PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The value of experience

The value of experience

There was a time when the way to enter a profession or a
trade was to do an apprenticeship training. This lasted a
very long time and cost a lot of money, even by the
standards of the time.

An apprentice would, basically, be taken under the guidance
and care of a master in the chosen trade or profession. The
master would teach the young pupil how to do the work
relating to the profession, provide some basic form of
subsistence, transferred some of his knowledge and of course
was the main reference in later life. The master was the
beginning and the end of one�s profession. Of course, one
really started at the very lowest possible activity in a
profession, probably doing the things the master felt were
beneath him to even contemplate doing. This is how our
historical monuments were built, how master pieces were
painted and how empires were conquered.

In the apprenticeship model I describe above, which is of
course rather basic, we have a number of important factors
at play: knowledge transfer, knowledge acquisition, personal
development, skills, instructions, coaching and, of course,

From this list of features, apprenticeship provided two very
important things for the pupil: knowledge transfer and hands
on experience of the profession or trade. Knowledge transfer
is basically learning the things other people had learnt by
experience. And hands on experience is personal knowledge in
how to make things happen. Hence, no matter how many times
or how many books one reads about driving cars, the time
will eventually come to put the first gear in place. Getting
the car to move is personal experience.

Given that the scope and breath of the topic is so wide, I
will focus this essay on work related experience. So by
implication, value can be interpreted as a degree of
usefulness. In other words, interpreting experience as
having an utilitarian value.

When we talk of knowledge, especially in a work environment,
we need to distinguish between knowing-about and
knowing-how-to. Knowing-about is really knowing what others
have experienced or through their experience discovered new
knowledge or information. In a way, knowing-about is
theoretical type of knowledge since we do not have direct
experience of it or the experience of an original
discoverer. Passing knowledge on to others is quite common
in nature. We have all seen a lionesses teaching her cubs
how to hunt.

Knowing-how-to, is of course knowing-how-to do things, how
to achieve objectives and targets. This is the equivalent to
raw experience, probably after repeating the task in
question a good number of times. So, if you ask someone, do
you know-how-to drive a lorry, they would say yes if they
successfully used lorries to deliver goods in the past. Of
course, there might be a legitimate half way interpretation.
We might know-how-to do something if we had to do it, but we
might not have actually done it. We might have read the
instructions on how to operate a particular program, but not
necessarily having used the software in the past. There are
many things in our life we know-how-to in this manner. For
example, calling the emergency services, applying basic
first aid or even restoring a crashed PC system. These are
not things we have to do every day.

Today�s knowing-about and knowing-how-to have evolved quite
considerably even from the time when there were apprentices
and masters. Maybe, the first most important change that was
made to knowledge was when people stared recoding it in
written form. Passing knowledge orally certainly did work in
the past, but when people started writing their experience
they instantly made that knowledge available to more people
than would have been possible orally. One of the important
features of written material is that it is more permanent
than a verbal description of past events or a personal

This, in itself, was quite a revolutionary step in human
communication. The next significant change came when people
started applying methodology and verification to their
experience and knowledge. This would eventually lead to
modern science and technology. The significance of this is
that this type of knowledge is of better quality than
knowledge that is not carefully scrutinised. Quality
knowledge and information is more likely to produce
predictable results. So, knowing about other people�s
experience is not enough; knowing that their experience is
more likely to produce the desired results is certainly more

In a work environment, being able to do things is very
valuable indeed. In an open competitive market, having the
right skills and ability to take advantage of opportunities
in the market place will, certainly ensure an income. Of
course, knowing-about type of knowledge is available to a
good number of people these days; books, universities, the
internet. And instruction type knowledge and information is
also equally available to most people. This suggests that
the more knowledge and information that is available to
people the lower the advantages we have in employing our
personal experience. After all, the more people there are
who can do things, the stronger the competition for the
individual. But we also know that the more competition there
is in the market place the more opportunities. But reality
also tend to be tainted with corruption, unfair practices
and unnatural advantages.

