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When I read the words experience trumps brilliance in a recent newspaper column by economist Thomas Sowell, my mind flashed back to the experience of an earlier time.

We were a cocky group. We had been brought in as professionals to form a new planning and analysis organization which would replace, and hopefully enhance, similar work being done by the more traditional accounting and financial units.

Our manager was a charismatic Harvard MBA, and we eight analysts were recent recruits from prestigious graduate schools. But only our manager and his three mid-level supervisors had actual operating experience. As a group, we were young and green – and it surprised us that our collective intelligence hadnt impressed the old timers.

We soon learned three lessons:

1. Existing employees didnt like their work being taken away from them. They resented having to explain to us what they had been doing. One financial accounting supervisor, who wasnt especially cooperative, regularly vented his annoyance by greeting us in the halls with Hello, smart guys. A few upper-level executives, who were supposed to receive our elite counsel, made it clear that they tolerated us only because they had been instructed to do so.

2. Many of our bright MBA analysts had difficulty relating to real-world problems. They had preconceived ideas and no experience outside the halls of academia. Even the most basic details of business and commerce had to be explained to them, sometimes to their disbelief. There was always the nagging fear that one of them might embarrass the group. It was a struggle, but eventually things got better. The analysts with closed minds left, the teachable ones stayed on, and the Harvard MBA manager was replaced with a supervisor who had a background more similar to the executives he served.

3. In the end, the prior operating experience of the groups management team saved the day. Analyst brilliance was helpful, but it was ineffective without open minded, real-life experiences. We learned that certain kinds of events – good and bad – can be both useful and character building.

As Thomas Sowell said in his column, We learn not from our initial brilliance, but from trial-and-error adjustments to events as they unfold. There are more difficult ways to gain experience: Ive failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed, observed basketball star Michael Jordan. Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf, lectured that Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired and success achieved. Josh Billings, a humorist who was a contemporary of Mark Twain, also pointed out, Adversity has the same effect on a man that severe training has on the pugilist. It reduces him to his fighting weight.

As we undergo lifes trials, errors and successes, it is important to remember that, as president John F. Kennedy once remarked, The greater our knowledge increases, the more our ignorance unfolds. Humble recognition of that observation will save us from debilitating arrogance and enable greater future successes.

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