We Are the Sum of Our Experiences

As I mentioned recently, I’m in the early stages of making a major change in my life. This early stage of not-knowing is uncomfortable and so my inclination is to quickly make a decision so that I can disguise my anxiety about the uncertainty as busyness towards the goal.

To help fight that tendency, I’m setting goals for each of the next few months that force me to stay in this open-and-curious and also scared-shitless stage. My goal for January (which I actually started a few weeks ago) was to listen – to myself and to others.

And it’s been eye-opening. First, I’ve had to be very careful with myself as my discomfort with not-knowing has made me prone to all-too-quickly agreeing with the confident wisdom contributed by others.

Secondly, I’ve had to become very cognizant of the filters that the offered wisdom has percolated through before it has reached my eyes or ears.

When it comes to life, we are what we have experienced. This results in the following truisms that become important when we relate to other people:


  1. Other people’s experiences do not mirror your own.

  2. Everybody responds from their own experiences.

  3. Somebody else’s experience does not invalidate your own.

Other people’s experiences do not mirror your own.

At some point, all of us have sat through a 6th grade math class. Yet, if I asked each of you to reflect on that class, what it made you feel like and what role it has played in your life, I would receive thousands of different responses.

Were you confident in math or was it a subject that always made you feel like you were lacking? Or, did you excel in elementary school and started to have doubts about your ability creep in during 6th grade? Was your teacher encouraging or a bully? Were you at a new school or surrounded by lifelong friends? Was school a respite from a horrible home life or a place that filled you with dread?


Everybody responds from their own experiences.

Think about how that experience will shape your mindset as you prepare to meet your own child’s 6th grade math teacher. Even though your kid may be very different than you were at that age, your experiences are going to impact what advice and feedback you deliver to them. Some of that advice may me pertinent to your child and the situation at hand, and other suggestions may be misinformed because they are a response to your experiences, not your child’s. Yet no matter how much you try to relate to your child only from the present, you cannot erase your own experience. In a very real way, it’s what you know.


Somebody else’s experience does not invalidate your own.

Even in a school reunion, where everybody is reflecting on the same teacher and the same class, each person will remember something slightly different. One may recall the taunting afternoon sunlight that always distracted them from the instruction while another student, who sat out of view of the window, has no recollection of the time of day the class was held. One may recount the joy of being challenged by the Problem Of the Week while another remembers those same problems as a source of anxiety and dis-inspiration. Just as one former student shouts out, “She was the best teacher ever!” another announces, “That teacher made me think I was stupid.”

And all of those experiences are simultaneously correct. Just because one student hated the class, does not mean that the teacher was ineffective. That class may have been a turning point for one student and a completely forgettable class for another. One person’s experience has no bearing on another’s.


Experiences depend upon two characteristics: perspective and connections.



Even when we share an experience with others, we all have our own perspective of the event. The perspective is formed based on our relationship to the experience.


No experience exists in isolation. We are not blank slates; we come into every experience with our past – even our distant past – setting up certain expectations. Whatever is occurring concurrent with the experience will inevitably alter its greater meaning. Even what happens after can change an experience as you re-evaluate in light of new information.


So what does this mean?

  • Don’t expect that other people are experiencing the same thing you are even if the external situation is the same.


  • Avoid assuming that your experience is identical to theirs and expecting that what worked for you will automatically work for them. We all have different perspectives and assign different meaning to experiences.


  • When you feel misunderstood, take a moment and remember that they are responding from their experience. It’s not a matter of them not wanting to understand you; it’s a matter of a different frame of reference.


  • Listening is perhaps the biggest gift we can give another.


  • Empathy is important in relating to others, yet it also has its limitations. We can imagine what something is like, but it’s important to know that the imagined is not the same as the reality.


  • We tend to feel defensive when we feel like somebody’s experience is threatening our own. Remember that both experiences can be true at the same time.


  • Be careful with the stories you tell yourself around your experiences. Going back to the 6th grade math class, a student that struggled could hold on to the belief that they’re dumb and bad at math or they could choose to see that as an assumption to be challenged and work to prove it wrong.


  • We learn from others, even – maybe especially – when their experiences are different than our own.

Thank you for sharing!

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