There was a time for me, maybe you’ve had this experience too, when I got a little anxious as someone the age of my kids introduced himself, or herself, as my new doctor.
I’d look at the impostor’s bright and clean facial features, that fresh skin and eager expression. If this kid was the valet in a parking garage, would I feel comfortable handing him or her my car keys? Never mind the old Toyota. What about entrusting the youngster with my health? My legal problem?
How could someone on the sunny side of middle age have the knowledge, or enough experience to handle important responsibilities?
It took awhile for me to adjust to this reality. (When I first saw Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, on TV, I said: “Hey, isn’t that the kid who mows our lawn?”)
But now I’m okay with the idea that the professions are becoming populated with folks who never knew Michael Jackson when he was a kid. And my acceptance is not just because I’ve surrendered to the inevitable. No, it’s more than that. It’s the little recognized but widespread problem of over-experienced professionals.
That’s right. I’m bringing up the issue of people who’ve been doing what they do for too long.
I noticed this phenomenon when I asked a doctor about a new cholesterol-reducing drug being advertised. There’s nothing, he explained, that shows the newer medication to be more effective than the one he’d prescribed years before. He said I shouldn’t switch medicines and risk experiencing new, unwanted side effects.
Certainly he would know about this. Right?
Well, it so happens there have been important advances in this group of drugs and switching to a newer, more effective formulation would be good for me. Why would a Harvard educated physician, thirty years into his practice not know that?
Maybe it’s because a skilled, seasoned professional is also a fallible human, susceptible to the stiffening of attitude, a loss of flexibility in thought, to go along with the declining limberness in joints.
If you’ve been doing something, mostly well, for a number of decades, you might find it uncomfortable, even annoying, if required to challenge the assumptions that have served you handily for so long. And you’re the rare individual indeed, if you haven’t grown at least somewhat comfortable by familiar routine but also a little bored by the tedious repetition of operations and processes with which you’ve been engaged through your working life.
Imagine my surprise when an accountant pointed out I’d been failing to take advantage of a tax law that would have reduced payments on my business profits to Uncle Sam. “When you changed your method of valuing assets, why didn’t you change the tax calculation to benefit from these rules?” is what he asked me.
I didn’t answer that question. But I did wonder why this approach wasn’t suggested by my previous tax advisor. He’s not stupid. Has he just grown lazy? Is he afflicted with the “been there done that” syndrome? Has habit come to dominate his work style, negating any inclination toward progress and innovation?
What’s really troubling is that the problem of “too much experience” is not limited to a few professions.
Few professionals, no matter how intelligent and skilled, avoid developing the attitude I think is associated with doing the “same old thing”–an attitude that replaces the enthusiasm people once had for providing psychiatric care (one psychologist I learned about has trouble stifling his yawns as patients “unload their hearts” to him), and business management (where yes, it’s true that basic principals remain, but that’s no excuse not to adopt new methods of applying those principles in the digitized, diversified, 21st Century workplace–the one without walls).
This phenomenon even occurs with veterinarians whose passion for treating puppies and kitties has waned over years of dealing with a succession of ailments with prescribed treatments. Do some come to regard each condition the way the factory worker thinks about each half-built product streaming past his station on the assembly line where, for the millionth time, he adds a gear and tightens a screw.
What was that you heard when the piano player helped set the mood at that wedding or Bar Mitzvah reception you recently attended? Did the expression of his talent serve to move and inspire the guests and enhance their experience of the festivities? After all, the performer worked with some famous bands, going back to the sixties and seventies. Or did you get the sense that the room was filled with a succession of notes forming the pattern of familiar tunes, hanging in the air for a second then dropping to the ground like so many spent raindrops? Yes, the problem of too much experience affects the arts as well.
While I’m usually right in front when groups are formed to protest discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity or sexual preference, don’t ask me to hire someone to do something important for me if he or she is my age.