The paradox of experience

Dr. G Venkat Ram Reddy

July, 2020

We are all familiar with the age-old aphorism, that 'experience is the best teacher.' But less so with, what is the notion of experience? And why is it accorded an elevated status? Experience is nothing but information that we acquired, processed, acted upon, and retained in a context. Its utility and, therefore, the elevated status comes from the fact such retained information could come in handy in similar settings with time. Say you decide to buy a new car. This decision would, to some extent, rest upon your experience of buying a car previously.

That said, the role of experience is not just limited to our everyday consumption choices but, more fundamentally, to how our brains help us learn about the world from the time embryo takes shape in the mother's womb. Genetic information that we inherit from our parents at the time of birth is the experience that shapes our brains and how they make sense of reality until they fully develop. That, according to ethologists, explains how a newborn is able to recognize the primary caregiver. We are no blank slates but come into the world with past information just enough to survive until we acquire the capacity to rewrite those experiences.

While at face value, it appears that the use of experience is ubiquitous and perhaps necessary, there are situations in which we find ourselves wanting on it. Like, many of us could have experienced buying a car previously, but might not have such a luxury say when we are to choose our life partners. These are the contexts where our brains are invested to the greatest extent. We enter into an exhaustive information search and processing, often pushing ourselves to the brink of anxiety. Many singles among us looking for prospects could relate to this well. One could recount many more situations where experience does not come to rescue from deciding what to major in college to which career to choose.

Why is lack of experience such a big deal? It is not such a big deal in situations such as buying a car, simply because we could either return or sell it. However, not all the decisions we make are amenable to reversibility or changeability. Such decision situations also happen to be ones where we not only lack experience but also entail significant outcomes and end up shaping much of our well-being. Think of a time when one realizes they enrolled in a major that they did not like, a career they want to move out of, and a partner they want to part ways. Such decisions have the power to make or break our lives, unlike the wrong car. It is in such situations we want the experience to come to our rescue the most, and that is where we do not have it. And that's the paradox of experience.

Note: The article is the second of a series of articles on the role of information in our everyday lives. The larger purpose is to lay out a series of observations on topics that matter to most of us and conclude with pointers to reflect upon. Please feel free to comment/question the observations/ideas put forth here.

About the Author

Dr. G Venkat Ram Reddy is a faculty in the area of Human Capital & Organisational Dynamics at School of Management and Entrepreneurship, IIT Jodhpur.