By Experience Alone

SwimmingUpstreamSmBack in college I took a math class called Discrete Mathematics which taught among other things, that if you have 5 pigeons but only 4 cages, one of those cages must have at least two pigeons in it*. Yes, super exciting. The professor was not the greatest — he ended up having to bump everyone’s grade up by a whole letter grade because no one had an A.  Most of the time in the class, I was frustrated. I felt like I understood the material until I was in the middle of taking the test and realized how little I actually knew.  As a result, I didn’t do very well.  However, when we reviewed them afterward a lightbulb went on and I suddenly understood the material. When we took the final, I did better on that test than any other test throughout the class.  Having experienced and engaged with each problem in the setting of a test, I faced my own deficiencies in understanding the material.  Because of this, I wrestled with the problems in ways I hadn’t while doing the homework.  The painful experience allowed me to finally have understanding.

Some things we can only learn by experiencing them.  We can be told how to be a great husband or how to be a great father or how to be a great entrepreneur, and to some degree we can apply those lessons.  But some things simply don’t make sense in the same way until we experience them. Unfortunately, we feel like we understand.  “Yeah, yeah, got it!” we say as we read or hear the same message over and over.  We feel like we know what it would be like to hold our child, or start a company, or pursue a career, but as we actually journey down those paths, we look back and realize just how shallow our supposed understanding was.

This tension between thinking we understand and actually understanding affects us two ways.  First, we have a hard time convincing others of the challenges we have experienced because they haven’t (yet). This is the bane of most parents jobs.  They know the pain their kids are going to experience by some action, but often times there is no way they can convince their child, just as they too learned many lessons against the advise of their parents.  But it’s not only parents, we want to help others avoid the problems and pain we’ve experienced, but like Cassandra‘s curse, we find ourselves unheeded.

Secondly, we look for guidance from mentors and those who have gone before us, and yet our value of their opinion can only be partial.  Sometimes we have to experience the problems ourselves to recognize the value of the guidance we are receiving.  One way we can address this is to give those who have gone before us more weight than we might otherwise, recognizing our own lack of experience.  Yet at the same time, we must be careful not to take all guidance as absolute.

Reflect for a moment on the lessons of life you’ve learned, are the most important things you’ve learned the result of experiencing difficulty?  How can we be more receptive to the guidance of those who have already tried to go where we are foraging?

Related Posts:
For Fear Of Being Burned – Somewhat of a counter point to this post.  Yes, ambiguity.  It’s a good thing.

* This is called the Pidgeonhole Principle 






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