I once heard someone tell a parable involving an old master and a young apprentice. The apprentice, frustrated by his inability to learn quickly, asked the master, “How do I stop making mistakes?” The master responded, “With experience.” The apprentice then asked, “How do I get experience?” The master replied, “With mistakes.” I want to talk about why experience is important.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that a person does not become an expert at something until he has spent 10,000 hours of practice. For a discussion about this idea, go to Complexity and the Ten-Thousand Hour Rule. Gladwell’s conclusion is that “it takes a lot of practice to be good at complex tasks.”
I have always been confident. I knew that given a task, I would find a way to execute it well. If I did not already know how to do it, I would first learn as much as I could about the task, and then do the work. I have been in this position before.
In 2006, I had been a practicing attorney for 20 years. But my experience never involved property tax assessment. I was recruited to run for Marion County Assessor, a job I knew very little about. While I was a candidate, I took the state-sponsored training, and earned my Level I and Level II assessor/appraiser certificates. I read all of the rules and statutes governing assessment and the county assessor. I talked to anyone I could find who could tell me how things worked in this profession.
When I took office, I still knew very little, but because of my preparation, I soon learned that I was much more informed and prepared than some of the other professionals in the field. Although I had no experience, I was able to manage a property tax crisis resulting from an abrupt, court-ordered change in assessment practices, and catch up on a one-year delay in assessments. I managed the consolidation of nine township assessor offices into one county assessor office, and saved $2 million annually in the process.
A lack of experience can be overcome, but it takes a lot of work. As I get older, I have learned that there is no good substitute for experience. Two events in my life have brought that idea home. The first is my history as a soccer referee. I have officiated soccer for 35 years. After my first 13 years, I had received extensive advanced training, and was being assigned to matches that were more and more competitive. I felt competent and confident with just about any match I was given. I believed I was about as good as any referee could get.
In 1996 and 1997, I applied to officiate professional matches. To reach that level, I had to be evaluated in competitive matches. I quickly learned that I still had much to learn. In 1998, I reached the level of National Referee, which gave me the certification to work in professional matches. National Referees are regularly monitored and evaluated. They attend a yearly training camp. The feedback from the evaluations and the new training showed me how much I still had to learn. After officiating for three years in semi-pro matches, my officiating improved greatly.
The second event was from my first attempt at becoming a judge. In the early 1990s, a judge position opened up, and I applied to have the Governor appoint me. I needed references, so I asked a lawyer for whom I had worked for three years to be my reference. He quickly agreed. That attempt failed and a few years later, a member of the Indiana Supreme Court retired, and I applied to be his replacement. I asked my lawyer friend to serve as a reference again, and this time, he refused. At first I was hurt, and could not understand why he would recommend me earlier, but not this time. He told me I was not ready for the more important Supreme Court position.
A few years later, after I had followed my lawyer friend’s practice of mentoring law students, I was telling him how little these law students knew. I asked my friend if I was that much of a rookie when he first met me. He told me I definitely was. It was then that I realized why he had not recommended me for the Supreme Court position.
All of this has taught me that experience makes a huge difference. Talent, energy, and preparation are very important. But none of those can match the benefit of experience.
Oscar Wilde said, “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” In my 32 years of practicing law, I have made many mistakes. I make a great effort not to repeat any mistake. When I make a mistake, I go back to the books and try to learn where I went wrong and how I can prevent it the next time.
In addition to constantly reviewing my own mistakes, my law practice requires me to analyze the mistakes of others. I have worked on nearly 100 appeals. In an appeal, the lawyer reads every word in every document filed in court, and every word in the whole transcript of the trial testimony. The job is to find any mistake that might get the client a new trial or the judgment reversed. This experience has allowed me to learn from all of the mistakes made by the judges and lawyers in those appeals.
A judge is constantly faced with new problems. Each case is different, and the parties to the case bring their own personalities and experiences. Where a judge has not been through a similar case, a judge with experience will have seen something like it, and will have a better idea of how to handle it.
I have 32 years of experience. But I will never stop learning. One thing becomes more evident as I get older: the more I know, the more I recognize how much I still have to learn.