Americans believe in fairness, almost above all other things, but even as meritocratic as we believe ourselves to be, we are still willing to accept that talent can be held subservient to tenure.
By David Todd McCarty | Wednesday, August 19, 2020
“You can’t just walk in the door and expect to rise to the top,” they say.
This is a common sentiment in contemporary society, where paying one’s dues is seen as an important step in personal success. For most of us, without extraordinary gifts or unbelievable luck, we toil away, mostly in obscurity, and hope that one way we will be recognized, if for no other reason, then sheer longevity. But, given the empirical evidence of American culture over the past two centuries, let alone the history of the world, it is on its face, an absurd statement.
American mythology is resplendent with tales of phenoms and prodigies, seemingly coming out of nowhere, to stun the world with their brilliance and aptitude. Splendid individuals who upend the status quo and shift the paradigm, through pure talent or brazen audacity.
Mozart, Picasso, Bobby Fischer, Tiger Woods, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Dave Chapelle, Eddie Murphy, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Ted Turner, and Greta Thunberg to name but a few that everyone has heard of. They did not toil for decades, unheralded, unheard and unseen. They burst onto the stage nearly fully formed and ready to change the world.
We are often told that it is important to wait one’s turn, that there is great value in experience and that the young must be patient. It is Antonio Salieri working his whole career, only to be upstaged by the impudent genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. That story, is itself, a fictional myth with no historical record to back up the narrative, but it serves the narrative purpose just the same.
To restrict ourselves to empirical research, that is knowledge gained through what a person comes to know by direct personal experience, is limiting at best. Experience can be critical and keeps us from repeatedly making the same mistakes over and over again. But it can also impede innovation and progress by discounting new information due to confirmation bias. Meaning we will be less likely to try new things believing we already know what the outcome will be.
In a perfect scenario, we have a balance of wisdom derived from personal experience, both failures as well as triumphs, combined with boundless exuberance, unencumbered by fear and prejudices. This is how progress happens.
It is understandably annoying when the new kid comes along and races across the finish line at the end of a long, hard race, like it wasn’t that hard, when they followed in the footsteps of trail-blazers that came before them. Those who plod along, will eventually get there, and sometimes it is, just a slog. But often, our greatest leaps forward come not from slow and steady, but by quantum leaps.
It often requires the audacity of youth to be willing to leap into the great unknown because they are fearless in their pursuits. But we continue to allow tenure to outweigh talent when it comes to leading, as if a lifetime of experience will help you somehow divine the future, when all it can really tell you is what happened in the past.
Experience can be critical in making sure you don’t repeat mistakes when the parameters remain constant, but once the rules of the game are changed, everyone is flying blind and it just may be more advantageous to have someone in charge more likely to envision a possibility not yet imagined.
The truth is, in many instances, raw talent is more valuable than experience.
Experience is in no way useless, as there is much to be learned from the past. Leading demands vision and foresight, but it also requires understanding history. But past experience is not all-encompassing, and should not be used as a rule for how to handle unprecedented situations.
All too often, the person telling you not to rock the boat, has spent their entire life in the boat, is no longer capable of swimming to shore, and is looking backwards as they tell everyone what to do. They see only the perils of the past, the world upstream, and regale the crew with tales of rough waters, hostile natives, and triumphant victory.
They cannot see that the boat is heading for the falls, and refuse to listen to those who are looking forward, who see the danger close at hand. Periodically, if we expect to keep the boat afloat, we must turn the boat around, or at least displace those who are no longer able to see.