The Power of Experience

Celebrate success but embrace obstacles, too; they can be the best teachers

Photograph by Getty Images/Fotosearch RF

As the axiom goes: With age, comes wisdom. Here's the more accurate statement, career experts say: With age comes experience; pay attention and learn the right lessons from it, and you will gain not just wisdom but power, too.

Decades of work and life experience can give older workers an advantage over younger ones by exposing them to the sharpest teaching tool around: adversity. Success and smooth sailing, it turns out, aren't nearly as instructive as setbacks, according to Patricia Smith, Senior VP of New Directions, a job-search and career-coaching firm in Boston that specializes in midlife and beyond.

"If somebody has experienced change, they have resources to draw from. If they've lost a job, lost a loved one, moved a lot, if they've experienced difficulty in their lifetime, they're less prone to being afraid or unsure of the future," says Smith. Work experience isn't the only teacher; life experience offers lessons that can translate to the workplace, too. The key to such growth? Self-awareness.

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Translate Self-Awareness Into Excellence

At 54, Marie Trottier believes she is a far better manager than she was ten years ago, due largely to difficult life lessons that she learned and then integrated into her work style. Her husband died when she was 49, and two years later, Trottier quit her job as Disability Compliance Officer, overseeing policies and practices relating to disability and accessibility at a large university, and took a nine-month break from her career. She needed time to grieve and to reassess what she wanted from the next 20 years of her working life.

Trottier hired a career coach, interviewed for jobs all over the country and landed the perfect position: Chief Accessibility Manager for MBTA, Boston's transit system. The self-knowledge she had gained from the entire experience helped her to instantly recognize the right opportunity when she saw it. "That was an eye-opening moment, to realize: this is who I am, this is what I believe, this is where I'm going."

Decision-making and judgment are two cognitive skills that actually improve with age, studies show. The older mind specializes in what researchers refer to as "gist" — the ability to quickly see what's important in a situation, to determine what will and won't work, and to eliminate nonproductive options. A 2011 study from the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University found that people over the age of 60 are better than those in their late teens and early twenties at making choices that lead to long-term gain rather than short-term gratification.

"I make better decisions at work than I used to," Trottier says. "If I need to make a faster one, I can, but I try to deliberate and not have a reactive response."

Use Your Wisdom to Fix Something, Not to Play the Blame Game

Lorraine Ball has noticed an increased ability to step back and respond with less emotion and more deliberation. For the 56-year-old founder and owner of Roundpeg, a marketing firm for small businesses based in Indianapolis, the power of experience came from the willingness to learn from it. "It's about being able to look at a mistake and not worry about blame, just about fixing it," she says. "In the moment, I can step back and go, oh, that's why that didn't work."

That wasn't always the case, according to Ball: "I have a sharp tongue and a short temper. When I was young, if I was steamed, you knew it. It wasn't always the most productive way to do things. Now when I'm really angry, I get really quiet. Behaving in the opposite way has given me power." In the past, if she were angry or frustrated with a client, she'd end the relationship; now she has the patience to negotiate.

Recently, Ball and her team held their monthly meeting with a difficult client who constantly changed his mind, put up roadblocks and complained they weren't listening. In the meeting, every suggestion Ball made was met with an argument or negative response. Or, the client changed the subject entirely. So Ball just stopped talking.

"I let the silence fill the room for a minute," she says. "It gave me a chance to collect my thoughts, lower my blood pressure and let him make a suggestion I could respond to. The pause changed the tone of the conversation." That was the meeting's turning point, and Ball was able to bring the client back on board.

Know Your Value — And Be Unafraid to Seek Counsel

Experience has also taught her how to value and price her company's services, even though it took her 30 years and time with an executive coach (whom she found through a networking event) to get there. "My business model has dramatically changed, based on someone outside my business helping me understand why people were coming to hire me," she says. "The clients that hire us now and pay higher prices, have a much better relationship with us. I'm also willing to spend money in ways I wouldn't before because I'm able to evaluate value."

The people who benefit from experience are the ones who are willing to learn from it. They're open to change and to thinking differently.For both Trottier and Ball, the process of learning through experience was strongest when they stumbled, not when they experienced success. Ball assumed that when she left a thriving career in the corporate world to become an entrepreneur that she would naturally succeed at that, too. Her business, however, didn't grow as fast as she wanted it to, and that first negative experience led her to seek help — for the first time. "I just assumed it was my business and that I knew it better than anybody," she says. "There's a lot of power in recognizing that you can turn to other people."

With the loss of her husband, Trottier gained a perspective that she would never have gotten through work experience. "When you go through something as painful as that, where nobody can get you through it but you, you get a better appreciation of what's important in life. I'm much more patient and understanding as a manager. I explain more and give them more lead-time. I've found more gentle ways of communicating to try and get people on board." Changing her style has yielded great benefits. "People are much more responsive to me, much more open to asking questions or raising issues because I'm less demanding and create less stress for them," she says.

Recently, Trottier had to hire an engineer for her team. She has no engineering experience, so she reached out to people in the organization who do and asked them to help with the interviewing process. She wouldn't have been able to do that 10 years ago.

"I was too territorial. I didn't know anything different," she says. "I love this new way of doing things. It's much less stressful, more social, and I'm learning through the process. I'm much more open than I ever was."

Focus on the Big Picture

Studies show that older minds are better able to see the big picture, which is certainly true in Trottier's case: "The thing I do better now is that I don't sweat the small stuff. I'm a more patient and tolerant person, and I realize that people, society and corporations move slowly."

The advantage to having been around the block a bazillion times isn't JUST that you know the terrain, it's that there are new things to discover and learn from along the way. Seasoned workers have cognitive strengths that can help them put experience to good use — they make better decisions, quickly eliminate bad options, have better judgment, and take a long-term view. It's insight and knowledge that make those abilities valuable, according to Smith.

The people who benefit from experience are the ones who are willing to learn from it. They're open to change and to thinking differently. "We're a knowledge society," says Smith. "Power isn't an accumulation of years — it's an accumulation of lessons learned."