Experience is Overrated

Experience is not what happens to you: it’s what you do with what happens to you. – Aldous Huxley

Experience is only a chance to learn. It does not guarantee any lessons or skills. You can have many experiences where you learn nothing, or the wrong things. Only when someone studies their past honestly, and periodically throughout their lives, is there a better chance their experience will have value in the future.

In the working world, a resume for someone who worked at a company for ten years, even a fancy one, ensures only that they learned how not to get fired. Maybe they slept with the boss, or were the low performer others kept around so they’d look good. The quantity of their experience alone promises little. The experience of a proud parent with 5 adult children many mean little about their parenting skills if they’re all in prison and hate their Mom and Dad. A VP at a Fortune 500 corporation whose division succeeded in spite of their incompetence, has a deceptive track record that does not tell you the important parts of the story.

We make decisions about people based on our positive assumptions about the quantity of their experience, denying our knowledge of experienced people in our lives who are bad at what they do for work. We also look down on people who have moved between fields, assuming this gives them less experience. Yet it’s the ability to compare and contrast different experiences that makes each one more powerful. Often for this reason people who have worked in more than one field have more reliable wisdom than people who have only worked in one.

Many on this planet go through life being mediocre at most things they do – it’s not a shortage of experience that’s the problem. Sometimes someone who is smart, honest and motivated but has no experience at all, will perform better than someone with a superficially impressive career we can only judge from the most biased source possible: their own opinion.

31 Responses to “Experience is Overrated”

  1. Kimba Green

    I hear what you are saying but isn’t this why you have interviews and check references? As soon as you talk to someone that has only done mediocre through their life you can tell. Experience is not overrated it is overused as an excuse to not research the person or to say ‘well they had so much experience’ when the person falls on their face.

    BTW One persons opinion does not always make a decision.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Kimba: Sure, but very few people check references. And interviews are the candidate talking about topics they are biased about – themselves. It’s very difficult to ascertain, through a conversation, if someone is proficient at what they do or not.

  2. Glen B Alleman

    This may be domain specific. 15 years at an aerospace and defense firm, working a variety of programs is the minimal experience to be a program manager. The resume assessment in this domain looks at what programs have been worked and what roles were performed on these programs.

    15 years managing large construction projects has a similar assessment process. 15 years writing code for the same product may not – has you suggest. But 15 years running payroll at the 1,000 person firm may be the same as 5 years if nothing has changed.

  3. Richard Dalton

    A hiring manager needs to find the clues hidden inside someone’s “experience” that indicate that their actions and decisions were the cause of (or at least related to) positive outcomes.

  4. Payson Hall

    Must not forget that experience was an OPPORTUNITY to learn. Not all will avail themselves of it, but don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

  5. Norris Krueger

    “Experience isn’t what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.” – Epictetus

    To oversimplify, if you didn’t learn from it.. how much of an experience was it? (At least figure out why you didn’t learn…)

    What’s the old joke? “Do you have 20 years’ experience, or one year’s experience 20X?” ;)

    This relates directly to your old post on experts! Cognitively, experts structure their knowledge differently than novices. (Typically, they also know more, but the striking differences tend to be in knowledge structure.)

    How do they get there? One way is that critical developmental experiences change deep beliefs/assumptions which in turn affect maps, scripts, etc. [nerd speak/off]

    Check out the Dunning-Kruger effect [alas, no relation] where experts know a lot more of what they don’t know – they are far better at calibrating their expert-ness than novice who do a remarkable job of over-estimating what they know. LOL, but….

    p.s. Fortunately, I seem to be surrounded by people who will cheerfully tell me when I’ve, um, calibrated poorly… ;)

  6. Phil Simon

    I’m with Scott on the fallibility of interviews. It’s an imperfect science, at best. I used to do behavioral-based interviews when I worked in HR years ago and, while better than the hypothetical questions, were still hardly guarantees for success.

  7. Gaston Bilder

    We tend to overestimate what we think that we know and to understimate what we don’t know. We generally have a stronger oppinion about the value of our experience than what its really worth (maybe this is wrong too).

  8. AJ Kohn

    This post is so timely. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes someone an expert.


    Is it experience? (But what of those who have plenty of mediocre experience.)

    Is it success? (But does this fairly reward risk taking and address the Baseball Hall of Fame problem.)

    Is it knowledge? (Can you research your way into expertise in an academic way.)

    I wouldn’t discount experience completely but it’s probably the last on my personal list. I’d much rather see a combination of success and knowledge instead of a stack of ‘experience’. Just because you’ve been doing it a long time doesn’t mean you’ve been doing it well or that you’re doing it well NOW.

  9. manielse

    Experience has it’s merits over no experience but the problem is always what one perceives thyself. The same argument could be said over someone with a Master’s Degree vs no college. The problem comes down to the fact that we value a resume and what is written on it way too much. Professionals should not be evaluated SOLELY on what they can cram onto a single piece of paper. The resume and even (preselected) references tell very little on their experience, their true passions and drive to go the extra mile; stay late, come in on the weekends. A resume will never truly tell you if they can motivate and lead both one’s self and/or a team.

