Evaluating Experience…Correctly

I often hear people say that someone doesn’t have the experience to do the job.  In essence what they are saying is, that without prior experience in a given field it’s impossible, or at least highly unlikely, that the person can be successful.


If that were true, then we would live in a world where progress would be glacially slow.  We don’t have to go back too many centuries to get a sense for what that world would be.  It wasn’t that long ago that if I were a cobbler’s son, I was going to be a cobbler.  In that world all we could expect is evolutionary change…and we all know how slow evolution is.

In today’s world, indeed throughout time, progress has typically been made by people who had no previous background or experience in the big questions they tackled.  In our time we’ve seen Apple redefine the music industry.  Jack Gleick in his book, Chaos Theory: The Making of a New Science, said that the math that came from chaos theory should have come from the disciplines of math and physics.  Instead it came from meteorology and the behavioral sciences.

If “experience,” the way we typically define it, were necessary, how could we have developed the ability to explore space in so many ways or develop the medical breakthroughs that continue to astound us.


The reality is that, throughout history, all of the great breakthroughs have occurred because people were able to envision things that didn’t exist or hadn’t previously been identified.  Their “knowledge” was gained not by prior experience in the field, but by their powers of observation and their ability to learn and adapt.  This is the experience that matters.

When I was in corporate and hiring people for my department, I placed much more emphasis on the person’s ability to thrive in a variety of roles (positions or industries) than on their experience in doing the work required of them.  I was more interested in their desire than their skills.  I can teach skills, I can’t teach desire.

The real key to a person’s long-term success is their ability to learn and adapt.  I knew that none of my employees’ roles would remain static, these roles would change as new knowledge, new technology and new competition entered the field.  In order for me to set up my new hires for success, I had to assure that they had the ability to learn and adapt.

If the only experience a person had was in their own field, in my opinion, they were at a disadvantage.  When I taught college courses my goal was to build confidence by having students research topics with which they had little or no experience so that they would learn how to evaluate unfamiliar information and convert it into useful strategies and action plans.  It’s through this process that we not only expand their minds, but prepare them to deal with anything life throws their way.


Whether you’re a parent, educator in a school system, a homeschooler or a kid trying to help a friend with homework, let’s make sure that our kids know that it isn’t experience in the field that matters, but their ability to learn and adapt.

Better yet, teach them that every time they enhance their ability to learn and adapt, they are being successful…for they are positioning themselves to deal effectively with any issue they face in the future.

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2 Responses

  1. Kimberly Dacey

    Great observations! I wouldn’t be where I am now without someone taking that first chance on a social worker working in research!

  2. dfurtwengler

    Nor would I. Kudos to all the wise folks who give the ‘untested, inexperienced’ a chance to shine. Thanks for sharing, Kimberly.

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