If we look at cultures that have taken to writing their
experiences, we can point at certain discriminatory
practices especially towards older people, who by definition
would have the most experience. The impression seems to be
that the more we record our personal experiences, the less
need we have for the individual to personally tell us about
it. The discrimination or maybe the unfair treatment of
older people is probably the evidence we need to prove the
point about how important individuals become when people
started recording their experiences.

The most immediate discrimination is that in most countries
people have to retire at the age of 65. This is done
irrespective of whether the person is interested in
retiring, whether the person is fit to work that long or
whether this is the best policy to enable individuals to
contribute to their society. Then there is the
discrimination of some employers by actively not employing
older people. And although the present anti-ageism lobby and
certain government actions are putting this problem on the
political agenda, a lot still needs to be done.

Against this reality, there are positive trends afoot
addressing these issues about discriminating against older
people. Companies are becoming more conscious of the needs
of this age group and in western countries old age is
becoming big business for medical health services.
Furthermore, �older� today does mean a good number of years,
maybe well into the eighties. In western countries, the idea
of being old at forty has long gone. Of course, when young
children and even teenagers think that forty is old this
certainly reflects their lack of knowledge of what is forty
and what is old. It certainly reflects their lack of
experience of the real world.

In other words, old age is no longer a guarantee to give us
an edge in the market place. The experience we have of our
job is not a guarantee that we have a job. Apart from the
fact that some jobs just disappear because of new technology
other jobs disappear because other people can do our work
much cheaper. But to day there is another type of experience
that is becoming important, besides knowing-about and
knowing-how-to. By looking at the fashions and trends of
today, the emphasis seems to be towards personal
development. How to develop our skills, our personality and,
most of all, our relationships with others.

However, is this something new or something repackaged?
Apart from being both, I would hazard a guess and suggest
that there is enough knowledge and information about this
topic to make it a legitimate source of knowledge for
others. The way we look at personal development is different
from the past. For example, because our societies are more
complex than in the past. But if we look at the real world
of employment this idea of personal development seems to
contradict the facts on the ground. If there is something
that can be described as the antimatter of personal
development it must surely be command and control management
together with bureaucracy. These two forces have been
responsible for a lot of frustration and dread in the world
of employment.

Maybe personal development is relative. The fact that there
are enough people working in these bureaucratic institutions
suggests that there are enough people who can adapt their
character and personality to meet the needs of most
environment. Maybe, one type of experience that is valuable
is learning about one's self. Reinforcing positive
characteristics and learning from mistakes. Surely this type
of experience helps us increase our sum total of knowledge
about ourselves and how we are best suited to achieve our

Taking charge of one's personal development is, by
definition, a valuable character trait. However, this has to
be balanced against the fact that most of what we do, we
have to do it with others. Today, the word team-work is part
of every day jargon in a work environment. Employers demand
it and actively seek qualities in people that show they are
team players.

Of course, there are two obvious problems here. The first is
that if the team comes first then this must happen at the
expense of personal development. What is the right balance?
And are the experiences gained as a team player and an
individual compatible? The second problem is this, given
that people have always had to cooperate with each other,
what is the difference of being a team player today?

Maybe in the past people were less free to choose what they
did. Today, maybe we are freer in this respect, but it does
not mean that we are freer to do what we want. The balance
is maybe closer to 50/50; half of the time we are
responsible for our personal development and the other half
we have to give to the team. The experience we gain in
balancing this state of affairs is probably as valuable as
knowing the in�s and out�s of our job.

If we really want to judge whether experience is valuable or
has a value we can perform an empirical test and look around
us. Is what we see around us what we feel comfortable with
and maybe proud of. Or is what we see around us something
that makes us feel ashamed?

Going back to the apprentice, the promise of a professional
life in the future, meant a reduction is short term
earnings. Of course, some apprentice did reach the promised
land of employment in the same way that today some people
make it to the top jobs. However, not everyone is
remunerated handsomely for their labours. Cheap labour is
still a business advantage, especially for those who are
paid by how the company performs and not by the piece. And
this is probably where experience is most valuable. Having
the experience and character to accept nothing, but a fair�s
wage for a fairs day�s work.

Take care


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