The Years of Experience Myth

Have you ever come across a job description that you thought you were perfect for? The job description describes work you are interested in and would excel at. You even know some of the teams members and know you’d be a great fit. You go through the requirements and realize that you check off every single thing they are looking for. Except one…

”Years of experience”

Maybe you’ve been performing a job for 5 years, but they are looking for someone with 10 “years of experience”. You have that sinking feeling that you would need to work twice as long as you already have to even be considered. Instant disappointment.

And a job application might not be the only time you encounter this unfortunate situation. Maybe you’ve been told you need more experience for a promotion and thought that meant you needed to wait for some time in the future. Or maybe you compared yourself to another developer and wondered how long until you would be on their level.

Here’s the thing though, “years of experience” is a myth. I’ve intentionally put “years of experience” in quotation marks, because it is only suitable as a measure of time a job was performed. It is not a measure of experience gained over that time. I like the very official sounding definition of experience in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

Experience is a direct observation of or participation in events as a basis of knowledge

The definition speaks to encountering problems and interacting with them to increase our knowledge. Having a lot of experience means dealing with a vast set of problems, sometimes repeatedly, and iterating on what we know to come up with better solutions and continually increase our knowledge.

Importantly, in that definition, there was no indication that time was a requirement. “Years of experience” is commonly used, because working for more years increases the likelihood that a person will “observe or participate in more events” and thus gain experience. But there is no guarantee. Imagine, someone working on the same task repeatedly over a long period of time. They will get very good at that task, but that’s all they’ll be good at. They haven’t explored anything else and their experience will be limited as a result.

This isn’t different than lifting weights at a gym. Imagine Gym Goer No.1 picks up a barbell and loads it with the same weight and does the same number of sets and reps each time you go to they gym. They’ll see gains in the beginning and get very good at lifting that weight for that many sets and reps, but they’ll eventually notice they aren’t getting any stronger. Gym Goer No.1 will plateau.

Now imagine Gym Goer No.2 does a progressive overloading program. They slowly increase the number of sets, reps, and weight they do with each workout. They begin to notice that each time they’re getting stronger and stronger. But eventually Gym Goer No.2 realizes to take the next step they’ll need to adjust their diet and the exercises they’re doing. After a year of each gym goer following their routines, it’ll be no surprise to anyone that Gym Goer No.2 will have much more gains. But just as importantly, by trying so many things to get those gains, in the same time period Gym Goer No.2 will have a lot more experience as well.

The fact that experience isn’t tied to time should be liberating. It means we are in control of our experience rather than it being a byproduct of waiting something out. And because we are in control we can seek out new problems, solutions, and ideas as opposed to waiting for them to come to us.

We can accelerate our experience.

The only caveat, is that increasing our experience takes work and an active effort on our part. It does mean carving out time to participate in and observe new events. And that doesn’t happen over night. However, time is only a correlation and not the causation of our experience. You are. So go out and seek ways to increase your knowledge and gain experience!