Stephen Covey on How Experience is Overrated


Does a lack of experience hold you back?  According to Stephen Covey, “experience is overrated.”  Many times when somebody has a lot of experience, what they really have is the same experience repeated over and over again.

Thinking back, I’ve always reminded myself that just spending time in a job doesn’t make you better.  It’s how you apply the time that you’re on the job.   There’s a world of difference between going through the motions and actively trying to learn, absorb, and internalize knowledge, and actually apply it.

In the book, The Power of Something Stupid, Richie Norton shares how Stephen Covey helped him look at experience in a new way.

Experience is Overrated

It’s easy to confuse experience with exposure.  Richie writes:

“Covey taught me a priceless principle that would forever change my outlook on the nature of education and experience.  He said, ‘Richie, experience is overrated.  Some people say they have twenty years, when in reality, they only have one year’s experience, repeated twenty times.’”

Free Yourself from Experience-Based Inadequacy

If you don’t let a lack of experience hold you back, then you are free to learn along the way.  Richie writes:

“That statement blew my mind and opened windows of opportunity all around me.  In an instant, I felt free from the self-inflicted mental bondage I had created for myself about my age and my feelings of experience-based inadequacy.  I suddenly realized that if something was important enough to me, if I was truly committed to achieving success, I could learn what I needed to know along the way!  Nothing could have felt more empowering.”

Eagerness is as Valuable as Experience

Experience is important, but so is eagerness.  When you have a zest for continuous learning, you consume, absorb, and create experience at a different level.  You compound the benefits of the experience you create as you learn the ropes.   Richie writes:

“Just as valuable to experience is the eagerness to learn and a willingness to constantly seek improvement to get the job done.  Covey taught me that authentic experience is gained not by simply strapping yourself in and doing the time, but through constantly (and sincerely) seeking learning and improvement along the road to success.”

How To Use This

In my personal journey, I’ve always focused on creating deeper experience, and finding ways to find the passion.   One of the ways I check my career path is if I’m growing my skills and capabilities.   This might mean getter better at what I do, or expanding what I’m capable of, by learning new skills.  Whenever I reach a plateau, learning a new skill often helps me take some of my old skills to a new level.  The sum of my skills is more than the parts.

I always remind myself that just being in a job or near a job, or near smart people, doesn’t automatically rub off on you (although some of it does – we’re great at unconsciously modeling the people around us.)   One of the ways I try to make mundane or routine activities more useful, is I try to find ways to learn from it, or to practice a skill.   I also focus on learning from everyone around me.  This way, I am always using the time that I already spend, to get more out of it.  Otherwise, it’s way to easy to put things on cruise control and erode my capabilities or skills.  There’s a lot of truth that we’re either climbing or sliding, and there’s no in between.

Don’t let a lack of experience hold you back.  Learn along the way, enjoy the journey, and embrace the nuances you create by deliberately seeking to improve, even your otherwise routine operations.  The big thing to remember is that, if you get started, and you keep going, experience adds up, but only if you make it count.  The other thing to keep in mind is that everybody has to start somewhere, and no matter where you start, it’s your eagerness and focus on learning that amplify your results.

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Image by Bob Jagendorf.


  1. Hi JD, My father-in-law sat here one day when I had lost a job (which, coincidentally, I had done for 20 years) and told me I could forget ever getting hired in that field again. Ironically, he said people today do not want someone with excessive experience at an expensive price, who has “all the bad habits” they’ve learned at their prior firms. They prefer a freshly minted MBA (rather than one from 20 years ago) that they can train exactly as they’d like.

    I’d say he is right! Depends upon the person, the firm, and the circumstances, of course, but at the very least it’s encouraging to those who might not have 20 years in 🙂

  2. JD, I agree with your article wholeheartedly.
    It would be great if HR folks read this and make a decision to nix the number of years of experience required on their job postings. IMO, this would reflect the company’s openness to ditching the status quo, which i think is paramount especially in a technology-driven company.

  3. @ Julie — It’s a great reminder to continuously reinvent ourselves.

    It’s easy to spend time without improving, or to fall back into our comfort zones, and rely on our “experience” and hope it speaks for itself.

    I think flowing value, and knowing who you want to flow value for, helps light the path forward.

    @ Viv — I know what you mean. I’ve seen some jobs where they didn’t just want relevant experience, they wanted somebody who had done the exact job for 10 years.

    A while back I read the book businessThink. The authors interviewed 500 executives to find out what skills the workforce needs for the road ahead. The answer was business skills and technical skills, a long with flexibility and adaptability.

  4. Whoa!! What a twist!
    >>” they only have one year’s experience, repeated twenty times”
    I have never thought about it that way, really an a-ha moment for me. And if it’s the case then this one year repeated 20 times is 20 years old too, eh!?
    I love this angle a lot

  5. @ Alik — It’s pretty amazing how much experience can be a benefit and a trap.

    It reminds me how Bruce Lee taught us to empty our cup, otherwise, there’s no room for the new stuff, and how we can enjoy things more when we bring our beginner’s mind.

    Baggage can be our downfall, the trick is to travel light, and have a beautiful mind, Edward de Bono style.

    @ David — I’m a fan of the entrepreneurial spirit.

  6. Yes this one holds folks back about as much as those who are missing a formal traditional education. Neither is much of a determinat of success.

    I like what you said about the depth of expereince. When coaching others I find I’m able to go deeper and expereince new ground when I’m willing to be vulnerable about what I know and don’t know.

  7. @ Tom — Success really is a mash up, and no single ingredient bakes the cake.

    There’s a scene in Peaceful Warrior where they are hiking up the mountain, and Dan is wild with anticipation. It turns out, Socrates simply shows Dan a rock, but he wanted Dan to embrace the feeling of anticipation and child-like wonder.

    It’s a powerful thing when we can be vulnerable, and excited by possibility.

  8. In certain areas I am fearless about moving ahead without experience. I have confidence that I’ll learn what I need to learn as I go along. I remember a job interview once during which I was asked if I had a particular skill. Without hesitation, I said yes because I knew by the time the job started I could learn it. I got the job, learned the skill, and showed up ready for work! Now that might be taking it a bit far!

    By contrast, I have a fried who is job hunting. I keep pointing out jobs to her that would be great, and she keeps hanging back, worried that she is not qualified, or that she doesn’t have enough experience. I know she could do it if she just believed she could.

    Very powerful post.

  9. @ Galen — If I think of my greatest leaps, it’s when I decided … either I MUST, or I WILL, or I AM, or I CAN.

    There’s a lot of truth in “nothing ventured, nothing gained”, but a lot of it comes down to risk and reward. If we can find ways to reduce the risk, I think we open a lot more opportunities.

    And, having the right people in our corner goes a long way.

    Related, if we hack away at the shroud of experience, we can reveal the specific capabilities that count, and focus on those.

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