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The Inexperience Advantage

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Ever been shut down by someone who supposedly knows more than you? It happens to me daily. I get denied by people that are more senior, more polished, and more knowledgeable than me. I'd be lying if I said I enjoyed professional rejection, but I try my best to dust myself off and move forward, reminding myself that that a series of controlled failures are necessary for eventual success.

Not surprisingly, I'm not the only one getting ignored because of my inexperience, and the rejections can be downright vicious. Just last week, Kate called me in tears after attending a media conference with well-known industry bigwigs. After spending months anxiously anticipating meeting her professional heroes, she couldn't have been more disheartened on the day of the event. Noting that she had been working in the industry for less than a year, most executives simply refused to engage in conversation with her, and the ones that did spoke to her in a condescending, suspicious manner that made her "feel like a kid who was inconveniencing a gathering of distinguished adults." She flew home categorically disillusioned.

As a proud supporter of the young, I was disgusted at the extent to which she was repeatedly shunned for, essentially, being too inexperienced. Yes, young and ambitious people with bright eyes and open hearts need to learn to accept the cold shoulder of established industry gatekeepers, even when it seems like the only goal of the latter is to prevent new ideas and innovation bubbling to the surface of their tired companies and low-growth industries. But a line needs to be drawn between not fully engaging with the inexperienced (painful, but understandable) and making them feel like they've committed a crime with their lack of knowledge and years under their belt (not okay, ever).

More importantly, though, I'm disheartened at the response -- at how those with limited experience beef up resumes, wear expensive suits, use industry jargon liberally, name-drop awkwardly, and generally try to paper over cracks in an effort to mask inexperience and appeal more to bosses, investors, or interviewers. Why are we playing dancing bear in the circus of the experienced? Everyone knows that you don't have "deep expertise in retail" when you're only three years out of grad school. Trying to sound more experienced than you are is a flawed strategy, so you need to change the way you compete.

Instead of forging the impression of experience, I'd rather we turn the tables and use our inexperience as an advantage in the organizations we work for and the companies we start. In other words, we need to start playing to our strengths.

Being inexperienced means you're not shackled with decades of service in a narrow vertical and the accompanying entrenched biases and relationships. You have natural qualities to offer that companies spend millions of dollars per year in training budgets trying to replicate in their most senior executives. You question long-held assumptions, cross-pollinating your projects with outside ideas. You don't have to pander to the person who did you a favor all those years ago, and more generally, you don't have social capital within your organization to protect. This means you're pretty free from some huge barriers to innovation: sunk costs, self-interest, and bias. That sense of freedom and independence leads you to think that hitting that stretch goal is possible, which makes achieving it more likely. You tend to think of new solutions quickly, refuse to compromise yourself out of existence, and are a native end-user of technologies that could blow existing business models to bits. All this amounts to at least two things: 1) The best organizations should wage wars for people like you, and 2) you can stop looking for opportunities to appear to be adding value. Instead, you can actually add value.

If those nagging self-doubts return, don't look up to role models for inspiration; look around at your peers for evidence. Writing Passion & Purpose showed me how countless young people have impacted the world in incredible ways, and how they're doing this in public, private, and nonprofit sectors, across industries, within established organizations and in their own companies. Most importantly, they're making a difference in industries that they haven't spent the better part of their lives in. You can join them.

Inexperience doesn't equal ineptitude, and we need to stop treating young professionals like second-class citizens. To those of you who think that your inexperience is a chronic disadvantage, stop. Don't let anyone confuse your inexperience in performing a task with an inability to perform it. Instead, be encouraged and seize the opportunity to remain humble, play to your advantages, and show the world you can do better.

This post was originally published on HBR.org.

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