Anything not worth doing is worth not doing well. – Robert Fulghum
Have you ever had to do work that you once used to do but haven’t done for a while? The sort of thing that’s called the “coal face”, what you might have done when you started your career but hope other people do now well enough so that you don’t have to get involved.
I don’t know about you but I miss that kind of work sometimes – the real work of creation and problem solving. When you’re older you’re still creating and solving problems but they tend to be problems of what to do rather than how to do it and the how problems are often ones you can get on with on your own.
The problem, however, is that before you know how to solve something you need to know what you are solving and why it matters. And that’s something that comes with experience – by spending lots of time working on things that teach you skills but often make little or no difference at all.
A good example of this is certain kinds of analysis. Warren Buffett writes about the difference between being approximately right and precisely wrong. I took a long time to learn this difference, spending lots of time trying to be precise without asking whether it was right. That’s easy to do – you can build a bridge in the wrong place, write code that has no function and spend a life wasted in a job that gives you no happiness at all.
What you have to hope is that even though you’re doing something that isn’t really that important you’re building skills. After all, doctors practice on cadavers before they’re let loose on real patients. Artists use cheap printer paper before splurging on the expensive stuff. It’s okay to spend time working on these things as long as you’re building skills and learning how to do different things. That’s making up for inexperience.
But eventually you start to see the difference between what needs to be done and what doesn’t – why you need to do one thing and not another. Your skills can help you do the thing you decide to do but your growing experience helps you decide what’s important and what isn’t.
Ultimately what experience helps you do is decide what not to do. And that’s vital – because too many of the world’s problems are a result of people doing things they just shouldn’t do.