By Dan Coughlin
Woke up the other day and found out I’m middle-aged. Here’s what happened. A friend of mine said, “Dan, now that you’re middle-aged, how do you feel about such-and-such a topic?” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “I’m serious, I want to know your thoughts on this topic.” I said, “I’m not talking about that part. I’m talking about that crack about being middle-aged.” He said, “Dan, how old are you?” I said, “I’m 46.” He said, “Dan, I have bad news for you. Not only are you middle-aged, you’ve been middle-aged for several years now.”
Well I’ll be darned. The whole thing happened so fast I didn’t even know it. Guess I have to order the Corvette now. Barb is not going to be too excited to hear about that. Now that I’ve come to grips with being middle-aged I have a few thoughts on experience.
Define What Words Mean
I’ve learned that definitions matter and we should never assume what people mean by a certain word or phrase. For example, when I say I “coach” someone, I mean I observe, ask questions, discuss ideas, and offer suggestions. However, when some managers say they need to “coach” an employee, they mean they need to tell the person what to do and how to do it. We’re using the same word but we have two totally different meanings. If I suggest to a manager to be more of a coach with her employees that can mean two different things, so I need to define what I mean by that word.
To me, “experience” means “extracting lessons from one set of circumstances and applying them successfully in another set of circumstances.” Consequently, experience is a function of being able to step back, reflect on what has been learned, and determine how that lesson can best be applied in future situations.
Experience is Not a Function of Age
The most experienced person in a group is not the one who has gone through the most situations or is the oldest, but rather the person who is the most effective at extracting lessons from one life situation and successfully applying them in another life situation.
I used to get jealous of people who achieved amazing results at a far younger age than I was at. I used to think they were just lucky. However, I’ve learned to dig for the truth behind their success, and I’ve found that experience can be gained at all age levels.
Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, Inc., became millionaires in their 20s and billionaires by the age of 31. Recently they ranked in the top five of the Forbes 400 richest people in the U.S. They were just lucky, right? Well, let’s look at their life experiences and how they extracted lessons from one set of life circumstances and applied them to another. Eugenia Brin, Sergey’s mother, is an accomplished scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Michael Brin, Sergey’s father, teaches math at the University of Maryland. He has published a number of academic papers on complex mathematical systems. Carl Page, Larry’s father, was a world authority on computer science and artificial intelligence and a professor at Michigan State University. Gloria Page taught computer programming as a professor at Michigan State.
Growing up Sergey Brin and Larry Page spent endless hours studying and debating a host of intellectual topics within their families. When they met at Stanford in the spring of 1995 at the ages of 21 and 22, they almost immediately immersed themselves into intense arguments about a wide variety of topics. Through these arguments a great friendship emerged. Shortly after that they became intensely focused on organizing information on the world wide web in a way that a reader could get the content he or she wanted as fast as possible. They wanted to democratize information. With this single clear goal in mind, they applied lessons they had learned from earlier in life and began to develop a mathematical system for gathering content on the web and organizing it in a way that was useful to the viewer. Thus, Google was born in 1997. And as they learned more about how to improve their search engine, they applied those lessons back to their business. Today they are 35 years old and are two of the most influential business people on the planet.
Katey Charles started her own business at the age of 34 in February 2003 in e-marketing. She wanted to help organizations clearly communicate their messages in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Within two years, Katey Charles Communications was sending out over 13,000 e-newsletters a month. By 2008, her organization was sending out over 850,000 e-newsletters a month. This year alone her company has sent out over 5,000,000 e-newsletters. She was just lucky, right? Prior to launching Katey Charles Communications, Katey was head of communications and public relations for world-renowned artist Mary Engelbreit, where she developed Mary’s first e-newsletter in 2000. She invested 14 years as an Internet marketer, writer, managing editor (IPI Report magazine, now Global Journalist), graphic artist, art director (Missouri Life magazine), and overall communications manager. Katey extracted lessons from three critical areas, writing, media, and computer technology, and then compiled them together into an extraordinarily successful e-marketing business.
Jason Jennings wrote his first book, It’s Not the BIG that Eat the Small…it’s the FAST that eat the SLOW, at the age of 44. Within a few weeks that book went to number one on amazon.com and hit the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and New York Times Bestsellers Lists. Published in 32 languages, USA Today named it one of the top 25 books of the year. How lucky can a person get? First book and it became an instant bestseller. He seemed lucky until I dug into the details.
In his 20s, he was the youngest radio station group owner in the world. Later, he founded Jennings-McGlothlin & Company, a consulting firm that, within three years, became the largest media consultancy in the world. Jason combined lessons he learned on how to interview top performers, craft their ideas together in meaningful ways, and communicate those powerful messages in ways that could make a huge difference for the readers of his books. His purpose was to search for the very best companies in the world on a given topic, interview the executives responsible for running those companies, and then artfully combine the best of the best ideas for readers to be able to use in their organizations. He has since followed that book with two more bestsellers: Less is More and Think Big, Act Small. His fourth book, Hit the Ground Running, will be in bookstores soon. He has spent more than 25 years extracting lessons from one set of circumstances and applying them to others. It’s really not luck. It’s a proactive approach to improving one’s level of experience.
