What Kind of Experience Do You Have?

In manufacturing there is an adage: Do you have 10 years of experience once or 1 year of experience 10 times. Have you been learning new skills, solving new problems, expanding your background or have you been doing the same things over and over again for the last 9 years? We will not understand the true scope of one’s experience if we fail to consider it for more than just its length of time.  What kind of experience is it? Have you delved deep into the fine details to master the intricacies of your craft? Do you understand all the other tasks that affect your work and in turn are affected by your work? By looking more closely and broadly at the skills you have acquired, you can determine your level of competence and develop what I call the “Superior Experience”.

There are three measurements you can make when assessing one’s experience. They range from a simple number that is easy to answer to a subjective answers that will require investigation to uncover. They are Length, Depth and Breadth and much like a river that can be measured in the same way it can be anything from a lazy, meandering, stream to a rushing, driving, waterfall.

Length of Experience

Length of one’s experience is a simple measurement of time. Where the length of a river is measured in miles, one’s know-how is measured in days, months or years. As someone who kayak and canoes on rivers I have over 30 years of experience but that does not indicate the depth and breadth of my training. Whether I have that competence as a paddler of lazy streams or of fast moving dangerous whitewater is an unanswered question. Time is key, there are no shortcuts to superior expertise but you need to be meticulous as well. It requires a driven attitude to perfect and hone your skills. A willingness to identify the weak spots and deliberately practice until they become strengths. Taking your time and looking deeply leads us to the next measurement.

Depth of Experience

The depth of one’s background will show how well you understand your experience. A river can be shallow or deep and similarly one’s competence can be as well. In my 30 years of paddling on rivers I have acquired many  skills and a much deeper understanding of conditions on the river and how they will effect myself and my boat. This comes about when I paddle many different rivers, at different times of year, in different weather, in different boats. Every time I change a variable I will have experienced a different outcome.  It’s this depth of experience that defines the experts in any area of study. Deliberate, focused practice will help you improve and thus gain superior experience. It will take many hours and you may not be world class in your area of expertise but you will have greatly improved. However, an extensive background of length and depth will still leave you inexperienced if you fail to recognize the things around you that can help or hinder your overall knowledge. Being able to look around is the last measurement.

Breadth of Experience

Breadth of know-how is the most difficult to measure but is one of the most important. Like a broad river with many channels, a broad range of experience can show you hidden opportunities. My 30 years of kayaking and canoeing will not be of any use if I apply the same solution to every problem. On a moderate, wide river filled with shoals, it is necessary to know where the rocks are that will cause you problems so you can avoid them. Hitting a rock here in the best case will result in a minor inconvenience. The worst case could be you swimming,  a flipped over boat and lost or damaged equipment. The same rock in a whitewater environment could be not an obstacle to avoid but a characteristic to be welcomed allowing for boat and boater to avoid a deadly obstruction. When your skills and training are narrow it will force you to see every problem the same way. There are hundreds of types of boats that will behave in different ways on different types of rivers. Each with their own strengths, weaknesses, designs and histories. There’s another saying in the construction industry. “When the tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. This limiting of your expertise constrains your ability to see other, and possibly better ways of doing things. If there are other ways of accomplishing the same goal then it is worth knowing how, so find other tools that can do the job as well if not better than the ones you rely on

In the end, the goal should be a length of experience that shows determination, a depth that shows proficiency and a breadth that shows that your perspective is boundless. Everyone should be introspective of their skills in this way but don’t forget to consider others experience as well. As a teacher, manager or mentor it is our duty to those we are guiding to steer them in directions that will most benefit them.  If your length of experience is short, unfortunately there are no shortcuts. You will just need to do the hard work over time to improve your skills, to move down the river. As you are moving down the river take a deeper look, improve your skills repeatedly and make yourself more competent in your field. Finally, don’t forget to look around and see what is happening around you. You may discover an easier route, a safer course or a more lucrative location when you consider a breadth of options. Next time you think about your knowledge will it be the experience of a small stream or the superior experience of a big, broad and deep river?