    For me connecting with those kind of individuals is much more important than what is on paper. You’re going to find hundreds of people who look great on paper, but you’re only going to find a few that are going to be able to do a lot of work for you and work hard. For filling jobs, this is easier said than done but I strongly believe in the temp-to-hire approach regardless of what’s on a resume. The resume, interview and background check can only tell you so much. You usually know in the first few weeks what that person is capable of and if they are a great match.

  10. SeattleJim

    It’s the ageless dichotomy of generational value: If you don’t have experience, you think it doesn’t matter. If you have lots of experience, you think it’s all that matters.

    Your point is well taken. Experience in of itself does not a wise man make. But without it a man can be knowledgeable, but rarely is he wise.

  11. Lonzie the kid writer

    Yes I agree I’m eleven and people say i’m to young to do anything especially write a novel.

  12. Lonzie the kid writer

    I’m a young kid and am writing a novel do you have any advice

    1. Niecy

      I can’t give you much advice but I’ll say this: write that novel. This is coming from an adult. :)

  13. Eduardo Jezierski

    @Richard Dalton Agree! One technique I use in interviews is to have the candidate express key decision points, how they were made, and what was the accountability/responsibility/contribution of the candidate (and then check those in references).

    Also in my experience a great way to tell smart, honest and motivated folks in an interview is they are willing to share what sucked about something, and what went wrong.

    Candidates that love the tools/products/teams/etc they work with unconditionally and that don’t use hindsight to figure out what could have been done better tend to elicit in me a feeling that they have a low bar or are not telling the truth.

    (I agree with the post for a certain class of occupations, but for others – think surgeon, musician – just raw hours of practice has an impact on performance)

    1. Smaranda

      Counter argument to the musician example: Lars Ulrich of Metallica. 30 years of playing in one of the biggest rock bands on the planet and he’s still out of sync half of the time. You would think that after more than 10.000 hours…

  14. Scott Berkun

    From twitter:

    @adeloscampos said: The theater seats can spend many years there and not for that reason they will learn about theater

  15. Carlos Caño

    I’m a teacher and I’ve been teaching for the last 5 years. Does it mean that I teach worse than a colleague with 10, 15 or 20 years of experience? Not necessarily.

    Practice is the key, not experience. As Daniel T. Willingham says in his book “Why don’t students like school?”:

    “Experience means you are simply engaged in the activity. Practice means you are trying to improve your performance.” (p. 149)

    And then he adds:

    “[…] teachers improve during their first five years in the field […] After five years, however, the curve gets flat, and a teacher with twenty years of experience is (on average) no better or worse than a teacher with ten.” (p. 150)

    He goes on saying that practice requires two things.

    1. Getting feedback from knowledgeable people.
    2. Investing time in activities that are not the target task itself but done for the sake of improving that task.

    And he wisely suggests to tape your classes and watch the tapes alone as well as with some colleague to get feedback. A short interesting video related to this subject can be found at YouTube:

    Jeremy Harmer talks about filming teachers

    So I really, really agree with your idea that “Experience is overrated” and I would add that “Practice is underrated”.

  16. Rj

    I agree totally. I can not get a head coaching job because I only played 10 years and coached 3 as an assistant. All they talk about is coach with experience for available jobs and they resigned or were fired from previous opportunity. Are all boards that naive? I guess so. If someone is a winner they usually stay unless it’s a better opportunity

  17. Ryan

    Experience is such a big issue. College grads can’t find a job without it, but they can’t get it without a job (part of why one of the best things parents can do is encourage kids to get into a job or a hobby which can turn into a job early). Otherwise, it’s based purely on personality, confidence, and luck. (Personal Luck * (GPA – 3.0)) = Job Hunt Luck

    I’m no longer a college grad, but I am looking for a new job. With only 4 years of experience to claim, I’m not meeting the minimum requirements for most jobs I apply to. I know I can do the work, and I know I can do it a lot better than most people do. I apply anyway, but I often get overlooked because of that silly number. How do you get people to put a bit less emphasis on it to let you get a foot in the door?

    1. Scott Berkun

      It’s very hard to apply for jobs through the formal application process – the bigger the company, the longer it will be before a pair of human eyes will ever even see your application.

      It’s only through a network that a personal recommendation can transcend the official requirements. I strongly advocate using professional groups and your personal network for job seeking. You’re more likely to both find jobs that meet your requirements (as your friends and colleagues will be looking on your behalf) and you’re more likely to get an interview if one of those people can make a personal introduction on your behalf.

      Also see: https://scottberkun.com/blog/2010/the-winchester-job-interview-theory/

  18. Luigui Moterani

    There’s a great book on this topic called “The ambiguities of experience” by James March. It’s worth a read.

    1. Scott

      Good recommendation: I just bought it on kindle. Thanks.

  19. Scott

    I should add that I don’t think experience is worthless. Of course good experience is valuable. My aim is at the flawed assumption that because someone has done something for years that they’re good at it, or have learned anything at all.

  20. Richard Caldwell

    Experience is absolutely vital and important. If a person fails to learn from their experiences, that does not lessen their impact, it only means that the person in question is obtuse.

  21. Scott

    “Experience teaches only the teachable.” – Aldous Huxley



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