Experience is Everything

Article by Dr. Michael Tobin

Experience is Everything… Or It’s Nothing

I knew a man who accumulated experiences like some people hoard newspapers.

At 20, he rode the rails. In his 50’s and early 60’s he lived on a small yacht, struggling to live the life of a free-spirited bohemian. Like a character out of a Hemingway novel, or perhaps like Hemingway himself, he was obsessively searching for a redemptive experience, one that might release him from his rage and bitterness. Tragically, he failed. He died believing he was unloved and alone, angry at a world that never gave him what he thought he deserved.

So, when we chose Experience is Everything as our tagline for Gurfein & Tobin, we knew we might have a problem with the word Everything. For this man, experience was nothing. Nothing: like nothing changed; like no transformation; like no letting go; like no learning; like no deeper more sustainable weltanschauung; like no good questions that might shake your limiting belief system; like not understanding that your inner demons could care less about how many experiences you had, or who you pretend to be, or where you try to hide out.

This man’s life raises a big question. If experience is everything, then how come all of his experiences didn’t turn him into a better version of himself? The crazy thing is that this man had many more experiences than the two I mentioned. If I were to tell you his complete story, leaving out the negative subtext and focusing strictly on his extraordinary lifelong journey, you would say this has all the elements of a great novel or movie, less one essential ingredient – the protagonist remained unchanged throughout the narrative.

Life Without Growth Isn’t Life

We want our protagonists to wrestle with their demons, to encounter life and be transformed into heroic versions of their weaker selves. This is the hero’s journey – a challenge, an encounter with fear and resistance, a test, and a call to greatness. Think Bilbo Baggins of Hobbit fame, or Frodo from the Lord of the Rings, or Dorothy from Somewhere Over the Rainbow and her band of broken misfits.

Or this story that really happened to my friend, Dave. (For purposes of  confidentiality, the names and some of the details have been changed.)

Dave was 24 at the time, married, and living abroad as a soldier on an army base. He and his wife, Sue, were close friends with Tim, the 23-year-old civilian son of the commanding general. One evening Tim knocked on the door told Dave that he wanted to talk. Unsuspectingly, Dave said, “Sure. What about?” “Sue and me,” he answered. “We’re in love and we’re leaving together…today…now.”

And they did. Just like that, in a nanosecond, Dave’s life went from married to abandoned, from the illusion of love and fidelity to the reality of shock and despair. Like many of us who are hit by the unexpected and the unwanted, he went into deep victim mode. He raged; he cried; he felt sorry for himself, and then repeated the cycle, again and again.

He went to the base shrink and told him the story, expecting sympathy and understanding. He didn’t get it; he got this instead: “You know, Dave,” the doctor said, “You’re responsible for yourself.” “What the hell does that mean?” Dave asked. He was pissed. What kind of an asshole tells a perfectly legitimate victim that he’s responsible for his own misery? “Tell me, Doctor, are you saying that I caused them to cheat and run off, kind of like I set it up to be some loser in a country western song?” “No,” he said, “I didn’t say or mean any of that. I merely said that you’re responsible.” And that’s more or less how Dave’s first and only therapy session went.

But it didn’t end there. No amount of pot, alcohol, or self-pity could rid himself of the shrink’s You’re-Responsible-for-Yourself accusation, call to action, psychobabble, truth, or revelation. Whatever it was, it haunted Dave until Day Three when, like a flash flood, answers started bursting forth. “You know you married her because you were lonely, not because you loved her.” “How many times did she ask you if you loved her and how many times was your answer a lukewarm, ‘Sure?’” “What did you ever do to show her you cared for her?” “Even your father told you that he didn’t think you loved her.”

Dave understood that ultimately, he got what he wanted – an escape from a stifling marriage. Granted, he unconsciously facilitated the forces of entropy, but the shrink was right about responsibility. He revealed and reclaimed the power of his intentionality by systematically deconstructing his feelings and behavior toward his wife. He shifted his position from the self-righteous indignation of the so-called legitimate victim to an empowered agent who unconsciously or  consciously creates the reality that he needs and wants.

No doubt Dave had an extraordinarily painful experience, one that would have broken many of us. But, if you were to ask Dave, he’d tell you it was a blessing embedded in a curse, a game changer, one of those make-it-or-break-it experiences about which Nietzsche wrote, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” At Gurfein & Tobin, we call it an “Experience is Everything” phenomenon.

So, let’s return to the question we raised earlier. Why did our man of multiple experiences remain unmoved while this inexperienced young man comes alive via a shocking experience of loss and abandonment? If we can answer this question, we might then understand what we mean when we say, “Experience is Everything.”

A Learning Experience

Some of you may remember Ram Das, the Harvard psychologist cum Indian guru who wrote a book in the late Sixties called “Be Here Now.” It was a book of pithy statements and aphorisms that made more sense seen through the lens of a colorfully altered state of consciousness than viewed through a WYSISWYG pair of glasses. He wrote this: “When you learn to listen, everyone’s the guru.”

In other words, an experience is only transformative when your starting position is: I want to learn and grow. To succeed, you’ve got to check your ego at the door, discard your assumptions, and uproot your confirmation biases. Only then are you ready to let an experience impact you.

Our man of multiple experiences collected them in a vacuum. He never asked the obvious questions like, “Why am I doing this?” “Why am I choosing to live far from friends and family?” “What am I searching for and what am I running away from?” If he had learned to ask and to listen, he would have understood that an experience is only as powerful as our openness to receive it, or to use a contemporary psychological cliché – to take ownership over it.

Contrast that with Dave who struggled with an experience that he didn’t ask for but learned to take responsibility for it nevertheless. He took radical ownership over his experience and it became the foundation for a life of growth,  empowerment, and purpose.

Experience is Everything when Everything is a Learning Experience.

Experience is Everything when Everything is an Experience of Choice.

And, Experience is Everything when Everything is an Opportunity.

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