Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Ali Luke from Aliventures.
You won’t find a single blogger with twenty years’ experience.
You’d struggle to find anyone with ten.
The same goes for a huge number of roles: social media whizzes, SEO experts, YouTube stars…
The old rules are disappearing. When I was a teenager, looking at careers in journalism or publishing, you needed months or years of unpaid work experience to get started – and then you began right at the bottom.
Now, you can launch a business from your bedroom for the price of a domain name plus webhosting.
And – though I’m hesitant about the rise of the self-proclaimed “expert” – I believe that this shift away from experience is a good thing.
What Does Experience Really Say?
Let’s say you want to hire me to write a blog post for you. I could tell you that I’ve been writing blog posts for the past nine years.
It’s perfectly true.
Except that for six of those years, my posts were sporadic at best, and revolved around the minutae of university life (with rants about my milk going missing, and occasion incoherent, drunken, ramblings…)
That nine years experience suddenly doesn’t look so great, does it?
Anyone can clock up time. Days, weeks and years go by at a constant rate – it doesn’t matter whether you work hard, or slack off. It doesn’t matter whether you’re getting better at what you do, or whether you’re reinforcing bad habits every single day. The time keeps ticking by.
If all you’re doing is writing, you’re only producing volume. You’re repeating behaviour – but you’re not improving. The act of repeating behaviour makes you more experienced and faster and eventually that behaviour becomes second nature.
But it doesn’t make you better at writing.
(Why You Shouldn’t Write Often, James Chartrand, Men with Pens)
My early blog posts weren’t making me a better writer. I wasn’t even learning anything new about the features of the blogging system. (In fact, when I started using WordPress, it took me months to realise that I could just copy-and-paste from Word, rather than laboriously entering all the HTML code by hand.)
You’ve probably had plenty of experience in some areas of your life. But experience isn’t enough.
Maybe you’ve been cooking for yourself for the past twenty years – repeating the same half-dozen basic recipes. That doesn’t make you a chef.
Experience – as measured in years or months – is over-rated.
What You Need is Expertise
I’m a bit wary of people who call themselves an “expert”. I’m not sure it means much until other people give you that title.
But real expertise counts for a lot.
Expertise doesn’t necessarily require a ton of experience. Rather, it’s about getting the most from everything you do.
To establish expertise:
- Focus on learning. That might mean taking a formal course or qualification – or keeping up with the key journals, blogs and books in your field.
- Reflect on what you’re doing, and how it’s going. Why did that blog post bring in traffic? Why did that recipe taste so good?
- Try new things. Blindly repeating something just because “it’s always worked before” or, worse, because “that’s how everyone does it” won’t help you grow.
- Stretch yourself. Once I started blogging seriously, I sent guest posts to big blogs – this pushed me to take my writing further, and I quickly learnt what worked and what didn’t.
- Watch other people. Find someone who’s a step up from you. What’re they doing differently? What could you build on?
Your clients don’t care how much experience you have. Sure, they might be impressed or reassured by “Sue spent twenty years working in software development” – it might even encourage them to hire you.
But what counts after that is what you do with your experience. Can you apply what you’ve learned to new situations, in a rapidly changing world? Will you be able to find the perfect solution for this client – rather than doling out a piece of generic advice?
And are you willing to listen when something challenges those years of experience, to consider that maybe, maybe, there’s still more for you to learn?
Expertise doesn’t come easily. It means thinking hard, digging deep and challenging yourself to take a step outside what you’ve already experienced.
But expertise is what matters.
Gabriele Maidecchi says
It’s the same thing when you read up work offers asking for years of experience in the field, effectively locking out brilliant, just-graduated minds from jobs they would be perfect for. It’s something that happens all the time here in Italy, people prefer to go the safe route of “experienced people” rather than to invest in fresh new people with a whole different mindset that could truly bring innovation in a business.
I think this may be a false dichotomy. As you note, it is possible to have lots of experience that doesn’t indicate improvement and quality. However, you can’t really get good at something (expert) without experience of doing it. There has to be an experiential component to your learning.
Your bullet points actually emphasize how to make your experience develop your expertise. It isn’t just about years accumulated (and never was, really). When talking about experience — whether running your own business or applying for a job — it should always be about what you accomplished. Not just “I’ve been blogging for x years” but what kind of blog? what kind of readership? what difference did your blogging make? And what evidence is there that your blogging improved in specific ways or that your experience gave you the expertise you claim to have?
It is the combination of expertise and experience that really trumps. Because the experience provides concrete evidence of the expertise. The trick is not to assume it’s obvious. Tell people what specific things about the experience are relevant.
Ali Luke says
Good points, and I agree; I find it very hard to see how someone could establish expertise without *any* experience.
I didn’t mean to imply that experience and expertise were mutually exclusive — just that, frankly, 20 years of experience doesn’t actually mean a lot. Someone with two focused, thoughtful years in a job could actually be far more capable than someone who’s spent twenty years making the same mistakes every day…
Thanks for adding the point about focusing on accomplishments; I think that’s really useful both for people making job applications and for small biz owners who’re looking for new clients.
Hi there Ali and Jove – I don’t think he said anywhere that experience doesn’t help or doesn’t matter. I believe you misread the post.
LOL! This was the worst and funniest comment I’ve ever made! Sorry Ali, I read your comment thinking you were just commenting on the post 🙂 (And sorry for changing your gender.)
At least I think it’s obvious I liked the post…
Ali Luke says
Hehe, no worries! And it’s fine, lots of people get my gender confused online (I’m Ali short for Alison…)
Glad you liked the post! 😉
Great post. I’d argue that it is not just the “time” but how the time is spent. Thus, if two people spend time productively honing their craft but one has spent more time doing just that, I do recognize that. It shouldn’t be ignored. But of course, sheer time alone ‰ great. For new and emerging professions, it is sheer skill and ability moreso than time simply because such time does not exist if the profession is new and emerging.
