Thursday, April 16, 2009

What does "experience" really mean?

The error of youth is to believe that intelligence is a substitute for experience, while the error of age is to believe experience is a substitute for intelligence.
-- Anonymous (the oldest, wisest Greek philosopher)

What defines job experience?

Calendar years? Quality v. quantity? Attitude? Track record? Management positions held? The authority to decide? Not being entry level? Getting to define "entry level"? Age? Maturity? Wisdom? Expertise? Indispensability? Irreplaceability? The ability to hang on?

Sometimes employers don't really want experience. Sometimes they want to train a fresh-off-the-boat graduate to their liking. Sometimes they need a grunt, not an expert. Sometimes they believe everyone should just pay their dues.

Yet sometimes they hire someone who has experience anyway. This circumstance can come as a pleasant surprise, a nice value-add. Sometimes it becomes a threat. And sometimes it isn't even in their control, because the decision to accept a position that appears "beneath" them falls squarely on the shoulders of the so-called experienced person -- not the employer.

Let's say, then, it works out. Everyone learns, everyone flourishes, everyone advances. And let's say it doesn't. Then it collapses, as some stumble, some grumble, and some advance anyway.

Either way, the Rubicon is crossed. The expert, the manager, and the grunt -- no matter their ages or background -- must coexist. They live, fight, and die by the same organizational sword. They can choose to merely protect one another. Or resent one another. Or develop one another.

The thinkers and doers -- those who can't help learning, who want to learn, at every stage -- will become "experienced" in the only way they feel truly free: by trying, and failing, and occasionally succeeding in a way that pushes them in the direction they want to go.

But if they are grunts in experts' clothes ... well, then their path is doomed to resemble an occupational bedpost -- plenty of notches with no true passion.

Experience is in the heart of the beholder. It has as many definitions as there are people and goals and decisions. So the real question is -- what do you want your heart to hold?

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