Monday, December 15, 2014

It turns out empathy is not a skill everyone possesses

Yesterday Brad Feld communicated on his blog that he and his wife Amy are huge believers in empathy, in response to also having watched the video I talked about in my last post.
But then, there was a comment from a software engineer / musician with a PhD degree —a clearly intelligent and thoughtful individual — which I though was intriguing. It said:
“I use the term ‘empathy’ when I have actual personal experience with whatever the other individual is going through. I don’t think there’s really any other justification to be able to claim that you are feeling or experiencing what they are. I use the term ‘sympathy’ otherwise.
I really don’t like this presentation of her views of these words. She’s adding semantic to the words which is overloading the definitions. And the presentation makes it sound like sympathy is bad and empathy is good. These are fairly precise terms and some of the implications she mentions are beyond their definitions. For example, she focuses on the ‘connection’ concept which really has nothing to do with sympathy vs empathy. I can sympathize with someone and still connect with them. Likewise, I can empathize with someone and not connect with them at all.”
To which I replied:
I actually get how you look at this, but I’d assert you’re possibly making assumptions about these definitions.
If, God forbid, you ended up with a terminal disease, for example, which statement would you rather hear, ‘Oh my God you poor thing’, or ‘Wow, f**k man, I really get it’?
That’s the difference.
You don’t need to be terminally ill or have come in close contact with a person who was in order to have empathy with someone who is in that situation, contrary to your logic.”
He then counter-replied with:
“Actually, you do IMHO. How can you have empathy for someone who is terminally ill unless you’re terminally ill yourself? I do not presume to know what or how someone is feeling unless I’ve been exposed to it myself. I consider that arrogant.
If I was terminally ill and someone claimed to have empathy for me, I’d be put off since they obviously don’t know what they are talking about. In your example, that would be engendered in me if they, like you say, said “I really get it.” I’d think, no, you don’t.”
At that point, I felt the urge to further engage, but I decided not to proceed as I felt it is not my place to over-engage on someone else’s blog. And so I decided to excogitate on it here — where only perhaps a few hundred people will read it :-)
BTW, my response to something like this would be, “Yes perhaps, I’ll never quite know what it’s like to be in your situation, I can only try to imagine, but it definitely seems like it is not what you had planned for yourself.” And then I’d allow them to share with me what’s it’s really like — if they were so inclined to share, and if it didn’t seem inappropriate, probably depending on how much prior connection I had with them.
At first I had assumed that the gentleman had misunderstood the definitions involved, but that doesn’t seem so much the case.
Referring to my all-time favorite dictionary, a reprint of 1828's ‘American Dictionary of the English Language” by Noah Webster — a most definitive work — the entry for “sympathize” says:
1.To have a common feeling, as of bodily pleasure or pain.
The mind will sympathize so much with the anguish and debility of the body , that it will be too distracted to fix itself in meditation. — Buckminster
2. To feel in consequence of what another feels; to be affected by feelings similar to those of another, in consequence of knowing the person to be thus affected.
We sympathize with our friends in distress; we feel some pain when we see them pained, or when we are informed of their distresses, even at a distance.
[It is generally and properly used of suffering and pain, and not of pleasure or joy. It may be sometimes used with greater latitude.]
Mr. Webster states that the word originates from a combination of two Greek words which meant “with passion”.
There is no entry in that dictionary for “empathize.”
So 186 years ago, there was only one word to express both concepts: “sympathy”.
And the divergence in meanings which has since ensued is not consistent across the several modern dictionaries I’ve checked.
So I did a little further research and came up with the following links to these relevant sites:
  1. Diffen
  2. Grammarist
  3. Vocabulary
  4. Dictionary
  5. Grammar-monster
In summary, “sympathy” offers several definitions, one of which for example, is “relation or harmony between bodies of such nature that vibrations in one cause sympathetic vibrations in the other or others”. (Webster New World).
