I think a lot of people, myself included, take experience for granted.
Many people figure that if you spend a lot of time doing something — working, for example — that you’ll become experienced in that thing, that you’ll somehow absorb prowess and competence via osmosis. No one really takes the time to discuss or ponder how experience is developed — I believe that it is actively built.
How Experience Is Actively Built
Being experienced in something implies that you are good or highly competent at that thing. It assumes that you have made mistakes and subsequently learned from them. Indeed, the definition of being experienced isn’t all that complicated, but the process of building experience — and benefitting from that experience — is more complicated than you may think.
Experience is More Than Passive Participation
The first and main thing experience requires, is observation — active observation and acknowledgment of learning opportunities. What do I mean by “learning opportunities”?
Well, let’s say we just started a new job. When it’s our first week or even our first month in a new position, it’s natural to make mistakes. It’s also natural to panic a bit when these mistakes happen, but I don’t think we should panic too much in these early stages. First off, most early career mistakes are not all that serious, and when we’re new, we benefit from a bit of slack. Second off, these types of mistakes are prime examples of learning opportunities, which are the very foundation upon which experience is built.
So we’ve made our mistake, and we’re now presented with a learning opportunity. How do we bring observation into this, and how do we use it to capitalize on our learning opportunity? Begin by taking an inventory of the moment after the mistake occurs: Are we okay? Is everyone else okay? Good. What happened? How serious is the mistake? How does it make us feel right now? The answer to this last question is probably “not very good.” Naturally, we’ll want to avoid feeling this way in the future, which means we’ll need to find a way of preventing the mistake we just made from happening again.
Once the dust settles a bit, there are some other observations we should consider: What caused the mistake in the first place? What identifiable series of events led up to it? Was there a lapse in communication? Was it truly our fault? Was the mistake a random occurrence that we, unfortunately, had no control over? All things to consider, all things to learn from.
I don’t mean to sound like I advocate dwelling on a mistake. Rather, give your mistake a good analysis. Chew it over, contemplate it, deconstruct it. But once you believe you’ve gotten to the bottom of it (or somewhere close), try your best to let it go.
Experience is a Raw and Unrefined Product
So by now, we’ve made our observations in light of the mistake (or learning opportunity) we’ve just had. We hopefully have a pretty good idea of how the mistake happened, why it happened, what led up to it, and how it made us feel.
Here, in essence, we have “raw experience”: a new set of knowledge bestowed upon us by our mistake/learning opportunity.
Great, but what good does it do? What benefits does it provide?
Benefits of Raw Experience
Well, raw experience does indeed make us a little bit wiser, a little bit more seasoned for the challenges we’ll face in the future. A wider base of knowledge gives us perspective, I think, and certainly a boost of confidence. The more raw experience we gain, the better we’re able to gauge a situation. We’re able to interpret situations better and recognize when and why a mistake may occur.
I’ve also noticed that a wider breadth of raw experience can work to reduce anxiety or stress levels. We’ll know when a situation or issue is common and doesn’t warrant any particular amount of stress.
All in all, raw experience is good. It’s good to be wise, and it’s good to have a broader base of knowledge to draw upon in our professional or personal lives. But how do we draw from that knowledge and use it to inform our actions? What is required of us to ensure that our new knowledge yields more tangible benefits?
Experience Takes Effort, Discipline, and Persistence
To improve our performance, prevent mistakes, and set ourselves up for success, we need to connect and integrate our raw experience with our actions. To do that, we need discipline, persistence, and, overall, a lot of effort.
Let’s talk about effort first. As stated, raw experience gives us wisdom and knowledge, but those things are useless (in a practical sense) without action. There needs to be a connection between them.
Let’s say you’re facing a familiar series of events, one you’ve seen a time or two in the past. You know this series of events has the potential to lead to a major issue; that’s your raw experience at work. But your knowledge alone isn’t enough to avoid the situation. You have to be willing to put in the effort to act, to preempt the issue that you see forming in front of you. This sounds obvious, I know, but it’s not always so easy.
When I was still new at my current job, I was constantly repeating this one, very specific mistake. It would happen time after time, and after each occurrence, I would tell my boss “I know exactly what went wrong. I need to do better next time.” That was my excuse, my way out of chastisement: “I need to do better next time.” Then the next time would come, and I would fail to take action once again. I’d fail to be proactive and prevent the mistake, and then I’d be having the same conversation with my boss.
I had the raw experience needed to know what was going wrong each time. I even knew what I needed to do to fix and prevent my mistake. I was just lazy, and in particular, I was undisciplined.
To integrate our actions with our raw experience, we need effort foremost, and then we need to be consistent with that effort. We need to be disciplined. Discipline, in this sense, means we need to make an effort both when we feel like it and especially when we don’t. We need to have the mental fortitude on our laziest days to say “I know I don’t want to do this right now, but it will only get worse later, so I might as well just do it.” As I’ve shown, discipline has been a big struggle of mine in the past, so I’ll consider this a reminder to myself.
If we are disciplined in integrating our raw experience with consistent, satisfactory effort, then we’ll gradually see improvement. We’ll know that we’re preempting and preventing issues that nagged us in the past. We’ll see that we’re actually learning from our mistakes and making tangible progress because of it.
Lastly, after effort and discipline are established, we need to be persistent in integrating our effort with our raw experience.
Persistence means that we continue to make an effort, continue to see the value in making an effort, even after we fail. Persistence means that we don’t abandon the entire endeavor following a lapse in judgment or momentary laziness. It means we recognize that one failure does not a setback make.
Persistence means that we recognize our failures as additional opportunities to learn, grow, and make progress.