Experience v. Opinion

Perhaps the most valuable nugget I gained in my first year of sobriety was to discern opinion from experience. Thinking about something versus actually doing it is one of those distinctions that if you’re not on the lookout for it, you might miss it. It is a subtle, yet potentially significant difference.

Experience is Valuable

I have found that real experience with a problem, issue, or situation generally leads to greater insight into that problem than simply thinking about it. Further, a repeated experience with a good outcome can actually lead to expertise. Expertise is something very different from opinion.

Sure, some people have little to no experience with some topics. Despite this, they still manage to grasp the issues well enough to give useful advice. Those are wise people. Not common. That’s why we value them.

No Experience can be Dangerous

What is far more common is finding someone who does not know what they are talking about. Worse, doesn’t realize it. These folks believe themselves (despite having neither direct experience with the issue or any track record of being right in general). And, because of their appealing personalities, can make you believe it, too.

Most of the time, no harm, no foul as the advice given is on trivial matters.  But in AA, where the stakes can be staying sober or drinking (aka, life or death), getting bad advice can have dire consequences.

Two Simple Practices

In order to avoid mixing up experience and opinion, I advocate two simple practices. Using these regularly might get you more solid guidance when seeking advice.

First, if you are seeking advice from an AA member, ask them directly, “what is your experience with X?” And, I would add to the question, “How did it turn out? What did you learn?” With those additional data points, you’ll be better able to access the potential value of the advice.

Second, if you are an AA member who is being asked for advice, try to do the difficult thing and recuse yourself from the conversation if you have no direct experience with it. Instead, seek to direct the person to someone in the program who does have experience with the issue.

That is not easy. Admitting ignorance and handing off to someone else requires self-awareness, a network in the program, and some genuine humility.

But, that’s what was done to me when I was new. Old-timey AA. I was routinely told, “I don’t know, but let’s ask Bob, he has experience with that!” I learned a lot that way that helped me turn my life around.

What concerns me here is when someone is overtaken with “know-it-all-ism” and starts giving opinions-as-facts on sensitive topics like prescription medicine, bankruptcy, relationships, depression and other issues that need someone with professional training to answer. Just because someone is sober thirty years doesn’t give them a medical degree or counseling certificate.

It’s a real sign of spiritual growth to admit your limitation without apology or ego.

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