Another one is “harmony of or agreement of feeling”. (Dictionary app)
But the one which universally applies to the “empathy vs sympathy” discussion has strong connotations to pity in some dictionaries, as in “pity or compassion felt for another’s trouble.
That is the very element in my mind which creates the need for an alternate word, i.e. “empathy”.
And that is also why sympathy is not a vibe I personally would want to be the recipient of, and why Dr BrenĂ© Brow’s YouTube video is so powerful that it has garnered 3,180,998 views at the time of writing.
Now, here are some interesting excerpts about “empathy” from the above links:
“[Empathy is] understanding what others are feeling because you have experienced it yourself or can put yourself in their shoes.”
“When you understand and feel another’s feelings for your yourself, you have empathy. It’s often spoken of as a character attribute that people have to varying degrees. For example, if hearing a tragic news story makes you feel almost as if the story concerned you personally, you have the ability to empathize.”
“Empathy was first used to describe how a viewer’s appreciation of art depends on her ability to project her personality onto the art. These days it applies to anything you can basically “project your personality” on. When you feel what someone else feels, that’s empathy.”
“If you’re feeling empathy, you’re in (em) the feeling. If it’s sympathy, you’re feeling sorry for someone.”
“The noun empathy denotes the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
In short — and that is the important point IMO — empathy is a skill. It is a character attribute. It’s obviously not that hard to have empathy for someone if you have been in the same exact situation as them.
Where it gets more difficult, or even impossible for some — is to be able to put oneself in the shoes of another, while never having been in that particular situation yourself.
I find it pessimistic and fatalistic to believe that those who can’t feel empathy are stuck in that condition forever.
And so I’m going to postulate that empathizing can be an acquired skill; it’s a more hopeful view to behold.
I consider personally having the ability to have empathy, and I find that one of  the things that helps me is to constantly be asking, “What is it like to…?”
This is so much the case that I’ve created the website, centering around inspiring stories from real people, the titles of which, must absolutely all begin with one of only three options:
“What it’s like to …”
“What it was like to…”
What it will be like to…”
It’s baked in the interface. (And sorry, no app or mobile-responsive design in sight for now. It’s currently all web.)
Not all stories center around the human plight, the sorrows, the suffering, etc.
There are stories about pleasure, travel, various cities, etc.
But all stories tell what something is like.
The concept (if it’d ever take off in earnest), provides a platform to build empathy.
For example, this story completely touched me and made me want to go hug my wife afterwards. It gave me empathy for someone who loses their other half. In fact, I often think about this story.
Another story is about this 16 years old girl who will die unless she gets some very needed medical treatment which her family can’t afford.
Or the story about the child with autism.
And I could go on and on.
So only yesterday have I realized that empathy is not a skill that everyone possesses. I’m late to the party, I suppose.
Of course, it explains a lot about the world we live in, in retrospect :-)
I remain hopeful that the concept will continue to move to the forefront of our society, and that more and more people will fully develop the skill.
Trying to get an “Empathy Day” instituted around the world would be a worthwhile goal for someone brave enough for the task.
In parting, another comment on Brad’s blog yesterday said:
We don’t understand enough about Empathy. When it’s warranted? How is it helpful? How much of it is useful? How to deal with too much empathy? How to develop empathy skills? How to turn it on? How to turn is off? How to use it correctly?
My reply to that one was:
It’s not something you turn on and off like a piece of appliance. It’s a mindset you develop. It’s a continuous awareness of the possible state of mind others can potentially be found in. It’s a sensibility you acquire. It’s an asset you nurture. It’s not something you over-think, it’s something you feel your way through.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

