On the value of research experience (and the desire for more)

Posted February 19, 2013

It’s hard to argue against the value of experience.  If you wanted to make such an argument, you would have to take issue with Albert Einstein, who said: “The only source of knowledge is experience.”

I have seen its importance over the years with my younger and older colleagues alike.  They get better at what they do with every project.  And I’ve certainly seen it in myself.  I still feel—actually, I know—I get better at what I do with every project. 

Experience in the world of market and opinion research doesn’t just develop and sharpen skills.  It deepens one’s sensibilities, enhances one’s ability to discover important insights—in survey data, in focus group proceedings, in all methodological approaches.  The more my colleagues and I study our clients’ customers and prospects and employees, the more we know about them, and the more actionable insight we can derive from any given study. 

The value of experience:  the more you see, the more you know.  It’s a simple truism.

And then there’s the corollary, which pushes to the value of experience to a higher level:  the more you know, the more you also see.  It’s because you see more when you know more that the opportunity for genuine insights are multiplied.

As powerful as experience is, by itself it feels insufficient.  Something’s missing.  Experience is simply the slow process of grafting new bits of knowledge onto existing bits of knowledge.  It’s edifice-building for sure, but slow, brick-by-brick. 

What’s missing is the energy, the vital force, the passion that fuels the deliberate brick-by-brick process of experience building.

Somewhere along the way I came across the great mathematician Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, which proved the incompleteness of mathematics (of all logical systems of any complexity.  It’s not a leap to recognize that knowledge of any complex subject is forever incomplete; no matter how far one’s knowledge extends (whether it be logical systems, or in our case, our clients’ customers and prospects and employees and research methodologies) that knowledge is always incomplete . . . . there is always yet more to know

This is what has always kept me going.  It’s precisely the fact that there is always more to know, no matter how much my colleagues I have learned, that keeps what we do fascinating (for ourselves) and essential (for our clients).

The following is supposedly attributable to Lao Tse (the great Chinese philosopher of the 5th/4th Century, BC):  “The more you know, the less you understand.” 

Don’t get me wrong:  I love Eastern philosophy, but I do have a hard time getting my head around it.  Not knowing what to make of this, I did some research and found this explanation:
“The more you know about knowing and the more you see deep into it, the more penetrating you
become, the more knowing becomes transparent to you – and less and less will you know. One day when you have seen the whole game of knowing, suddenly it evaporates.”

There, that explains it.