What does it really mean to excel as a professional? Many of us will attempt to measure the quality of our career in terms of “experience.” When building a resume, discussing our qualifications during a job interview, or comparing our skills and abilities with others in our chosen career field, we often use “experience” as a preferred metric to compare and contrast our level of competency, proficiency, aptitude, and expertise. However, it is often our understanding—or more succinctly our misunderstanding—of experience that often creates confusion and occasionally leads to poor performance during a job interview.
Most of us have learned to distinguish the difference between experience and education. We understand the importance of education and how receiving information and building cognitive knowledge and understanding can improve our performance, but recognize the need to apply that knowledge, information, and understanding in a real-world setting in order to learn, grow, and improve.
However, it’s just as important that we learn the difference between holding tenure in a position, and having experience as part of your career path.
Experience or Tenure?
Tenure is simply the amount of time in which someone holds a position, and is not the same as experience. Loosely defined, experience is the practical knowledge, skill, or practice derived from direct observation or participation in a particular activity or event. In other words, it is our ability to constructively apply what we’ve seen, what we’ve done, and what we’ve learned as part of what we do. Not all experience is positive, but even when it’s not our ability to learn from that experience can help us move forward in our careers and in our lives to make us better at what we do—and who we are. We’ve learned that experience is something that we want to build upon; moving us forward and taking us to another level in our lives and in our careers.
If we are not learning and growing and building upon what we’ve seen, what we’ve done, and what we’ve learned, we are not gaining experience—we are simply building tenure. Put in practical terms, there is a tremendous difference between having five years experience as a manager, a multi-unit manager, or even a director or vice president—and having one year of experience repeated five times.
Express Your Passion
If we are unable to show the ability to learn and grow and develop as people and as professionals, we appear stagnant, unenthused, and often incapable of growth and development. To be the best we have to show a passion for what we do and use that passion to move us forward in our careers. We have to keep pedaling even when we have the opportunity to coast—maybe not all the time, but certainly enough to keep us moving in a positive direction.
Many will say that they understand this simple distinction, but then fail to apply this understanding as part of their resume, or during a job interview. Both during a job search and when considering an employee for promotion an employer wants and needs to see the candidate’s ability to constructively apply what they’ve seen, what they’ve done, and what they’ve learned as part of what they do. These are the signs that a career is continuing to grow. It is an indicator of potential, and helps set the candidate apart. It is the true mark of experience.
How about you? Do you have ten years of experience (or whatever that number may be), or one year of experience repeated ten times? Can you communicate the difference in a job interview and show it as part of your resume? Whether you believe you have or not, it’s certainly worthwhile to take another look.
This article was first published in 2016 and updated in October of 2020.