Empathy is feeling *with* others

The central reason why I wanted to create was to create more empathy in the world through inspiring stories from real people which share what a particular set of experiences is or was like.
Today, I came across this video while reading the comments section on my favorite blog.
It is the most awesome explanation I’ve ever come across of what empathy truly is.
As human beings, we all have our share of challenges to be dealing with, whether we’re transparent or opaque about our respective situations.
If we could get ourselves outside of our shells long enough to sense and come in contact with what others are also feeling, we could thereby dramatically bolster the quality of our lives, as well as others’.
Technology currently offers a lot a promises to take humanity to a higher place. But materialism is still way too prevalent.
Unless we can break down the barriers between one human to another, we’ll be leaving on the table many opportunities to feel truly alive.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Proficiency will likely become one's biggest asset in the future

 Some people have never liked school.
I’m going to guess they often are of the rebellious type.
It reminds me of the 1975 Pink Floyd song, Welcome to the Machine:
“You bought a guitar to punish your ma
And you didn’t like school and you know you’re nobody’s fool”
I am of that archetype.
Definitely I wasn't fond of school.
I’ve bought plenty of guitars — 23 to be exact. Some are long gone. I currently own 14.
I was definitely going “against the grain” in many ways.
But I was a fool, as I’ve ended up working just as hard being an autodidact as if I had gone through college — no shortcut whatsoever there.
I’ve been pondering for some time now as to where we’re heading as a society.
It’s all moving so fast now.
Not long ago it seemed, a school dropout like myself, if they were lucky enough or sufficiently resourceful, could inch themselves up from mid-middle class status to the upper-middle class (or even higher) by turning their trade into a business — that maneuver still required a learning curve, but not a college education. And if they are like me, it was an afterthought, and not part of a deliberate plan.
I’m not so sure that this type of carelessness will be such a viable option in the future.
There is a convergence of societal trends that seems to confirm this apprehension, if I’m interpreting them correctly.
Millenials have a very different value set. We’re moving away from greed to social good, from pollution to thinking green and other such differentiators.
In an interview earlier this year, Adam Nash, the CEO of Wealthfront was explaining that Millennials don’t want to focus on their money. They’re not looking to invest outside of their career so as to accumulate wealth. Their career is where their money will come from. They seek a balance where they get to work every day with the type of people that they like on issues and products that they are passionate about.
I’ve hired Millenials in my brickwork restoration business and I’ve observed firsthand that in general they’re not so eager, as I was, to put in the 60+ hours a week realistically needed to be self employed. Unless they want to become entrepreneurs, I suppose.
Of course, you can’t generalize like that about people, but there is definitely a trend there.
Furthermore, technology is currently in the process of disrupting every business and market with deflationary economics as a result.
What do I mean? Remember when Hotmail came out? They were giving away free email accounts. That was new. Pretty ubiquitous now.
And so it went.
Do you need to buy a Microsoft Office suite nowadays? No, Google Docs is free.
When you travel, do you need to stay in a hotel? No, you can get an Airbnb for much cheaper.
Look at how Amazon operates.
That’s what is meant by deflationary economics.
The internet and software technology are making sweeping changes across all industries and one of the outcomes is lower prices.
If you factor in the effects of globalization on the price of labor/services on top of that, the question is, where will this all lead to?
The middle class will likely feel the squeeze even more. Many of them have artificially propped their lifestyle through debt, as mass-media-created expectations keep pounding them with more product offerings they presumably can’t live without, even though they can’t factually afford them.
We may be headed for a big correction in the future, as many of us expect.
Great thinkers such Marc Andreessen and Elon Musk remind us to remain optimistic that technology will save us. 
The question remains, how shall we be able to adequately survive in the future?
One of the answers, I’m inferring, will be that it will depend on how competent — read “irreplaceable” — we make ourselves, so we can command the top price of the market, whatever that happens to be; all the while embracing the sharing (more accurately, the rental) economy and other forms of minimalism. 
The latter is already happening, look at Airbnb, Uber, as the two most conspicuous examples.
As for the former, getting a college education (or what that will shape into after the inevitable disruption that will occur in that sector as well) might become more and more important in turning ourselves into linchpins. Not the whole answer, but definitely part of the mix. In other words, how can we create added value?
A societal shift at this level already seems noticeable.
I can’t believe how much homework kids — teenagers in particular — are doing these days — and willingly so…and in a way that I would never have personally done in my time. My nice, my nephew, the neighbor’s kid, my customer’s kids are all doing homework until 1:00 am…and going to school the next day. Two weeks ago, one of my customers was telling me that this was the case with her three daughters; and she didn’t know how they could handle it, as she could herself barely manage to stay up with them, which she makes a point of doing.
So kids are obviously taking this seriously — at least a good portion of them — unlike rebellious teenagers like myself who refused to plan for the future.
And so they should, it would seem, because if I got this right, competence will become the be all and end all for the middle class in the future for those within it who want to gravitate towards the higher end of it.