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I will not confuse certificates with expertise.

July 14, 2009

I’ll never forget the story that Chris, my Open Water Scuba Instructor (OWSI) in Koh Tao related to me when I had just qualified.  Seems like  a couple of batches before mine, he had an old man … over 50 years old … who wanted to certify for PADI.

An Open Water Scuba Instructor

An Open Water Scuba Instructor

Well, Chris dutifully took him through the pool sessions, and then to open sea for his checks.  One of the tests you have to clear is to deliberately flood your mask, and then, clear it by pulling it away from your face, and by breathing out through your nose, watch the water drain away.

Chris demonstrated it to the old man first, and then signaled to him to do it.

The old man flooded his mask, dutifully.  Then, he just snorted all the water through into his nose, removed his regulator, and spat the water out!

Dumbstruck, Chris signaled him to do it again … and again, and again.  He could see that the old man was grinning as he did it again and again.

When they surfaced, Chris asked the old man how he did it.  The old man was still grinning.  “Well, that’s the way we did it in the US Marines” he said.

Dumbstruck, Chris asked the old man how many dives he had clocked.  “Oh, over a couple of thousand times?  But you know, we never maintain a log book, so I’ve lost count.  And I need the PADI certificate, because without it, I can’t dive … recreationally, you know?”

If there was ever a case of “Been there, done that, DIDN’T get the Tee-shirt” …

Again: Remember when I said that Thailand, those days, was a “Scuba Diver Factory”?  Well, what used to happen there was that a bunch of kids would land up for long holidays at Bangkok, spend a few days sampling the sights there, then head out toward either Koh Tao or Koh Samui to do some diving.

Most of them would finish their Open Water certification in four days, spend a couple of days more to complete their Advanced Open Water certification, and with just 8 dives under their belts, sign up for the Dive Master program.  They’d dive every day, sometimes as many as four dives a day, and complete this in another 15 or 20 days.  And then, with the DM Certification (often while qualifying for the Dive Master certification), they would sign up to work at the dive shop so that they could earn some money, helping out.  And this would extend the number of days they could holiday.

I remember the third season I was diving at Thailand, off Koh Tao.  One of the dive leaders was a Dive Master trainee, with a little over 50 dives, who was asked to lead our group.

Just off Koh Tao is a dive site called Liam Thien caves.  And that’s where our Dive Master led us that day.

A little about cave diving … its dangerous.  You’ve got to maintain your buoyancy perfectly, else you bang around the roof, and can damage yourself pretty easily.  More so: its easy to get disoriented, and lose yourself specially if the caves are long and deep, and have many tunnels.  Definitely not recommended for beginner divers.

Entrance to the Cave? No ... thats a Giant Clam.

Entrance to the Cave? No ... thats a Giant Clam.

Well, Liam Thien wasn’t a “dangerous” dive … it was only about 20 meters under water, but it had a number of branches that led off for about 15 to 20 meters before ending.  Some of these branches had vents that opened up to the sea above, admitting some light, but by and large, Liam Thien is dark.

To cut a long story short, our Dive Master led us into the caves … and got us all lost in there.  He couldn’t figure out how to get us out.  He’d follow a branch, with all of us dutifully following him, realize that it was a dead end, and then he’d turn around and ask us all to go back.

Within minutes, the group was completely disoriented.  And some of us were running out of air.  Definitely not a good situation to be in.

To our luck, there was an Advanced Open Water Diver in the group.  She had dived over five hundred times, but had never bothered to get herself certified.  She took charge, and along with her fifteen year old daughter … who was just finishing her Advanced certification (that girl had done over a hundred dives herself!) … gathered the group around her, and led us out of Liam Thien.  Then she handed the group back to the Dive master, and signaled to him to lead us back to the boat.

Confusing Certificates with Expertise …..

We see this all the time at work, don’t we?  Specially when we hire. Don’t get me wrong: certificates have their place.  If you hire a kid from an IIM with an IIT degree (OK, I’ll be charitable: a Stanford or a Harvard degree is also acceptable …..), most chances are that you are making the right hire.

The Dude ... headed out to the blue, with no followers!

The Dude ... headed out to the blue, with no followers!

But the critical question here is this: “What are you hiring them for”?  If you are hiring them for their knowledge … to be walking, talking thesauruses, who can apply their knowledge in a dispassionate way, and bring in tremendous energy into the system: sure, it works out.  But hiring on hype … hoping that kids straight from college can run (read: LEAD) a business for you … all the best.

Hey, I just look at myself: and am dumbstruck that I could have been so utterly inept during my early days at running an organization.  Would I refuse funding today, though my business is cash-rich?  Heck, no.  Would I hand over my company today to a 24 year old B-School graduate to manage much older and experienced technology professionals?  Heck, NO.

There’s a fantastic phrase I read many, many years ago:

“Experience is what you get …. when you don’t get what you want”.

Now remember this while I paint a “hiring” scenario for you.  You, luckily, have come into a fortune from a long lost uncle/aunt.  And greedy you … you decide to hire someone who will invest this for you and make you even more money.  You have two choices.

The first is a 25 year old bright kid, with the right credentials. Lets call him Ennel.  He’s excelled at education.  He’s made a profit of over $ 10 Million for his investments (roughly 10% of what his entire organization made).   He’s a live wire.  He’s young, energetic, and you can really relate to him.

The second is a much older 60 year old. His name is Waab.  He’s worked at his grandfather’s store when he was a young 15 years old, and made his first million (not 10 million) only when he was about 40 years old.  Sure, he’s well known now.  But his track record?  Much slower than Ennel.

Who would you choose?

If you choose Ennel, congratulations.  You choose Nick Leeson … the rogue trader who cost Barings Bank, in 1995, about $1.4 BILLION.  Good luck with your money.

But if you choose Wabu, you picked Warren Buffet.

You see? Its easy to get carried away by credentials.  And easier to get yourself trashed.

And before I start getting flame emails or posts: I’m NOT against youth.  I’m all for EXPERTISE … and young people can have it too.

“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell has bunch of statistics about this.  For someone to become truly a world-class expert at just about anything, its estimated that 10,000 hours would have been spent on this.

This is what it translates to: working eight hours a day, 365 days a year: you need to spend about three and a half years to become an expert.  But more realistically, working about 6 hours a day, 250 days a year: about six and a half years.  To become an expert.

Bill Gates.  Bill Joy.  The Beatles.  Professional sportspeople.  They all started young, put in tremendous practice … and reached where they did.  So it is possible to find someone with the expertise, even when they are very, very young.

But does having a certificate guarantee that they have put in that kind effort?  I rest my case!

Parting Shot:

Ben Parr

Ben Parr

Meet young Ben.  Thirteen years old, and has  dived over five hundred times already.  Today, more than qualified enough to be an Open Water Scuba Instructor … but happy to be an Advanced Scuba Diver.

One Comment leave one →
  1. ajeeshvenugopalan permalink
    August 4, 2009 10:48 am


    I am an MBA from a Tier 3 Institution in India. Corporates always confuse the brand name of the Institution with the Talent of the individuals. Having an MBA degree does not really make an MBA. My professor always use to say the same thing.

    I am also a strong believer of “Experienced cannot be measured in time.” If Experience was really measured in time Ben could not have been qualified to be a Scuba Instructor at the age of 13.

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