The Myth of Walking In Another’s Shoes

After taking some time off to promote the publication of Eyes Wide Open (a New York Times Best Seller!), I’m excited to relaunch this TedTalk Tuesday feature! We have an incredible Talk this week for the occasion.


Michele L. Sullivan is known for her sustainable and collaborative approach to philanthropic investing. Throughout her career, she has reimagined corporate philanthropy—from transactional to strategic, from local to global, and from Social Responsibility to Social Innovation. She is currently Caterpillar’s Director of Corporate Social Innovation and President of the Caterpillar Foundation (the philanthropic arm of Caterpillar Inc.).

A little person, Sullivan is four feet tall and uses a wheelchair. In her TED Talk, “Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness,” she challenges us to reimagine the way we view each other and ourselves: “we must look past the surface and be confronted with the truth that none of us are what you can see,” she urges. “There’s more to us than that, and we’re all dealing with things that you cannot see.”

Sullivan shares that as a child, it “became very apparent to [her] that the real world was not built for someone of [her] size, both literally or figuratively.” She “felt every stare, every giggle, every pointed finger.” Because a child “can’t understand another child’s curiosity, nor an adult’s ignorance,” Sullivan “hated to go out in public.” When she did, she “would hide behind [her] parents’ legs like nobody could see [her].”

Fortunately—for her and for the many lives she has touched since—Sullivan overcame the stares, giggles and pointed fingers. She learned that “[w]e all need help throughout our lifetime” and that “asking for help is a strength, not a weakness.” She learned that with her “gift of gab,” she could connect with others instead of avoiding them. She learned that with this connection came not only help, but also meaning and purpose and joy.

In her Talk, Sullivan tells several great stories on this theme, Stories In which she turns an “experience of embarrassment” into a moment of connection—with authenticity, openness, vulnerability, and much humor. Her stories resonate with mine; like Sullivan I prize the connection I can form with others on account of my blindness, and like Sullivan, I welcome every opportunity to highlight and enjoy the humor in my life.

But connection and true understanding are not the same, Sullivan warns us. She endeavors to “debunk a myth” with her Talk: ”do not believe you can walk in someone else’s shoes,” she urges. “While you can see one of my challenges is my size,” she explains, “seeing does not mean you understand what it’s truly to be me on a daily basis, or what I go through.” And that’s a challenge you can see. “Most you can’t. You can’t tell if someone’s dealing with a mental illness, or they’re struggling with their gender identity, they’re caring for an aging parent, they’re having financial difficulty. You can’t see that kind of stuff.”

She summarizes: “Simply stated, I will never know what it’s like to be you and you will never know what it’s like to be me,” and “because of that, we must adopt a new way of giving of ourselves.” We cannot walk in one another’s shoes, “but we can do something better than that. With compassion, courage and understanding, we can walk side by side and support one another.”

Sullivan urges us to “think about how society can change if we all do that instead of judging on only what [we] can see.” It’s a compelling thought. “we all go through many challenges through our lifetime,” and “living a life free of judgment allows all of us to share those experiences together.”

What do you think? What’s your favorite TedTalk? Join the discussion and let me know. I want to hear from you!

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