THE BLOG

Work Experience Is Overrated

02/24/2015 12:45 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015
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At a recent party, I found myself in a casual conversation with an acquaintance I'll just call "Jenna."

After a few minutes of catching up, Jenna commented, "I'm SO impressed with your business! You've done some amazing things -- especially with such little experience."

I was floored.

She kept talking but I didn't hear a word she said, because those stinging words -- "such little experience" -- were still ringing in my ears. My ego scrambled to show her how wrong she was: 75 percent of my clients get job offers within six weeks of working with me, I ran a program for the Pentagon at age 23, I speak three languages...

And then I stopped, collected myself, and replied with a smile: "Thanks so much... it is SO rewarding!"

I walked away with my head held high, but my ego was still ablaze.

As much as her remark stung, I was more frustrated with myself for letting her make me feel so small. I like to think I know my own worth, and I believe happiness is an inside job. And yet here I was, fighting back against my own army of self-doubt demons simply because someone I hardly knew served me a backhanded compliment.

There are four important realizations I took away from this conversation, both about the ego and the concept of experience.

1. Job hunters often place too much stock in the idea of "experience."

This is something I hear all the time in my practice coaching empowered, capable and hard-working Millennials. Even the most enlightened and self-assured client will crumble as they look at a job opening and sense they don't have "enough" experience. In addition to questioning whether they have enough experience or the proper experience, they also tend to beat themselves up for allowing their confidence to be rattled by good old Uncle Bob's bourbon-fueled jabs at the Sunday dinner table.

Sidenote: Your Baby Boomer relatives and colleagues remember a workforce that emphasized experience and hierarchy, but today's workforce increasingly values a democracy of ideas.

2. How others see you has nothing to do with who you are.

You are so much bigger than how people see you. Their perceptions are based on their own realities and experiences, not yours. Perhaps Jenna was really surprised that my clients are willing to hire a career coach who didn't spend eight years making copies and brewing coffee; maybe she just made a thoughtless remark. Regardless of what fueled her comment, her perception had nothing to do with me, and my reaction had nothing to do with her.

If someone says something that triggers an intense reaction within you -- something that truly disturbs your peace -- think: Where does this come from within me? Why did that trigger such a deep response? Turning it into a moment of self-inquiry allows you to grow as a person.

3. Experience is relative.

A whopping 91 percent of Millennials plan to stay in a job for less than three years, which means they will hold between 15 and 20 jobs in a lifetime. To them, experience means trying new things and sharpening varying skills, be it in new roles, new industries, or new work environments. As a result of this workforce trend, employers are tapping into job-hoppers' underlying soft skills and attributes -- ambition, motivation, personality and communication, among others -- in order to attract and retain great employees.

4. Focusing too much on "experience" may keep you needlessly stuck on the wrong track.

Years ago, I took a management job in the Pentagon, thinking it was what I really wanted, only to realize a short time later that it wasn't a great fit. Despite that realization, I wasn't ready to walk away from everything I'd already invested: I'd learned two foreign languages, completed a Master's degree in London, and moved to the east coast without knowing anyone. So, to "make it count," I did the very thing I now would advise strongly against -- I stuck with the job and worked my butt off for a promotion.

After a few months of this, I realized that exerting so much effort for a promotion that meant nothing to me was pointless, and I left. I beat myself up for "wasting" all those months, and I told myself that the experience didn't "count" for anything because it hadn't led to a clear result.

This tends to be a common predicament among my clients, whose default position is to just keep doing more of the same. Sometimes you have to walk away from an experience before you can understand how and why it served you. You also need to be open to the possibility that the meaning might not represent itself on your resume: Perhaps the career that made you miserable led you to meet the love of your life.

Don't squander any more of your precious time. Starting over can be hard, but the world beyond your cubicle walls is full of possibility that will never be realized if you continue to parlay your experience into more of the same, just for the sake of "making it count."

I see so many clients who keep themselves in a holding pattern in their careers -- circling the same ground over and over -- just because they've bought into the misunderstanding that experience is everything.

Longevity might suggest reliability and dedication, but it doesn't necessarily suggest real "experience."

Consider the following anecdote: a lady saw Picasso doodling on a paper napkin in a restaurant and asked if she could buy it from him. "Sure," he said, "It's yours for $100,000." The woman stared at him in shock, "but it only took you five minutes to draw it!"

Picasso shook his head and said: "You're wrong. It didn't take me five minutes; it took me my whole life."

Never apologize for switching career paths, learning new skills, and seeking exciting opportunities... The best employers understand that all of your life experiences, however incongruent, have shaped who you are and what you bring to your career and the workforce at large.

Ashley Stahl is a career coach to millennial job hunters in 19 countries and counting... Sign up for her free career success kit at www.ashleystahl.com