Talkin’ About My Generation

(With thanks to my cousin Jody Wentico who convinced me to watch the Super Bowl this year)

I really didn’t have any “skin” in the game when it came to Super Bowl 50. I have friends in Denver, Colorado and in Charlotte, North Carolina so either way someone was going to be happy. Still, in the fourth quarter, I found myself rooting for the Broncos, or rather for Payton Manning.

As I watched the game, I realized that the Panther’s quarterback, Cam Newton, was really struggling. He was angry, frustrated and not playing up to his potential. As the television cameras focused on his face, I began to see something I have seen many times before, the look of a young, smart and talented person who was suffering from a lack of experience. Faced with a defense that just kept coming at him, his composure was cracking under the strain of what he knew would be the harsh judgment of him after the game if he lost; and clearly he was losing.

After the game, I found myself thinking about an article I read on EJewishPhilantropy, “Raw Talent vs. Experience: What Are You Really Looking For?” The author, Elliot Cowan, coming from the design world, speaks about how talent is worth more than experience. He makes the point that he would rather work with someone with a great deal of talent and give him more experience than work with someone experienced but without any real talent. Mr. Cowan writes, “But if we look through history it wasn’t the people with only experience that propelled us forward, and even if you would like to suggest an example of this in the comments below, the chances are that it was their talent that ultimately made the difference, not their experience. They all gained experience and knowledge as they got older and they would not have been the successes they were without it, but it was the talent that got them there in the first place.

Talent got Cam Newton into the Super Bowl but it was talent and experience that made Payton Manning the winner.

I am not a football player. I am a Rabbi. Part of what I do is act as a lawyer for Jewish Law. Part of what I do is advise lay leadership as they steer a course for a synagogue and part of what I do is try and help those in my community find their way when they are lost and feeling alone. In this last role, I have been blessed with an opportunity to really make a difference in people’s lives. I can give hope and encouragement in some people’s most desperate times.

When I was a young Rabbi, people came to me for advice and I found often that they were teaching me more than I was teaching them. My senior Rabbi at the time worked with me patiently so I could learn to see what he could see and hear in the voices what he could hear. I would see and hear exactly the same things as he did, but his experience gave him, and ultimately me, a greater depth of understanding.

I now find myself in a generation locked in a battle between talent and experience. Experienced Baby Boomers (full disclosure, I am of this generation) are not yet ready to retire and let a younger generation take over. Millennials with great talent and energy are struggling to find a place in leadership because the Boomers won’t let go. We live in a culture that values youth and talent. Ageism is rampant in the world of job searches and employment. Advertising reaches out to the younger generations, leaving the 55 and older generation to contemplate retirement accounts and Medicare Supplement Plans. Even among Rabbis searching for new positions, it seems as if everyone is looking for a 35 year old Rabbi with 40 years of experience. Search committees don’t speak this out loud but silently they opine; “Only a young rabbi will do since he or she will speak to the new generation to get them involved. The future of the synagogue is in how we attract younger Jews.”

But talent and creativity is not the sole domain of the young. Talent and creativity do not discriminate between the old and the young. There is a Talmudic story of four Rabbis who attempted to enter paradise. Usually this is interpreted to mean they delved into esoteric and mystical texts. One of the four died, another went insane, one became an apostate, only Rabbi Akiva entered and departed unharmed. What enabled Rabbi Akiva to avoid the dangers of ancient mysticism? Perhaps it was because he had started his studies twenty years later than his colleagues and was near 50 when he was ordained. All four Sages were talented, but only one had the experience to emerge unscathed.

At a recent board meeting at my synagogue, one of the youngest members of my board, a woman with young children, stood up and said, “I don’t want a young rabbi with young children advising me; I want one that has experience, who has raised his [or her] children and can teach me and show me how to be a better parent.” Why do we so often turn to our parents for advice and guidance? I think it is because they have years of experience in living that we just can’t find anywhere else.

Not everyone who is older is wiser. Not everyone who is young is talented. Some people never learn from their mistakes. Some people never realize their talents. Some people are wise beyond their years and others never really grow up at all. This is why discrimination by age, or any discrimination for that matter, is bad policy. No good will come if we refuse to find wisdom wherever it may be found.

The talent vs. experience debate, the young vs. old debate is a false choice. What we should be looking for is wisdom, that elusive blend of both talent and experience that can come at any age and at any stage of a person’s life. We like to think the world is changing rapidly, and in many ways it is changing faster than ever before. But in many ways the world has not changed at all. The workplace is still filled with stress and pressure. Children still do crazy things that endanger their life and limb. Women are still trying to figure out how to balance raising children and career. Young couples still are trying to provide for their families in the face of great debt and financial insecurity. We all still fear illness and accidents, and we all wonder what the future will bring. Wisdom is what we need to navigate all these struggles without letting ourselves slide into despair, depression or insecurity. But wisdom can’t be bought nor does it come in pill form. It only is acquired by time and patience. It comes from sitting and learning from someone older and wiser. Wisdom is not about working faster; it is about working smarter.

Different generations have different things to teach each other. The best course is to combine talent with experience, wisdom with understanding, and gumption with patience.

I wouldn’t want to be the young quarterback next year who has to face an experienced Cam Newton.

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2 thoughts on “Talkin’ About My Generation

  1. I would only add one thing. I don’t know if it is innate or learned but I do believe it is vital to have the desire to learn from others. It is great to have talent and it is great to have experience but if you can’t learn from others talent and experiences, you will stagnate. I was told once that there were three important kinds of knowledge: what we know; what we don’t know; and what we don’t know that we don’t know. In many ways the last is the the most important. If we can figure out what we don’t know, we can set about learning it but if we never try to understand what we don’t know, we are always left with gaps. This comes neither from talent or experience but from desire – a desire to be the best we can be.

    • I really believe that experience is not just the sum of all the things one has done with his or her life, it also is the lessons learned in watching others as they navigate life. Not every lesson comes from the “School of Hard Knocks”. We can gain experience by learning from parents, elders, mentors, colleagues and even from our students and those who report to us. As the Talmud says in Pirke Avot in the name of the Sage ben Zoma; “Who is wise, he (or she) who learns from all people.” Everyone does not have to touch a hot stove to gain the experience of getting burned. This lesson can also be learned by watching others get burned. We can always learn what we know we don’t know, but experience helps us learn what we didn’t know we didn’t know.

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