What Exactly Is “Experience”?


I’ve recently had a few experiences where I ignored my first instinct because I knew it would result in a dead end. In each case, I could later identify the underlying principle and some of the events that helped me understand it. But in the moment, I wasn’t consciously thinking “That instinct was wrong during [past event], so I should distrust it now.” I just knew to keep looking.

In the same way, I’ve also recognize some decisions made by less-experienced people that I would have made if I lacked the experience I have now. Seeing this frustrates me because I want to share a specific piece of experience or single event that gets the idea across, but that’s impossible. It’s often too abstract, too complicated, or fundamentally different from the event that molded me.

All of this has me asking, what exactly is “experience,” and how can I pass it on (in less time than it took me to learn it)?

Experience Is About Patterns

I’ve been paid to work on software of some sort since I finished high school (almost 10 years now), and it seems to me that experience is far more than “all the facts I’ve picked up in the real world.”

Experience doesn’t mean having the right answers; rather it’s a collection of heuristics that may or may not apply to a particular situation. Experience is knowing that certain patterns in my work are likely to result in particular errors, and that specific errors are likely the result of certain patterns.

For example:

  • Experience is knowing to be silent and wait for answers.
  • Experience is knowing to press someone to discover a problem on their own rather than immediately pulling it to the surface.
  • Experience is knowing when one’s own biases are influencing a decision or when or when one has experience blindnesses preventing them from making a better decision.

These patterns can be memorized and taught, but it’s the tactile anchoring of one’s own encounter with these events that brings the context sharply into focus. Finding a nasty bug at 3:00AM due to a hastily-implemented interrupt handler is likely to cement into place the need for well-thought-out interrupt handlers far better than someone telling me that “I should be careful with my interrupt handlers.”

Experience Lives in the Subconscious

Experience mostly affects us in ways that we aren’t conscious of. When we’re new at something, we have to walk ourselves, step-by-step, through all processes we’ve learned, making sure we ask all the right questions and consider every possibility. But the more experience we have, the easier it is to intuit the relationship between patterns and outcomes — to make a correct snap judgement that either reveals interesting information, or further narrows down the possible scope in which it can exist.

In other words, experience allows us to leap past the majority of the problem and narrow in precisely on the interesting parts without understanding exactly how or why we do so.

My Experience is Flawed

Of course, the fact that we don’t really see our experience at work means we usually give all of our assumptions the same weight — forgetting that “my individual experience” cannot replace “proven fact” or “statistical probability” or “the experience of people in other situations.”

For example, I am not a woman or a minority, I have never worked in a healthcare setting, and I didn’t first use a computer when I was in my 40’s. People who fit these descriptions can have very different perspectives on software, and if I want to serve them with the products I make, I need to understand those perspectives. Fortunately, experience dealing with this blindness can help me notice it and try to mitigate it — to challenge my assumptions and investigate my blind spots.

Passing on My Experience

In the end, I still don’t know what experience is, or if I really “have it.” I know that I have a little, and that it affects my behavior. I also know that I haven’t the slightest idea how to transfer it to anyone else more quickly than I acquired it.

I try to draw parallels between experience and ‘education’, but it feels different from education. It feels more tactile or haptic. Experience is something that can’t be taught; it something that’s lived. There’s no replacement for seeking out and living through new experiences.

Trying new things and being uncomfortable in your task are great teachers. You might fail. You might look a little silly. You might even have to ask for help. But I’ve never had a tactile, memorable experience while doing something with which I’m comfortable.

  • Phil Kirkham Phil Kirkham says:

    Have you read Tacit and Explicit Knowledge by Harry Collins? It’s a good read on different types of knowledge and how they can be transferred and learned.

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