Ali Luke says
Yes — exactly that!
Simply by living, most of us clock up X years of “experience” at something … but it’s what we actually DO during those years that counts.
Joseph Jin says
I think your bullets point toward “experience” as a verb. In other words, they emphasize the living quality of experience which is characteristic of true expertise.
Just like any living thing, if the form and activity of experience is not constantly growing and adapting to changing conditions, then that experience may be effectively dead and irrelevant (or at least less attractive than that of someone who is constantly creating and opening to new experiences).
Maybe that’s why some companies don’t depend on resumes as much anymore. It’s hard to tell whether a simple list of job experiences is dead or alive.
I also sense that many people automatically equate experience with life itself (people with more experiences seem to have “lived” more). It’s as if people are asking, “Okay, you may know something, but have you lived it?”
But I think a more relevant and useful question to test someone’s expertise would be: “Are you living it now?”
Ali Luke says
I like “experience as a verb” — thanks! 🙂
And good point about *living* it… rather than just existing through something.
Andrew @ Blogging Guide says
Nice blog. I’ve always questioned that part of bureaucracy and while i agree that people grow more and more intellectual as they age, there are still occasions were we find one that stands up among the pack excelling naturally and some who may have been practicing the craft for a while now but can’t really show expertise on it. While experience can prove to be helpful when choosing candidates, i’d still consider digging in deeper to find more of the knowledge gained through that experience they present.
Ali Luke says
Cheers, Andrew! I think that more and more employers/companies are becoming willing to look at actual knowledge and skills rather than just making assumptions based on the number of years on a resume.
Tito Philips, Jnr. says
Great piece Ali.
I don’t also share in the popular believe that experience is everything. I think the number of years spent doing a particular thing is irrelevant if you can’t point to the results you achieved in those number of years.
I would also like to add that the true test of expertise is RESULT. I know you know your stuff well, when I see the level of results you have achieved. Just claiming you are an expert is not going to be good enough, you have to consistently have a track record of commendable results to prove your expertise.
In the end, focus on achieving results, no matter how small they may seem at first, they are the tiny drops of water that will eventually turn into a mighty ocean.
Ali Luke says
Yes – great point about results. I certainly don’t think people should just go around waving a big “EXPERT!” banner without anything to back it up.
Riley Harrison says
When I partner up with someone in a business venture I look for a record of accomplishment not detailed expertise. People who have a record of delivering combined with integrity are the ones I want in my life.
I am more concerned with results then qualifications.
Bazil Osevin says
If you feel your information is more accurate than what you read, I see no reason not to call yourself an expert.
Jon-Erik Lido says
The connection between experience and expertise is a hard one to get a handle on. Certainly experience counts for something as expertise is not developed overnight.
I prefer to focus on what makes me, or what I do unique. That I can communicate.
Cynthia Morris says
Hmmmm….interesting distinction you’re making here, Ali. I’m not entirely convinced, but that could be because I am proud of my experience – 12 years in business as a coach (well before ‘everyone’ was a coach), 12 years in business as a single woman is no small feat (showing other single women that they can do it, too) and 17 years as a writer.
Of course, during those years, I was growing and learning and contributing to my expertise in these areas. I wasn’t perfect then and I’m not now.
But what I bank on with those years of experience is that I haven’t given up. Countless coach training graduates don’t stick with it past those first tough years. Countless wannabe writers give up after the first rejection. Countless businesses tank after five years.
Because I coach writers and creatives, it’s absolutely vital that they see that persistence really can pay off, and that someone is here to show them the way.
More people hire me because of what I have done, what I have experienced, all of which contributes to my expertise. All of the experience I have a writer and creative professional translates into expertise that I can share with my clients. Few people hire my because of my coaching certification – external validation of ‘expertise’.
So, I agree with Jove, I think this is a false dichotomy. And, I appreciate anything that pokes at my assumptions, because I’m more interested in learning, reflecting and trying new things than in being right. 🙂
The reason I continue to thrive as a coach, businesswoman and writer is because these ‘expert’ roles demand that I continue to grow and push my edges on a daily basis. I respect and hire people who don’t settle into their expertise, but keep growing and stretching their capacity.
Thanks for giving me a new perspective to ponder.
Ali Luke says
It’s a tough one. And I suspect that some of my suspicion of “20 years experience” is because I’m 26 and so can’t claim to have all that much experience of *anything*. 😉
What I have noticed, though, is that I’ve learnt FAR more in some years than others. In two years of tech support/software testing, I didn’t really learn much new after the first month. In two years of working for myself … totally different story! (And the same during my academic studies — I saw my writing improve *hugely* over a coupel of years.)
I think you’re spot on that the reason you’re thriving is because you keep growing and pushing your boundaries. And I’m sure you’re a fantastic coach and writer (heck, I can tell just from your comment that you’re great at digging into ideas in depth, and that you write incredibly fluently and engagingly). 🙂
Annie, bossy color says
I completely agree – and now I feel better about not posting to my blog every day. If I don’t have something to say, I don’t want to waste my time writing drivel. (And I don’t want you to waste YOUR time reading it.) Excellent points. Thank you!
I think that one needs to modify the word experience. A simple modifier like “pogressive” would make sure that the experience is more than just repetitive. I believe that progressive experience is one of the key components to developing expertise.
Now, to show that there are situations for which one may not have progressive experience bui has to rely on expertise, simply think about all those people in the world who have done and continue to do “firsts”. They do not have the experience of climbing Everest or going to the moon, but they have expertise and some associated experience which allows them to tackle those feats with some certainty of success even without having the experience of doing those activities.