My friends have been asking me how important I consider experience (again in the context of the election), enough to write the answer down.

Experience can mean contact with facts and events; or, the knowledge and skill that this contact causes. One sense measures the past; the other, the present. It’s the fact that one word has both senses that can allow one to describe the same life history as either “thirty years experience”, or one year of experience thirty times.

But even in its second sense, “experience” is a proxy measure for an unknowable: knowledge and skills that will be useful in the future. To the extent that the future resembles the past, it’s a perfect proxy; where they diverge, the correlation drops.

As a hiring manager, if I were to hire someone to do a specific job and they had done that same job before (in the same kind of organization, with the same tools, and the same requirements and constraints), and I only needed it done the same way, I might look no further.

I’ve never hired for such a job, so what I’m usually more interested in is “experience per unit time”: the efficiency with which a candidate converts the first kind of experience (contact with the world) into the second (knowledge and skills). This is because I expect the candidate to encounter new facts and events, and to need to use these encounters to create new knowledge and skills.

Age is a factor here: not because of the merits of youth for its own sake, but because it shows up in the denominator. If the ability to process life into knowledge and skills were all that mattered, then someone who had seen twenty years of experience (in the first sense) would need show at least twice as much experience (in the second sense) as someone who had only seen ten. This isn’t an advantage of youth, unless you’re comparing candidates with equal experience.

In a democracy, selecting a leader is like hiring an employee: specifically, a manager, or a CEO. (Or in some ways like hiring a contractor, because you can get rid of one by letting the contract run out; it’s harder to get rid of a bad employee :-).) The same criteria – motivation, ability, character, ethics, knowledge, interpersonal skills, management skills, communication skills, ability to process information and make decisions – apply. Experience, and the ability to acquire it, are important parts of the picture.