Experience vs Flexibility

Experience and flexibility are two qualities that seem to be complementary in most people. When we’re new to something, we explore it, we experiment. We don’t mind being inefficient — after all, learning requires some inefficiency (for example, education relies on a principle of redundancy, which is by definition inefficient) because of the uncertainty of the outcome: we don’t know what precisely will allow us to learn how to multiply two things together, so we do it a lot, and we approach it from many different angles. We’re inexperienced but flexible.

As we gather our experience, though, we stop experimenting. We realize that we’re more comfortable with some aspects of whatever domain we’re interested in and not others, and choose not to be flexible. This choice, granted, is usually implicit (nobody just wakes up one day and decides to listen only to 80s music from now on) and gradual, but I think it’s still a choice we make.

I think there are two misconceptions about experience and flexibility. First, the transition from flexibility to inflexibility is seen as inevitable, just like the transition from lack of experience to experience. At work I’d complain many times that experienced hires find it difficult to learn new things, or new approaches, and are often dogmatic. I think this transition, while consistent with human nature, is not a forgone conclusion. It’s still achoice we make, hence yesterday’s post encouraging everyone to explicitly choose not to become inflexible. Secondly, experience (and thus lack of flexibility) is equated with age. I don’t think it’s necessarily true–some people acquire experience faster than others (I guess we call such people “mature”). There are many factors that come into play here–the ability to retain information, the ability to make connections, the ability to reflect.

Why do people choose to become inflexible? I think it stems from the desire for humans to seek comfort. Most people are rational enough to understand the benefits of investment (trading off utility today for much more utility tomorrow: the loss of utility today manifests itself as pain and lack of comfort) but there are limits to how much they want to invest. At some point we naturally gravitate towards reaping the benefits (perhaps as we perceive the passage of time, i.e. get impatient).

I remember fearing that at some point in my life I will stop being flexible. I worried that just like my grandparents find it difficult to operate a remote control, and my parents find it difficult to use a computer, I will at some point “lose it”. Then I would explain to myself that such a terrible thing won’t happen to me because my generation is special in some way — I was born in an age of technology boom, used to progress (whereas my grandparents grew up with the invention of a telephone, television, etc., I grew up with a concept of invention in the abstract so my skills are more transferable across inventions). In retrospect, I think this was a naive understanding. Sure, maybe technology is something I won’t “lose” (particularly because so much of my life revolves around it), but there will certainly be something else that I will not be able to master, or learn, or even understand.

In fact, even us staying on top of technology is not quite so certain. Here’s a great example of how we all ultimately choose comfort (as a result of experience), at a sacrifice of flexibility. My generation (I guess these days saying “generation” isn’t enough–one has to be more granular than that–so, say, people born around 1982-4) prides itself on being very familiar with technology, particularly computers, the Internet and many of its artifacts (such as the phenomenon of social networking). We all poke each other on Facebook, gchat each other at work, subscribe to others’ RSS feeds (ehm ehm). So are we special, at least with respect to technology? Very few (it any) of my friends use Twitter. They see it as “a waste of time”, something “immature”, something that “high school kids do”. Why use Twitter if you can update your status on Facebook? Who cares where you’re having breakfast? Twitter, at least to my micro-generation, is not a basic building block of social interactions. Yet Twitter is incredibly popular. So is it, perhaps, that we’re simplyslightly out of the loop with technology already? Oh sure, we’ll say, we can always start using it. But it’s not worth it. We’ve just chose comfort over flexibility, just like our grandparents did when they refused to learn to operate a remote control.

Back when I used to worry about things, this was a big bummer. Now that I learned to embrace changes, I’m fascinated by this process and want to learn as much from it as possible. What’s the next big thing going to be? We’re bombarded by information; just to stay afloat I’m finding myself going through two hundred posts a day from the thirty or so blogs I subscribe to. It’s time-consuming (and most of my friends have already given up; the smarter ones simply ask me to synthesize the information for them, but that’s a superficial way to try to capture this information–it’s like reading about how Twitter works in the New York Times) and… well, painful. But to others–to the little ones–it’s natural. My friend was telling me how his five-year-old picked up his iPhone and navigated it without the slightest trouble. It’s a great thing, a visible sign of progress. Let’s not get angry, or depressed about it. After all, we were making fun of our parents, too.