The real meaning of work experience

Often people that are fresh out of college complain that they don’t have enough “work experience” for many of the job openings on the market. But what is this work experience thing, anyway? And why is it necessary in order to get some kinds of jobs?

In his essay A Student’s Guide to Startups, Paul Graham writes the following on the subject of work experience:

Now I know what it is, and part of the confusion is grammatical. Describing it as “work experience” implies it’s like experience operating a certain kind of machine, or using a certain programming language. But really what work experience refers to is not some specific expertise, but the elimination of certain habits left over from childhood.

One of the defining qualities of kids is that they flake. When you’re a kid and you face some hard test, you can cry and say “I can’t” and they won’t make you do it. Of course, no one can make you do anything in the grownup world either. What they do instead is fire you. And when motivated by that you find you can do a lot more than you realized. So one of the things employers expect from someone with “work experience” is the elimination of the flake reflex—the ability to get things done, with no excuses.

Now, if work experience is mostly “elimination of certain habits left over from childhood”, surely you can gain this experience in ways other than having a job at some company.

For example, you could participate in an open-source project and learn how to add value to the project and its users. Or you could commit to working with some sort of non-profit for a while. You could do these things while you are still studying.

You could (should?) list this kind of activity under “work experience” in your resume. After all, what a potential employer wants to know is that you are able to follow through on a project, no matter the difficulties you face. The number of years in industry is just a convenient proxy for this skill.