How we actually gain experience (and 3 steps to speed up the process)
“5 years of experience in similar position needed.” A simple sentence you can read on many job offers. A harmless one for those who passed the threshold. But frustrating for those who didn’t yet.
Why though?”, I’d ask myself. “How did they figure out you need 5 years of experience to do the job, but that 3 or 4 isn’t quite enough?”
Confronted to this type of seemingly arbitrary requirement, I’d start thinking in extremes: what if I had spent 5 years in a similar position and never achieved anything? How would that make me more qualified for the job than, say, an exceptionally fast-learning genius?
A lot of neophytes or freshly graduated students have similar thoughts, especially in the game industry where you can easily have the false impression that passion & motivation are more than enough to succeed.
The truth is, managers & recruiters don’t really need experience for the sake of experience; they need people who have learned over time, the broad or specific skills needed to perform at the job. And they know, subconsciously most of the time, that one has little chance of acquiring said skills them in a shorter period of time than X years at the job.
Well, if these “years of experiences” are indeed arbitrary yet reflects an underlying reality, what can we do about it? We can’t just sit around and wait for our skills to magically grow. There must be some ways to accelerate the operation for those who’d like to.
To do so, I believe we need to rethink our mental models of how we acquire experience. We all go through roughly similar education systems but they tend give us only a truncated view of how we learn. So I came up with a new model, inspired by what I read, called the 4-Quadrants Knowledge Map.
In the first part of the article, I explain the model and how it can help us understand how we learn, then in the second part, I outline the three steps you can take to leverage it and accelerate the learning process.
Part 1: The 4-Quadrants Knowledge Map
Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful — George E. P. Box
To build the Knowledge Map, we’re going to need two axis:
- Horizontally: the learning axis, on which we plot our level of knowledge or skill (from uneducated to knowledgeable)
- Vertically: the consciousness axis, on which we plot how aware we are of a particular skill or knowledge (from unconscious to conscious)
Of course, this is a massive simplification: we purposely throw away a lot of nuance for the sake of clarity. The model can be applied to both very specific skills/knowledge (e.g. grammar rules, playing a piano song) or broader ones (e.g. cooking, communication).
We now have four quadrants in which we can conveniently fit our skills:
The Classic Learning Process
When you are taught something in school, what I’d call a “classic learning process”, the skills move from from a quadrant to another in this order:
- Unless we’re talking about innate skill, they start at bottom left.
- It eventually comes to your attention that there is something you don’t know yet.
- You learn or are taught about it.
- Finally, the knowledge is internalized & automatized: it doesn’t stay on your conscious mind but you still know it.
You go through this process all the time during your education, this is the one we all know about because it’s the most visible and obvious one, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
The Subconscious Learning Process
This is what actually often for a lot of skills:
- You start in the bottom left quadrant still
- Without realizing nor making a deliberate effort to acquire a skill or knowledge, you eventually gain it anyway. That’s experience.
This subconscious learning process is predominant for “continuous” skills or knowledge, the ones without clear measurable degrees and often without limits (as opposed to the binary skills or knowledge, ones you either know or don’t, like an historical date or a multiplication table, and have very little chance of acquiring subconsciously).
I personally don’t know anyone who took lessons or read books about the game of pool, yet I can tell some of my friends are clearly better than others and that they improved over time.
Even when you’re not consciously and actively trying to learn something, you acquire skills through repeated practice, inspiration from your environment and self-observation (“this doesn’t work, try something else, oh it looks better, let’s continue as such”).
In his book The Personal MBA, author Josh Kaufman phrase it as such: “Your brain form mental models automatically by noticing patterns in what you experience each day.”
This is how human experience works and how our brain automatically makes us grow without overloading our attention, which honestly would be exhausting. But it also creates the frustration I was mentioning in the introduction: it’s invisible and therefore feels absent or impossible to control.
The tricky part is also that for knowledge workers, most key professional skills are soft skills (communication, management, problem-solving) which are abstract and not clearly measurable. Harder to measure, harder to notice.
Part 2: What can we do about it
Step 1: Become aware of your skills and showcase them
Many of our current skills have been acquired subconsciously: to get a more accurate picture of where we are standing right now, we need to take a step back and realize everything we already know.
I think the easiest solution to gain self-awareness on your own skill is to compare with your old self. How did you perform at the task back then? What have you gotten better at since?
Each job requires a different set of key skills: have a look at job offers matching your level of seniority to figure which and start the auto-evaluation.
Knowing yourself better is a good first step and you should not stop there. Knowledge of oneself is knowledge, so it will move to the unconscious quadrant eventually too. You also don’t want to miss the opportunity to let other people know about your skills.
