Career Experience Is Not a Number

Make certain your resume and interviews represent the lessons you’ve learned and applied, not the years you spent on the job.

I woke up the other day and found out I’m middle-aged. Here’s what happened. A friend of mine said, “Dan, now that you’re middle-aged, how do you feel about such-and-such a topic?” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “I’m serious, I want to know your thoughts on this topic.” I said, “I’m not talking about that part. I’m talking about that crack about being middle-aged.” He said, “Dan, how old are you?” I said, “I’m 46.” He said, “Dan, I have bad news for you. Not only are you middle-aged, you’ve been middle-aged for several years now.”

Well I’ll be darned. The whole thing happened so fast I didn’t even know it. Guess I have to order the Corvette. Barb is not going to be too excited to hear about that. Now that I’ve come to grips with being middle-aged I have a few thoughts on experience.

The most vital being that experience is not the time you invested in a task (or a company) but what you learned from doing that task and the ability to apply that learning elsewhere.

Define what words mean.

To me, “experience” means “extracting lessons from one set of circumstances and applying them successfully in another set of circumstances.” Consequently, experience is a function of being able to step back, reflect on what has been learned, and determine how that lesson can best be applied in future situations.

Experience is not a function of age

The most experienced person in a group is not the one who has gone through the most situations or is the oldest, but rather the person who is the most effective at extracting lessons from one life situation and successfully applying them in another life situation.

I used to get jealous of people who achieved amazing results at a far younger age than I was at. I used to think they were just lucky. However, I’ve learned to dig for the truth behind their success, and I’ve found that experience can be gained at all age levels.

A few examples

Google Inc.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google Inc., became millionaires in their 20s and billionaires by the age of 31. Recently they ranked in the top five of the Forbes 400 richest people in the U.S. They were just lucky, right? Well, shortly after Sergey and Larry met at Stanford in the spring of 1995 at the ages of 21 and 22, they became intensely focused on organizing information on the world wide web in a way that a reader could get the content he or she wanted as fast as possible. They wanted to democratize information. With this single clear goal in mind, they applied lessons they had learned from earlier in life and began to develop a mathematical system for gathering content on the web and organizing it in a way that was useful to the viewer. Thus, Google was born in 1997. And as they learned more about how to improve their search engine, they applied those lessons back to their business. Today they are 35 years old and are two of the most influential business people on the planet.

Author Jason Jennings

Jason Jennings wrote his first book, “It’s Not the BIG that Eat the Small…it’s the FAST that eat the SLOW,” at the age of 44. Within a few weeks that book went to number one on and hit The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The New York Times Bestsellers Lists. Published in 32 languages, USA Today named it one of the top 25 books of the year. How lucky can a person get? First book and it became an instant bestseller. He seemed lucky until I dug into the details.

In his 20s, he was the World’s youngest owner of a radio station group. Later, he founded Jennings-McGlothlin & Company, a consulting firm that, within three years, became the largest media consultancy in the world. Jason combined lessons he learned on how to interview top performers, craft their ideas together in meaningful ways, and communicate those powerful messages in ways that could make a huge difference for the readers of his books. His purpose was to search for the very best companies in the world on a given topic, interview the executives responsible for running those companies and then artfully combine the best of the best ideas for readers to use in their organizations. He has since followed that book with two more bestsellers: “Less is More” and “Think Big, Act Small.” His fourth book, “Hit the Ground Running,” will be in bookstores soon. He has spent more than 25 years extracting lessons from one set of circumstances and applying them to others. It’s really not luck. It’s a proactive approach to improving one’s level of experience.

Pixar Animation Studios

Ed Catmull didn’t really taste great business success until the age of 50. In 1970 at the age of 25, Catmull established a clear dream: to create a feature-length computer animated film. The only problem was that in 1970 you could barely get a computer to put out a still image. Over the next 25 years Catmull worked with a variety of investors, computer technologists and animators steadily to extract lessons at each point in the journey and apply them to furthering the dream. In the end, he built Pixar Animation Studios and created the first-ever computer animated feature-length film, “Toy Story,” in 1995. That film went to No. one at the box office. Over the next 13 years, Pixar made eight more films, and each of them went to No. one at the box office.

Experience can be strengthened like a muscle

Regardless of your age, you can strengthen your level of business experience right now. Here’s the process:

The process for gaining experience

  1. Recall a situation you have been in at any point in your life.
  2. Identify the lesson you learned from that situation.
  3. Clarify how you can use that lesson in your current work situation.

I know it seems simple, and that may be why so few folks do it. You’re busy doing your job, and you have a ton of responsibilities, and I’m asking you to take out a sheet of paper and start proactively writing down memories, extracting lessons and applying them to your work. Ok, we’ve established that this seems a little crazy. Now do it. Give it a try. Actually give it about 10 tries. Within 60 minutes I believe you will land on a powerful insight that can improve your performance. And you will dramatically improve your level of experience.

The difference between investing time and gaining experience occurs when you step back from a situation, extract a lesson, and apply that learning in another situation. Going forward, I encourage you to pause after each situation you find yourself in, and ask, “What lesson can I take away from this event, and how can I apply it to improve results in another area of my life?”

“Good things come to those who wait.”

My dad’s not doing well right now. He’s been living in a nursing home for the past few months. When I visit him, I push him in his wheelchair all over the campus. When I put my arms around my dad and tell him I love him, memories of growing up with him start to flood back to me.

My dad’s favorite saying was, “Good things come to those who wait.” When I was about five years old, my dad bought our first electric typewriter. I can picture him sitting there writing, “Good things come to those who wait.” When I was 16 and wanted to borrow his car, he said, “Good things come to those who wait.” That was code for, “You’re not getting my car.” When I wanted to buy my own car at 18, he explained that waiting was better because my money could be used to help pay my way through school. Just now I’m starting to realize the true economic brilliance of my dad’s advice. Here are a few paraphrases of my dad’s philosophy:

Good things come to those who wait to buy something until they can pay cash for it.
Good things come to those who patiently invest in improving their craft and not worry about how well other people are doing.

Really, really good things come to those who clarify a purpose and sustain their focus within that purpose for long, long periods of time.

As you read the examples above you may have noticed a pattern. Whether the story was about Google or Pixar or Jason Jennings, they all had one thing in common. They clarified a purpose in terms of adding value to other people, and then they stayed focused within that purpose for a very long period. Over the course of many years, their experience level for that particular purpose grew and grew and grew until one day they had each separated themselves from all the others in terms of the value they could contribute.

My purpose is to help people achieve remarkable results by explaining simple, practical processes of two to seven steps that they can use to improve their performance regardless of their title, function, education, industry or age. It sounds so simple when I write that, but it’s really the challenge of a lifetime. Each process has to be so simple that any person can understand it but so useful that every person who wants to improve his or her performance will gain value by giving it a try. Now the key for me is continually to gain more experience at crafting and honing the content and delivery of these practical processes.

Whether you own a business, run a business or manage a part of a business, what is the purpose you are going to operate within for a very, very long period of time? After you identify that purpose, then stick with it. Someday you will have more experience within that area of focus than any other person in the world. And that will be your ultimate business driver. Find your purpose, stay patient, and gain experience. That’s how to generate extraordinary results.