I recently read an incredible book–a series of non-fiction essays–called The Empathy Exams. Here’s an excerpt from the title essay. More thoughts on this book and empathy coming soon.
“Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (“into”) and pathos (“feeling”)—a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border-crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?
Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say “going through the motions”—this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgment of the effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.
This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always arise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.”
My friend solicited open letters to high school students for a project for work. Here is what I wrote last Friday afternoon. I found that I was really writing it as reminders to myself based on things I’ve recently been thinking about and learning, so in multiple respects it was a great and fun exercise.
We don’t know each other, but some of the best advice I’ve ever received has been from strangers. In fact, everything you’ll read here I’ve learned from others. There are things I think I know now that I wish I knew when I was in high school. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to really hear it, or I didn’t have the context for understanding its relevance. Here are some of the things I wish I started doing earlier, which are as much reminders to myself to do them now as they are advice to you.
Have empathy. You may have heard the phrase “walk in someone else’s shoes.” Empathy is listening to and learning about someone else, and acknowledging their experience as something real and valid even if it is different from your own or you don’t completely understand it. Empathy is not the same as sympathy—a proactive concern and desire to improve the situation of others. (This great animated video demonstrates the distinction between sympathy and empathy.) We should all strive to be more empathetic, and to be open–really open–to listening and learning from everyone around us. (more…)
“I could talk about reducing the price of malaria nets,” she says, “but I think we need to get away from ‘$10 will save a life’ and other slogans that fit on a T-shirt. Instead, we need to build lasting solutions that fundamentally change the system, so that everyone can thrive without having to be dependent forever on charity.”
“And you can’t ask the customer just once. Customer validation needs to be an iterative process. You have to repeatedly build, gain feedback and improve until customers say that they must have your product. This takes a lot of time and is really hard. But it is the most effective way of building a successful business.”
“Much of what we call social entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship is really just people approaching their work with a proactive outlook and in a socially responsible and engaged manner. If that’s the case, and we all think about how our work effects the world, we can all be “social entrepreneurs” and solve the small and big problems, evolve the industries we acknowledge are hurting the world and our people, and all live a more happy lifestyle. And so much of this comes back to the empowered individual- we need them everywhere.”
“Our education system is a key reason for our lack of skills in collaborating effectively. This is now out of sync with today’s world of work. We do not emphasize collaborative skills and teamwork much in education, from K-12 to high school to college. It is an afterthought, it seems. Learning how to work well with others should be as important as learning math or accounting.”