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Winning at Working: What is Experience Anyway?
by Nan Russell

I learned in first grade that one plus one equals two. But, that's not the right equation when counting work experience. We often think we're building experience to help us get ahead. In reality, we're passing time. Ten years working like a cloned Bill Murray in Groundhog Day is not ten years worth of experience. Doing the same thing again and again yields an experience formula more like: ten times one equals one.

I used to equate years of work with years of experience. No more. I learned by making plenty of hiring and promotion mistakes in twenty years of management the two are not equal. Neither are years of work and performance. Doing something for five, ten or twenty years doesn't make you automatically five, ten or twenty years better than when you started. I've been cooking for thirty years but I remain a mediocre cook.

Two or three years involved with a business start-up or a new project might provide more growth and knowledge than ten years in a stable venue. And it might not. Gaining experience is more about you and your approach than anything else.

Recurring work events can be predictable, boring, and unchallenging ways of passing years at work if what you're doing is updating last year's memo, tweaking last year's budget, or fine-tuning last years goals without applying innovation, analysis or critical thinking. Retiring on the job is as prolific as spam and will get you as blocked as those unwanted emails.

I've found the difference between people who are winning at working and people who aren't, is the difference between passing another year at work and gaining another year of work experience. Those who build their experience build their futures. And, you can build experience without changing jobs.

Building experience is about the depth, diversity, challenges and learning you gain by offering the best of who you are at work. It's about seizing and creating opportunities. And it's about continual self-improvement and constant self-feedback.

You know you're gaining experience when you problem solve your own mistakes; learn to use knowledge building blocks to handle more complex issues; make contributions more valuable than the year before; acquire new skills by venturing outside a comfort zone; embrace new ideas or technologies; or recognize you don't know as much as you thought you did as you begin to see a bigger picture.

People who try new things, push the envelope, pitch ideas, offer innovative problem solving, take accountability, and never stop learning and making a difference, are people gaining experience and building their work future.

© 2004 Nan S. Russell. All rights reserved.

Sign up to receive Nan's free biweekly eColumn at Nan Russell has spent over twenty years in management, most recently with QVC as a Vice President. She has held leadership positions in Human Resource Development, Communication, Marketing and line Management. Nan has a B.A. from Stanford University and M.A. from the University of Michigan. Currently working on her first book, Winning at Working: 10 Lessons Shared, Nan is a writer, columnist, small business owner, and on-line instructor. Visit or contact Nan at


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