The Power of Experience

The Power of Experience

My husband made a comment at dinner with friends the other night that got me thinking. He was talking about skiing, off-trail in the Rocky Mountains, with trained mountain guides. Because of the significant avalanche risk, the guides are experts, with the training required to analyze snow patterns, investigate wind directions and “read” the layers in the snow. “But it isn’t enough,” he said, “for the mountain guides to have the best and most complete training. They also need many years of work in the mountains before they can develop the experience, the intuition and the gut sense they need to make the split-second decisions that mean life or death.”

In the world at large, we talk a great deal about education and skills training, and we are often quick to assume that we know a great deal about what someone can do based upon the level of education they have completed. Yet how do we gauge the power and the impact of experience? Is this simply an added benefit? Or is it – like my husband’s mountain guides – a critical piece of our collective knowledge that drives our ability to be successful?

In certain contexts, it’s clear. We would rather not be operated on by a newly minted physician – even one that has completed his or her training at the best medical school in the country. And when faced with a legal battle, the eager lawyer right out of school is rarely the one we want sitting first chair. In these cases, we assume that they have the requisite technical skills, but the judgment, the perspective and the experience: doesn’t that take a little time?

In 2009, when seasoned pilot Chesley Sullenberger landed US Air Flight 1549 into the Hudson River, without losing a single life, he refused to think of himself as a hero. In his interview with CBS’ Katie Couric, he remarked: “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.” And while his impeccable training and adherence to the protocol must not be discounted, his appreciation of the experience he amassed over his years at work is powerful.

One of the most amazing discoveries to come out of our Books@Work participant and professor interviews is the power of participant life experience. Unlike a traditional classroom-based seminar, in which the professor and text have something to teach the students, the power of our model is that it fosters the unique collision of three important elements: professor expertise, text and participant experience.

This experience creates moments of discovery and delight for our readers as they explore literature together as colleagues and individuals. It provides professors with perspectives so new and so rich that it changes the way they teach the texts to their traditional students (and this is not episodic – we hear this over and over again from professors across the regions in which we work). Finally, this experience provides our company partners with a window into what their employees bring to work – a rich combination of abilities and insights that often exceed their expectations. In one case, a participant who found his voice in Books@Work brought his experiences more fully into the workplace, earning a promotion and new responsibilities. In another, a team of participants took on new challenges in the workplace together, bolstered by their collective experiences through the program.

When we honor and recognize participant experience by openly inviting it to play a role in interpreting texts, we enable people to see their own experiences as a meaningful and powerful form of expertise – an important and valuable set of perspectives with which to navigate the world.

And expertise it is. When we interact with doctors and pilots – and even mountain guides – we are very focused on the skills and experiences they bring to bear. But for the welder, the production planner, the nursing assistant, the administrative assistant and the food service provider, the experience is an equally powerful skill. Whether it’s the work experience derived from a challenging job or the life experience gathered from personal circumstances, we are the sum of a lifetime of circumstances, adventures and hardships. The experiences our participants share help us to recognize that we all have so much to offer beyond (and despite) our formal education. These are the seasoned mountain guides: let’s not underestimate their insights and the value of what they have to contribute.

This post was previously published on The Notebook on February 17, 2015.

Image: Utagawa Hiroshige, A River Among Snowy Mountains, (歌川広重) [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

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Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.