Take No Prisoners

6 Reasons Experience is a Bogus Criterion

Have you ever been turned down from a job you could do because you had insufficient experience? It seems that the US media has latched onto the idea that Barrack Obama is inexperienced, and somehow that’s a bad thing. Telling someone that s/he can’t do a job because s/he doesn’t have the experience is bullshit, and here’s why.

1. Experience is not a necessary condition for success

Here I give two pieces of evidence. First, we all know people who became successful in business with no prior experience. Warren Buffet did not accumulate his investment experience before becoming successful, experience followed success. Bill Gates was not an experienced business person before he started Microsoft. Second, let us extend this with a simple thought experiment. Consider an inventor: the inventor of the wheel did not have experience inventing wheels before s/he successfully invented the wheel. Now substitute “wheels” for just about anything you can think of. Everyone who successfully invents anything does so without previous experience.

2. Experience is not a sufficient condition for success

As Barrack Obama said on The Daily Show, “Nobody had a longer resume than Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, and that hasn’t worked out so well.” I’m sure you can think of many people, famous and otherwise, that fail miserably despite significant experience. Look at all experienced politicians who don’t get elected, experienced project managers whose projects still fail, experienced business leaders whose firms crumble. Ford’s experience hasn’t helped it fend off Toyota. Since we can identify experienced people who nonetheless failed, experience obviously does not guarantee success.

3. Skills and knowledge

Have you ever looked at a job ad that listed a set of skills required to do a job, and then stated that applicants should have five years’ experience? My favorites are IT jobs. If you know how to code in Python, then you can code in Python. Experience has little to do with it. You do not need experience to write a database driven website, you need knowledge and skills. If you know what needs to be done, and how to do it, whether you’ve done it once before, twenty times before, or never is irrelevant.

4. Twenty years’ experience or one year of experience twenty times?

Have you ever met someone who’d been at the company forever, but didn’t seem to know anything? If you do a job for twenty years, you can claim to have twenty years’ experience whether or not you have learned anything in the past 19 years. Too many people learn enough to get by and then stop. Their years of experience have nothing to do with their knowledge and skills

5. Standard of knowledge

One of the big differences between academics and practitioners is that academics have a much higher standard for knowledge. A proposition must be tested carefully, in a controlled fashion, before the academic is comfortable in calling it knowledge. Practitioners have no such inhibition. That’s why you can catch experienced people spouting nonsense like ‘you can’t build software without upfront requirements,’ or ‘adding staff will get the project done faster,’ or ‘invading hostile countries is an effective method of combating terrorism.’ There is no evidence that any of these things are true, yet an individual’s experiences and “common sense” might lead him or her to believe them.

6. The past does not determine the future

Though I won’t get into Hume’s problem of induction here, let me just point out that, clairvoyance notwithstanding, experience relates to the past. Things change. The future is not always like the past. The old rules may no longer apply. Thus, experience can actually lead a person astray. This is precisely why so many academics make most of their original contributions early in their careers, while their minds are still open


My point is that experience is a stupid criterion for selecting a candidate (for a job or public office, or for anything else). Experience is a poor surrogate for some qualities that matter, like abilities and knowledge, and has no relation to other important qualities such as personality, perseverance, creativity and a sense of morality. It would be better to forget experience and just measure the qualities that matter.

This is related to the struggle between academics and practitioners. The practitioner claims that the academic is too abstract and out of touch. Meanwhile, the academic claims that the practitioner’s wealth of knowledge is not knowledge at all but unverified assumptions and stereotypes. In my opinion, both are correct. The average practitioner knows almost nothing because s/he does not seek knowledge systematically, while the academic’s advice is not useful because the average academic lacks the courage and training to address the most important problems of our time. In the academics’ defense, the system is not designed to promote tackling important problems, but that is a topic for another time.