Ed Catmull didn’t really taste great business success until the age of 50. In 1970 at the age of 25, Catmull established a clear dream: to create a feature-length computer animated film. The only problem was that in 1970 you could barely get a computer to put out a still image. Over the next 25 years Catmull worked with a variety of investors, computer technologists, and animators to steadily extract lessons at each point in the journey and apply them to furthering the dream. In the end, he built Pixar Animation Studios and created the first ever computer animated feature-length film, Toy Story, in 1995. That film went to number one at the box office. Over the next 13 years, Pixar made eight more films and each of them went to number one at the box office.
At 62, Alan Weiss is today the world’s leading guru on how independent management consultants can build their own business. He has written more than a dozen books on this topic including his classic book, Million-Dollar Consulting, and his most recent book, The Global Consultant. How did he do it? Essentially, he extracted lessons from more than 30 years of experience as a consultant and taught them to other people wanting to start and grow their own independent professional services firms. Have you ever met a person who did something for more than 30 years and yet never extracted any lessons from the experience that they could apply to another set of circumstances? The key to Alan’s success is he stepped back on a regular basis, identified what lessons he had learned, applied the lessons in his future work, and shared those lessons with other people. That’s how experience becomes a business driver.
Experience Can Be Strengthened Like a Muscle
Regardless of your age, you can strengthen your level of business experience level right now. Here’s the process:
The Process for Gaining Experience
1. Recall a situation you have been in at any point in your life.
2. Identify the lesson you learned from that situation.
3. Clarify how you can use that lesson in your current work situation.
I know, it seems so simple, and that may be why so few folks do it. You’re busy doing your job and you have a ton of responsibilities, and I’m asking you to take out a sheet of paper and start proactively writing down memories, extracting lessons, and applying them to your work. Ok, we’ve established that this seems a little crazy. Now do it. Give it a try. Actually give it about ten tries. Within 60 minutes I believe you will land on a powerful insight that can improve your performance. And you will dramatically improve your level of experience.
The difference between investing time and gaining experience occurs when you step back from a situation, extract a lesson, and apply that learning in another situation. Going forward, I encourage you to pause after each situation you find yourself in, and ask, “What lesson can I take away from this event, and how can I apply it to improve results in another area of my life?”
“Good things come to those who wait.”
My dad’s not doing well right now. He’s been living in a nursing home for the past few months. When I visit him, I push him in his wheelchair all over the campus. When I put my arms around my dad and tell him I love him, memories of growing up with him start to flood back to me.
My dad’s favorite saying was, “Good things come to those who wait.” When I was about five years old, my dad bought our first electric typewriter. I can picture him sitting there writing, “Good things come to those who wait.” When I was 16 and wanted to borrow his car, he said, “Good things come to those who wait.” That was code for, “You’re not getting my car.” When I wanted to buy my own car at 18, he explained that waiting was better because my money could be used to help pay my way through school. Just now I’m starting to realize the true economic brilliance of my dad’s advice. Here are a few paraphrases of my dad’s philosophy:
Good things come to those who wait to buy a house or a bigger house until they can realistically afford the loan.
Good things come to those who wait to give out a loan until they find a person who can realistically afford to pay it back over time.
Good things come to those who wait to buy something until they can pay cash for it.
Good things come to those who patiently invest in improving their craft and not worry about how well other people are doing.
Really, really good things come to those who clarify a purpose and sustain their focus within that purpose for long, long periods of time.
As you read the examples above you may have noticed a pattern. Whether the story was about Google or Pixar or Katey Charles or Jason Jennings or Alan Weiss, they all had one thing in common. They clarified a purpose in terms of adding value to other people and then they stayed focused within that purpose for a very long period. Over the course of many years, their experience level for that particular purpose grew and grew and grew until one day they had each separated themselves from all the others in terms of the value they could contribute.
My purpose is to help people achieve remarkable results by explaining simple, practical processes of two to seven steps that they can use to improve their performance regardless of their title, function, education, industry, or age. It sounds so simple when I write that, but it’s really the challenge of a lifetime. Each process has to be so simple that any person can understand it, but so useful that every person who wants to improve his or her performance will gain value by giving it a try. Now the key for me is to continually gain more experience at crafting and honing the content and delivery of these practical processes.
Whether you own a business, run a business, or manage a part of a business, what is the purpose you are going to operate within for a very, very long period of time? After you identify that purpose, then stick with it. Someday you will have more experience within that area of focus than any other person in the world. And that will be your ultimate business driver. Find your purpose, stay patient, and gain experience. That’s how to generate extraordinary results.
The Pixar Touch by David Price. This is a remarkably well-researched book that supports my point about experience both with Ed Catmull and John Lasseter. I found these stories to be enormously useful and inspiring.
The Google Story by David Vise and Mark Malseed. This is another useful corporate biography from which you will be able to extract lessons for your job and your organization.
Dan Coughlin is a business keynote speaker, management consultant, and author of ACCELERATE: 20 Practical Lessons to Boost Business Momentum. He speaks on leadership, branding, sales, and innovation.