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Maturity: The Intersection of Experience & Rationality


“Maturity is the capacity to endure uncertainty.” – John Finley

One of the only course names, or maybe it was the course tag line, I remember from graduate school is ‘Decision-Making Under Uncertainty’. I don’t remember anything about the course itself, but I still think about that name / tag line frequently because of my need to make decisions with no, little or imperfect information on a daily basis.

Early in my career I sought out certainty and did a good job identifying and capitalizing on ways of being successful by working largely in the realm of certainty. As I gained more experience, I noticed two things related to my certainty affinity:

  1. As you move up in the ranks of a company the balance of certainty vs uncertainty swings more toward uncertainty

  2. The most valuable people are those that effectively work, deliver and lead in spaces of uncertainty

These realizations changed everything for me. I started seeking uncertainty in the projects I was on, the clients I worked with and the work I did. I learned three things about myself and my work preferences from this change in approach:

  1. I prefer working in areas and on projects that other people have messed up, or where there’s significant uncertainty, because of the greater opportunity to make a positive impact; (In my experience as a teenager detailing cars, it was much more satisfying to clean a filthy car than a barely dirty one, because of the before and after delta)

  2. When you work in uncertainty, other people usually realize it and are more apt to forgive you if something doesn’t go perfectly, as opposed to if you mess up an expected certainty; (Entrepreneurs purposefully step into uncertainty, and for that can often be granted more leeway and forgiveness, to a point, than someone who has been doing the same job for years)

  3. In a work setting I find certainty somewhat boring, whereas uncertainty provides challenge, risk and the possibility of opportunity...creativity + innovation; (Certainty implies known boundaries and rigidity, which is necessary for quality in assembly line-like scenarios, but I’ve learned these aren’t the situations where I’m happiest or best utilized) 

These proverbial light bulbs created an inflection point in my professional maturity. I've learned that maturity isn’t a permanent destination, but an evolving journey, recognizable more for its absence than its existence. 

What is the Maturity Intersection? Maturity is the intersection of experience and rationality (see Intersection 26 image below). Experience without rationality is simply longevity. Rationality without experience is unapplied book smarts.

In my experience, professional maturity doesn’t happen at a certain age or tenure, rather it’s a recognition and embracement of the realities of influence and control. There are limits to our ability to influence and / or control decisions, people, strategies, behavior, outcomes, etc. Some people come to this realization quicker than others, and some never do. It took me a while (maybe longer than it should have), but since it’s happened it’s provided me with a sense of freedom and purpose in my work.

Importantly, there is no one maturity stage that is ‘the correct one’. What works for person A won’t work for person B. My observation is that in order to succeed we need diversity in maturity, just as we do in all other aspects of business.

Experience Experience is often referred to in terms of time or duration. While there’s some validity to using that as a measure, I’ve found that it’s better to focus on the quality of the experience. I’ve had multiple short-in-duration, but incredibly intense work experiences where I feel like I grew years in a matter of weeks or months. On the other hand, I’ve also had experiences that were long in duration, but the ‘value’ of the experience didn’t match my perception of what that investment of time should have resulted in.

Experience is also a function of our individual tolerances for risk. What one person is willing to try professionally, isn’t the same for everyone else? Those who take risks seem likelier to experience more (success and failure) in a given period of time than non-risk takers. Additionally, even people on the same team doing the same project will take away a different ‘experience’, so it’s difficult to generalize experience.

Intersection 26: Maturity = Experience + Rationality

Rationality Rationality is the ability to apply logic and learning to decision-making. The pitfall to avoid with rationality is the assumption that people who agree on a decision, came to the conclusion via the same route. We each have our own biases and perceptions that influence our rationality.

Rationality shapes maturity. If experience is the ‘what’ in maturity, rationality is the ‘why’. The ability to apply rationality to experience in the interest of decision-making and progress doesn’t magically happen at a certain point in life. Regardless of when it occurs or the degree to which it occurs, rationality plays a key role in the maturity equation.

What Can Leaders Do? Professional maturity is dynamic, possibly even oscillating between various stages multiple times. Leaders need to know their team members' strengths and weaknesses. They need to know what each person is comfortable with and what they’re uncomfortable with. All of these factors are drivers of professional maturity.

Granted, maturity is hard to ascertain and leaders can’t force it or its development. But when they see it, they can use it both as an example to others and as a means to an end. 

Wrap Up & Up Next I know what I like to do and what I don’t like to do. I’m comfortable being uncomfortable and working under uncertainty. This is the current stage of my professional maturity journey, which I'm confident will continue to evolve.

Next time we’ll examine the 27th intersection of performance, which is the Control Intersection. In this series of articles, we explore The Intersections of Performance, of which there are 30. The Intersections of Performance framework is based on the experience and insights of Brett Simpson, Managing Director of Elevate Simply, over his 20+ years of leadership in large and small organizations, and as an entrepreneur, advisor and investor.

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