Why Real Life Experience Matters

July 2, 2016

I remember once reading an article exposing various experts who had appeared on Oprah as having failed in the particular area they were advising in — the personal finance expert claiming bankruptcy and so on. Though it was years ago now, I clearly remember clearly the icky way it made me feel — it was like watching a race car driver getting into a car accident and delighting in the irony of it instead of feeling the compassion we would have felt for someone else in the same situation. I think what I understand now was that this icky sense of voyeurism was so shame based. I’ve never seen the appeal in shaming another person — to me it’s a lose lose situation.

And yet there is another really icky layer beyond that. How does failing in an area prevent someone from having expertise in that area? That’s a pretty big assumption to make, and while I disagree with it, it is rational in a very simplistic way. I tend to get lost easier, so maybe I’m not the best person to be teaching an orienteering course. That’s fair. It could quickly turn into a survival course after we all get lost in the woods together with no chance of escape. I wouldn’t blame them for eating me first if it came to that — after all I wasn’t responsible for my group, and my significant booty could provide much needed sustenance to many.

Hypothetical cannibalism aside, let’s say that instead I choose to teach a course called “Practical Navigation for People Prone to Getting Lost”. Now I’ve taken what could have been a liability and turned it into a strength, precisely by sharing my struggles. I can share what I’ve learned through experience and education to help others like me be better at something that we both struggle with. Win-win! If we get lost together, it’s an opportunity to use our skills. In this scenario, me and my butt get to live another day, which I appreciate.

Let me share a personal experience, in the interest of being a Walk My Talk kind of person. When I decided to go to therapy, which I felt a lot of shame around that decision- of the “I should really be able to figure this shit out on my own since this is what I do” variety (more about ‘should’ in an upcoming post!). In our first meeting, my therapist told me “As a part of my training, I was required to go through therapy myself”. I was surprised at what a huge impact this had on me. I instantly more respect I had for her, and how much more connection I felt. She knew what it was like to sit where I was sitting! That sold me — yes I had gone to our first session, but I got myself there by pushing through a lot of internal resistance and fear. In fact, I had someone drive me there so it was harder for me to bail at the last minute. True story! It was much, much easier to go once I felt that she knew what it was like to be in my shoes.

Furthermore, knowing what it is like to be in therapy has helped me immensely in my coaching practice. Just as injuring my back, struggling with my weight and having an existential life crisis (more accurately crises) have helped me be more compassionate, patient, practical and so on. When I talk about the importance of positive self talk, for example, it’s because I know firsthand why it’s such an important skill to have — because I didn’t have it for so, so long. And I know why it’s important to be consistent and patient when developing a skill like this — because it was hard at times, and at those times it seemed like I couldn’t make the change, but when I finally started to feel my internal dialogue shift, it was amazing. That stuff didn’t come from a book (note to books: I love you!) or a course (ditto courses!), but nothing beats real life experience when it comes to empathy, compassion and related to others.

Being genuine and open enough to admit that you have fallen isn’t a liability, nor does it preclude you from being an expert. In my opinion, the opposite it true: sharing our experiences makes us stronger and therefore more likely to succeed in the future, and it helps us relate to one another. And that’s all super awesome stuff to add to expertise, in my opinion.

In coaching, clients are in a vulnerable position — they are expected to share their struggles and be open to guidance. The coach is an expert on coaching (I hope!), but not an expert on the client’s life — that’s what the client is an expert on. And there you have coaching: two human experts with different expertise melding minds and being awesome together. So why should the client be the only vulnerable person in the relationship? Real life experience matters in coaching, and that includes the falls as well as the flights. In this way, we all win, and if someone gets lost in the woods, we can be nice to them about having fallen instead of eating their butt, so to speak.

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