidence in our expertise, our conformity network ego, and the “better-than-average” phenomenon, all of this do limit and frame our thinking and actions, both in the social and professional worlds. This limitation constrains us in a certain path that celebrates what we believe in and disregards (or worse, devalues) everything else. The endpoint of such a path is closed-mindedness.
Hit the refresh button
To break away from the path of closed-mindedness we need to hit the refresh button in our thoughts and beliefs and adopt a ‘keep learning’ mindset: continuously explore new thoughts and opportunities. Adopting a ‘keep learning’ mindset does not mean we ditch the experiences we built along the way. On the contrary, we need to build the skill of knowing when to play the role of the experienced veteran and when to act as inexperienced novice and seek new ideas and knowledge. That is, we do need the experience to decide whether to see the world through the eyes of the expert or the beginner. We need to know when it is time to hit the refresh button to stop, unlearn and relearn.
The good news is that ‘keep learning’ mindset is something that can be learned. ‘Keep learning’ mindset can be built by being curious, humble and deliberate. Start by embracing curiosity and inquiry. Challenge your own thoughts, knowledge, traditions and convictions. Build a belief that what you don’t know is more interesting than what you know – it is probably right most of the times. Continuously seek and explore. Think outward, build new networks and learn from people around you.
A curious mind avoids pre-judgement traps and makes you ready to learn. This is where humility comes in where you will seek guidance and remain open to correction without regard for expertise or position. This allows the development of coachability and teachability. A humble person with a non-judgemental state of mind is a coachable person, ready to learn, contemplate and understand everyone and everything else.
To make the best out of your ‘keep learning’ mindset you have to deliberately be curious and humble. You have to approach this with a great deal of intentionality and conviction that you want to learn, unlearn and relearn. Don’t just wait until things happen. You need to deliberately become a perpetual learner.
Replenish your smarts
When the world is changing fast, you want people who can free themselves from the past, mobilise the expertise of each other, and forge ahead into new territory. In other words, you want people who can learn and continuously replenish their smarts with insatiable curiosity, a humility that makes them lifelong students, and deliberately adopt an open mindset of continuous learning. Or as Pocahontas said:
You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
You’ll learn things you never knew, you never knew.