Older and Wiser

“I’m old enough to know if what they’re doing is right,” she tells me, as she looks away as if that was that; the argument was ended; that she was right and I was wrong.

We were talking politics, and though I did not disagree with what she had said (and indeed would have taken her stand on another day) her fierce opposition and to the government’s latest policy change and stubborn refusal to hear any stand made for them made me feel like I had to play the devil’s advocate.

This was not the first time that I have heard people use experience (and/or age) as a way of supporting their arguments and philosophies. But how much value does experience add to one’s perspectives on life’s issues?

I do admit that experience can help in gaining a more mature perspective on many things. But as with almost any human endeavour, the value that you gain depends solely on the individual experiencing it, and experience alone cannot guarantee that a person will be right.

For example, there are some people who seem to be “naturally gifted” in a certain skill, performing far above average levels without having done so before, while others with lots of experience do not seem able to achieve similar levels of performance even having done it a hundred times.

This can probably best be seen in the area of sporting achievements, where the high achievers are not necessarily who has been doing what the longest, but rather who is the best in what they do, without regards to age or experience.

By using experience as proof to the correctness and credibility of what one is saying, is to assume not only a correlation between experience and ability (whether sporting excellence or the ability to see tell if something is “right”), but also that experience provides this ability, i.e. a cause-and-effect relationship.

Different Originating Experiences, Different Future Perceptions

Some people think that so long as they have experienced an event before, and sufficient years have passed, they quality as knowing all about it.

Take for example a 40-year-old man who, in 1994, experiences the event of the introduction of Singapore’s GST (goods and services tax). He, being uneducated in financial and economic matters, does not see how GST can benefit him or the country. He believes that the government has introduced this tax solely as a way to rob honest men of their money to benefit high-ranking government officials. Whether or not this is true does not affect our discussion.

Another 40-year-old man experienced this exact same event: the introduction of GST by the Singapore government. However, having read up on fiscal policy in his earlier years, and having family working in the government sector, he believes that though this goods and services tax may affect him by reducing his spending power, it helps him and the country in the long run by giving the government additional sources of revenue, apart from direct taxes, to ensure sufficient public funding in the future.

14 years have passed, and it is now 2008. Let us take it that both these men have not learnt anything new since their initial originating experiences (that of the 1994 introduction of GST). After 14 years, would they have in any way, changed their thinking? Would their perceptions on this government policy have changed?

The answer, of course, is “no”. Both men, if they had learnt nothing new, would have any new information available with which to base their past experiences on. Past experiences that are based on old information will produce the same perceptions. Just like A + B = C, if A and B do not change, it will produce the same amount of C.

But I believe that no one goes 14 years without learning anything. So let us assume that the first 40-year-old man, the one who believes the government has robbed him of his hard-earned money, had decided educate himself on financial matters, reading financial books and attending financial seminars. He also decides to take on a government job, and learns more about fiscal policy as a result. Most people after knowing what this man has been through, would think that he would quality as knowing all about it.

The other man, too, takes on a government job. Having great financial aptitude, and a seemingly endless enthusiasm, his rise to a top-ranking government official is quick and smooth. One day, however, he stumbles across a restricted file documenting the details of an exchange of letters between several prominent government officials. Unable to contain his curiosity, he reads the file and realises that these government officials had pushed for the introduced GST to in an attempt, albeit indirect, to increase their income.

Although both these men have had very different experiences, they both have learnt much. We can see the value in their 14 years of experience. These men would probably be able to provide valuable insight into the government’s introduction of GST. Whether or not they have learnt as much in other aspects of their lives cannot be known.

But in so many cases, experience is seen as a panacea or cure-all for knowledge seekers. It is as if experience itself is valuable in providing the right answer, and not just a perspective of what could be the right answer.

Asking the first man now about this perception of the government, he would tell you how he once thought they were like “robbers” in that they took money from the masses for their own coffers, but now knew that they were preparing Singapore for future growth. Knowing how much he had studied in terms of financial matters, and how he was working in the government and thus had an “insider’s” perspective, you would have thought he couldn’t be wrong.

But upon asking the second man about his perception of the government, you would be shocked into how much his perception differed from the first man, and that though the first man had plenty of knowledge, knowing what the second man knew would render the first man’s perception on the government as “wrong”.

Been there, done that

It seems that having been there, and having done that, does not necessarily mean that you know anything about anything at all.

And can this not apply to love as well? With all the advice people have on love, having “been there, done that”, you’d think that there wouldn’t be any marital problems in this world. The problem is, advice often ignores the subtleties of each person’s circumstance.

The best thing a person being advised is to sit and listen, and after the listening has been done, ponder and contemplate what has been said.

If the advice offered is to not do something, make a calculated risk assessment, and if the risks are considered low enough, go out there and do it anyway. Who knows, the advice might be wrong.

And if the advice offered it to do something, again, make calculated risks, and if the risks seem too high, refrain from doing it.

All life is is a series of experiences. And whether or not we do something or not, the doing or not doing it both are experiences. You can experience bungee jumping, and you can experience not bungee jumping. You can experience a promiscuous lifestyle, and you can experience a chaste lifestyle.

Either way, it’s a choice; leading to an experience; leading to a life. And experience doesn’t give you anything, except a perspective that is neither right nor wrong.

There is nothing either good or bad,
but thinking makes it so.
William Shakespear, in Hamlet

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