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Blog Post

Experience vs. Understanding - What's Most Important?

Amanda Sollman

A little over a month ago, I saw the following Facebook status from one of my farmer friends:

"Market advisors that say 'I did not live through the 80s' make me nervous."

I'm not going to lie – this really caught me off guard. After all, right now we're coaching nearly a dozen grain originators who fall into this category exactly – they're Millennials who are early in their career, trying to help their customers be successful, but doing it without the experience that many farmers wish they had.

And sentiments like the one above are what these clients of ours are up against.

Now, I don't want you to think that my farmer friend meant anything negative. He's a great guy who is involved in a lot of social media advocacy for agriculture and he's got Millennial children who are active in the industry that I know he's very proud of. This is not a "Those damn kids!" situation. He's just trying to make important decisions for his business and wants to know that the "experts" giving him advice have a good grasp on the lessons of history.

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But it did make me think: experience vs. understanding - what's most important? And what happens when, because of the year you happened to be born in (or where you grew up or the parents you have or whatever), that experience wasn't an option for you?

Transformational experiences and the lessons they teach us

Now, when my farmer friend said that market advisors born after the 80s make him nervous, I knew exactly what he was talking about (or at least, I can take a good guess!) – young professionals in agriculture today most likely have no tangible experience with the "1980s farm crisis" and, therefore, may not be able to apply the lessons from that time to the agriculture environment of today.

And I totally get why he would think that. After all, I'm one of those Millennials who - up until about three years ago - had never heard of the farm crisis of the 80s and, since I was born in the last few years of that decade, surely hadn't experienced it myself. (If you want to learn more about this time in agricultural history, check out this great documentary from Iowa Public Television.)

In this case, experiencing the farm crisis taught farmers and agricultural professionals of that era a lot of valuable lessons. And those lessons are coming in handy today – nearly 30 years later – when they're noticing some of the same patterns repeating themselves (or in some cases, they're making decisions to avoid repeating them).

If I'm a farmer and the person giving me advice on when to market my grain - an activity that determines my income for the year - hasn't experienced something like the farm crisis, how will they know to avoid the pitfalls of previous generations? For many, that can be a scary thought.

And it's not just limited to marketing grain. Consider other transformational experiences in your life. The divorce of your parents. Going to college. Traveling the world. How can someone truly "get it" if they haven't gone through it themselves? They can't.

Right?

experience vs. understanding

But here's the thing: if we rely on experience as the only way you can learn lessons, we're in for a world of hurt.

Young professionals today didn't experience the 1980s farm crisis just like Baby Boomers didn't experience the Dust Bowl. It doesn't mean that we don't have the capacity to learn about the experiences of past generations in order to take away lessons we can apply today and in the future.

Following that Facebook post, my team put together some extra content for our grain marketing clients that provides context not just around the 1980s farm crisis but also the hedge-to-arrival (HTA) contract crisis of the 1990s, another big transformational experience that taught the agricultural industry some important lessons. Some of our clients were more familiar with these topics than others, but it was valuable for all of them to have a refresher. Our goal: expand understanding.

At the end of the day, I can't hop in my DeLorean to time travel or do a body swap to gain those transformational experiences. But we can strive to better understand what happened, how it felt and what lessons were learned that we can apply to how we do business.

Experience doesn't always make you an expert

By teaching our young grain professionals about the 80s farm crisis and the 90s HTA crisis, we learned another valuable lesson. You see, mixed in among our younger clients were some more experienced folks - and they learned something new about these situations too!

Just because you lived through something and experienced its impacts - that doesn't always make you an expert.

For example, a large majority of farmers who lived through the HTA crisis in the 90s can't tell you why it happened. All they'll tell you is that HTA = bad. And that, in and of itself, isn't necessarily true. Rather, it was the thinking that led to the crisis and the related market environment that caused problems. By coming at the topic with "fresh eyes", so to speak, for our younger professionals, our more experienced grain originators were also able to deepen their understanding of the topic.

By the same token, we sometimes get lazy and complacent in learning fundamentals. Another topic we've spent some time on in coaching calls for both grain originators and sales reps is the basics of farm economics. In one group, we even had someone say, "This reminds me of the stuff we used to talk about amongst ourselves and with farmers back in the 80s and 90s. But we've gotten sloppy and haven't had to to this in recent years!" Again, seeking to develop deeper understanding proved to be a valuable learning experience for everyone - regardless of age or experience. 

We all have something to learn.

I've focused a lot on grain marketers in this post, but the reality is, this message is much broader than that. Consider these experience vs. understanding limiting beliefs:

  • If they don't farm, they'll never understand what it's like.
  • If they've never lived in rural America, they'll never understand our challenges.
  • If they've always been rich, they'll never understand what it's like to go without.
  • If they've always had something handed to them, they'll never have work ethic.

However, if we're truly invested in creating a prosperous future - instead of clinging to the experiences of the past - it's in our best interest to help increase understanding.

So how can you do that? Here's a few ideas:

  • Encourage traditional and reverse mentorship (reverse mentorship is where the younger person is teaching the more experienced person new things – transfer of knowledge goes both ways!)
  • Host "lunch and learns," webinars or workshops on topics that not everyone may have experienced
  • Do ride-along's or partner sales calls, where experience can be shared
  • Create work groups with a mix of people of different backgrounds, experiences and strengths
  • Ask questions! Example: "What do you know about X? What did we learn as a result? How can that be applied to our current situation?" If you recognize a knowledge gap, that doesn't have to be viewed as something to make you nervous or avoid working with that person. Instead, it's an opportunity to expand their understanding!

Have other suggestions? We'd love to hear them in the comments!

When it really comes down to it, we all have something to learn. Wade shared a story with me that I think fits well here as we bring it to a close:

A successful entrepreneur once asked an intern for feedback. The intern was surprised that this successful businessman was asking him for input. The businessman's response? "Everyone here knows something I don't. My job is to figure out what it is, and apply it."

Living through something does not make you an expert. And judging someone by their experience, or lack thereof, is the wrong way to make a decision. If we can all agree to engage and teach each other, however, we can create a brighter future for everyone.


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