Tuesday, June 23, 2020

In praise of inexperience.

There are a lot of positive things you can say about experience.

In fact, there are very few circumstances in which I would prefer to put my fate into the hands on someone who has never done it before. Back in December, I had very minor surgery on my glove hand—I had a small non-cancerous lump removed. Even though I probably could have asked Ramon the handyman in my building to scoop the growth out with my wife’s grapefruit knife, I felt better going to one of the best hand-surgeons in New York.

If I ever again fly, I feel better knowing that the pilot has “done it before.” I’d bet that everyone on US Airways flight 1549 Chesley Sullenberger was piloting was glad he was guiding the plane. Sullenberger had over 30 years of flight experience and was able to land safely on the Hudson River after both engines of the Airbus A320 he was flying lost power.

You could also travel down to 1600 Black Lives Matter Avenue (formerly known as Pennsylvania Avenue) and wish we had a president who understood the values, history and principles of our country. It might lead to better governance—if you can believe that.

That said, in the business that used to be known as advertising, there is a virulent movement—an ongoing experiment, actually—to eliminate experience—and the  expensive costs that go along with it. In the January firing that involved me, while just 2% of the holding company is over 50, 12% of those axed were fired. That is people over 50 were fired at 600% the rate as those under 50.

(Of course the holding company and its agency denied that allegation and because they wouldn’t provide data on what percentage of the agency’s employees were over 50, I was stymied. I was unwilling to go up against their battery of expensive lawyers.)

In any event, there’s something to be said for inexperience, too. Too often, experience leads to doctrinaire. It leads to rote. It leads to the most dangerous set of words in advertising and most every other business: “That’s how we’ve always done it.”

The trick is finding experienced people who remain open minded. Or inexperienced people who know how to learn from the wise and experienced.

Just recently, during my near obsessive-viewing of “Citizen Kane,” I stumbled upon an interview between Orson Welles and Dick Cavett on the making of the movie. Cavett began his questioning the same way I would have.

“You made Citizen Kane when you were just 26…how?”

Welles replied, “Because I didn’t know any better. It came from sheer dumbness. Ignorance…there’s no authority in the world like it.”

Welles continued, “You get a guy who knows how it works. And then ask him, and that’s the end of it….In my first picture, I had the greatest cameraman who ever lived, Gregg Tolland. And he came to my office and said, ‘I want to work in your picture,’ And I said, why do you Mr. Toland? And he said, ‘Because you’ve never made a picture…and you don’t know what cannot be done.’”

[Toland by the way, was DP on John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” William Wyler’s “Wuthering Heights,” “The Westerner” and “The Best Years of Our Lives,” as well as Howard Hawks’ “Ball of Fire.” By the time he died at the age of only 44, he had been cameraman on 66 movies and had been working in Hollywood for 29 years.]

The key words here were attributed to Toland, not Welles: “You don’t know what cannot be done.” With the authority of ignorance you can try things wiser people would deem undoable. But as Welles would admit, it pays to have an experienced person around (in Welles’ case with Kane, Toland) to cover your not inconsiderable obliquity, i.e. your ass.

In fact, Toland was credited with having the kindness and grace not to correct Welles in front of the film’s crew. And Welles had the wisdom to know when to listen to the infinitely more experienced Toland.

That, in my opinion, is the secret amalgam agencies and every business, actually, should be striving toward. The enthusiasm and potential of ignorance, with the experience to shape and guide that ignorance.

No comments: