Don’t Be Impressed By Experience

As I was blogging about the story from my project in Oman the other day, I was reminded of another story from my very wise friend from the project. He told me a story from his life that had a very interesting moral. (For the sake of this story, let’s call him Mark)

Mark was about 21 and thanks to a unique set of circumstances, had been given the opportunity to run an under performing factory. The factory was traditionally rated low in the yearly inspections and when Mark learnt of the state of affairs, he decided to change that. The challenge, however, was that the next inspection was in 3 weeks.

All inspired, Mark began working feverishly with his team to get all the machines up to speed. Within a week or so, they had cleaned up all machines and ensured they were in top working condition – all machines, except one. So, they began working on that, but, despite their best efforts, it just refused to work. They still persisted but the machine would not budge.

At their wits end the night before the inspection, they gave up. They applied some extra grease and were hoping the inspector would be impressed by it’s looks and not ask them to demonstrate it’s working.

The next morning, their inspector came in. He was originally from France and spoke with a distinct French accent (I remember him saying he distinctly remembers the man and his accent). He walked around the factory asking them to demonstrate the various machines while he scribbled his assessment. And then, he came to our problem machine and asked them to switch it on.

And of course, it didn’t work. ‘Let me take a look’ – he said. Mark told him resignedly that they had tried everything and that it just wouldn’t work. But our inspector decided to take a close look. After carefully looking around and muttering to himself, he asked for some tools and tweaked some parts. ‘Switch it on’ – he said right after.

And voila! It worked perfectly!

When this happened, Mark became very upset. He was disconsolate. At the end of the inspection, the inspector finally said ‘You look upset. And I don’t understand why. This factory has got the highest grade in it’s history. You should be celebrating. I have never seen it in such top condition.’

‘How can I be? You fixed the machine in 5 minutes and we have been trying to fix it for 3 weeks! We must be no good.’

‘Mark, I have been inspecting factories for more than 20 years. How many such machines do you think I have seen?’

‘Thousands..’

‘And after having fixed thousands, wouldn’t you expect me to be able to fix this one?’ he asked.

Mark had no answer.

‘Don’t be impressed by experience, Mark.’ – The inspector said with a smile before he bade goodbye.


He remembers the story with great fondness to this day.

I was told this story as I was marveling at some of the things he was doing naturally on the project. And when he told me the story in response, I didn’t really know what to make of it. What else do you get impressed by, after all?

But, this story came back to me earlier this week. I had been working on an Excel model for the most part of last week and had gotten stuck. I had an Excel wizard come in and bail me out and make the model incredibly cool. I spent some time trying to understand how and why he had built the model the way he did and noticed that so many things he did were almost out of habit. And after one of my ‘why’ questions, he said ‘Rohan, I have built hundreds of these and over time, I know what not to do. It just comes with experience. When you finish doing a 100, you’ll be able to do all this as well!’

As a 22 year old in a whole new world, I find myself watching in awe thanks to many past masters who just ‘own’ what they do. However, I do find that the ones I look up to and admire are the ones willing to pass it on, to encourage, to nurture, to stay positive and calm through difficulties and to help others around them grow. And that doesn’t necessarily come with experience but with care, empathy and a desire to help others grow.

‘Don’t Be Impressed By Experience’ – more questions than answers on my understanding of this one. And I take that as a good sign…