There aren’t many ways to “cement your knowledge” & showcase it to the rest of the world, you need to write:
- Start by putting up a list for yourself to re-read & complement later
- Continue with a mail, a document, a presentation within your team or company. It doesn’t have to be about yourself (it’s not a resume): just take time to organize thoughts, share it and start a discussion.
- If you feel like it, go beyond and write blog articles to share outside your organization or prepare a presentation in a professional conference. Sharing something useful to others is the easiest way to let people know about your expertise.
There is nothing wrong accumulating knowledge and using it for yourself to produce better work but if you want to accelerate growth (which I assume is your desire since you’re still reading me), take time to reflect and share it.
Step 2: Know what you don’t
Second type of the self-introspection after recognizing your current skills: you need to become conscious of everything left to learn. There are two processes at work here actually: gaining awareness on your own ignorance and realizing you overestimate some of your abilities.
Unless you’re really lying to yourself (you shouldn’t), what happens when you overestimate your own abilities most of the time is actually that you bundle too many skills together and feel comfortable overall. Take the habit of breaking down deep & complex skills in smaller ones: it will be much simpler to spot the areas of improvement.
For instance, if you consider yourself good at “communication”, that’s a very broad (and indeed useful) skill but you can dig deeper and ask yourself questions. Are you better in oral or written communication? Small talks or presentations? Short emails or detailed reports? When you separate skills, you can figure out where there is still room for improvement.
Oftentimes, we simply do not know that there is a skill to learn in a given area. Not that we believe it’s impossible to learn it, we just don’t think about the possibility in the first place. The best way to discover new learning & growth opportunities is to observe your surroundings with curiosity. What do others do and why?
If you don’t have peers or managers you can get inspired by, read books and articles, on as many topics as you can. You might not realize yet but humanity has virtually solved all problems you don’t even know you have in the first place. Everything has been shared on the internet, millions of books have been written. You only need to be humble and curious.
Step 3: Pick your battles and fight them
With a more detailed inventory of what you know and what you can improve on in a particular domain, you have everything needed to take actions: knowing yourself better can give you a sense of accomplishment but it’s a false one. It feels like you’re halfway there but you’re not, yet.
There are many skills to acquire and I don’t have scientific research to back me on this one but I’m pretty sure there is a limit to the amount you can learn simultaneously. They’re not equal anyway: make some choices and focus on the most important ones, the ones you think will make the biggest difference.
For all the “binary” skills (the ones which you either have or don’t, like using a software), there are technique books & tutorials everywhere around you. You can also seek a mentor or coach if you prefer learning that way. There isn’t much alternative to acquire a new competence, just follow some instructions and practice until you become good at it.
For “continuous” skills, it can be trickier because there isn’t a step-by-step guide out there to learn how to communicate or how to be a parent. There are advice available all around, but there isn’t a single approach with precise techniques you can use to achieve the desired results with 100% success rate.
To improve on this type of skill, you can read or hear about the approach someone followed to improve, but you also need to step back and analyze why it was successful for this particular person in this particular environment. Doing so, you’re able to figure out if you can adapt some or all of it to your own situation & context.
And again don’t stop at the planification: take some actions, see how it goes. If it doesn’t work, just try something else. In my own experience, people me give much more suggestions than I can apply: I can both be selective on the advice I use and still have a huge library of back-up ideas.
Learning is a never-ending life-experience: studies have shown that as you age, your brain acquires new knowledge differently indeed but you never actually stop to learn. Again to quote Josh Kaufman it in The Personal MBA:
Very often, the mental model you form on your own aren’t completely accurate — you’re only one person so your knowledge and experience are limited. Education is a way to make your mental models more accurate by internalizing the knowledge and experience other people have collected throughout their lives.
While reading this article, you did exactly that: updated a mental model which maybe created for yourself the negative thoughts & frustrations.
Remember that whenever you feel stuck or helpless about a situation where you don’t have the required amount of experience, there is always something you can do to take the control back and speed up the process instead of waiting for time to pass:
- Gain awareness and work actively towards showcasing your current skills
- Make a more detailed & honest inventory of what you don’t know yet
- Pick key skills and seek to improve them consciously
If you want to take this philosophy further, you can start to apply it to your peers and employees if you’re a manager. You’re in an unique outside perspective from which you can give useful advice to people so provide feedback for both strengths and weaknesses (step 1 & 2) and suggest an action plan to improve (step 3). The learning process is deeply personal and directed to oneself but you can help others getting started.
Thanks for reading me. If you have want to reach out to start a discussion, feel free to write a response below or come on Twitter @JB_OGER.
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