Experience vs. Wisdom

image: Britanncia. James Nasmyth’s steam hammer.

Experience is one of those words that takes on an identity through over use and changes they way we understand it. We find it as a dance in most resumés and job postings listed as a strength and requirement often, without context.

It has always struck me as something of a two edged sword, as a polarity. At one end of the spectrum is experience defined by craft, commitment and curiosity – developing skill and understanding through constant testing of ourselves in different circumstances. At the other is the experience of the steam hammer – years of pounding away at the same old surface, and ending up with little more than a headache.


Experience. late 14c., “observation as the source of knowledge; actual observation; an event which has affected one,” from Old French esperience “experiment, proof, experience”

I think that the way we have developed business, by deconstructing it into repeatable component tasks easily leads us to a default of steam hammer experience. Not so much thirty years experience of a variety of different tests of our capability, but the constant repetition of one years experience thirty times over. At one end mastery of a domain, from accountancy to zoology whilst at the other mindless completion of a limited range of tasks separated from what they are part of.

In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding,or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become .

Adam Smith, An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

Wise. Old English “learned, sagacious, cunning; sane; prudent, discreet; experienced; having the power of discerning and judging rightly,”

We can acquire a lifetime of experience successfully climbing career ladders that require compliance and the avoidance of risk without developing the power to discern and judge effectively. In fact, this capability is often evident in a long litanv of otherwise inexplicable failures, characterised in the news this week from taking Bank of Scotland (now NatWest) from the largest Bank in the world to a sideshow, and the epic integrity failure of P&O as demonstrated in Parliament.


Our focus on training for efficiency compounds the problem. We make being a steam hammer a virtue, pounding away without any empathy of awareness of what we are pounding away at. Despite the protestations to the contrary, most large organisations need steam hammers, and that is reflected in the way we educate our children and train our workforce, beginning with SAT’s in the early years and ending with one-size-fits-all budget focused leadership courses.

Our fulfilment, wellness and ultimately life satisfaction on the other hand benefits from a constant acquisition of the stuff of wisdom. Variety, failure, reflection, conversation,and acquiring our own very individual meaning and an ever evolving sense of purpose.

Wisdom has a low financial ROI for business, but offers enormous personal resilience. Experience makes for good earnings when things are calm and predictable, but is a liability when they are not.

We would do well to consider what we are acquiring in these times, the experience required by an employer, or the experience that guides our lives and with whom we invest the finite resource and infinite opportunity opportunity that is our life.

“Experience” can easily trigger hubris, when what we need is active reflection, deep dialogue, and wisdom.

A wise man has no extensive knowledge; He who has extensive knowledge is not a wise man.

Lao-tzu, “Tao te Ching,” c. 550 B.C.E.

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