Empathy & Perspective

August 18, 2010 — 9 Comments

One of the critical functions of empathy is the ability to understand foreign situations—the things outside your self. This paves the way for pragmatism. As opposed to most “strategy” which is idealism or retroactive wishful thinking.

-Yahoo doomed themselves when they became a media company. Ok, now what?
-The record industry responded poorly to technology, we get it, what now?
-I knew the war in Iraq was going to be a mistake! And…?

Much of the discussion of these types of problems is best categorized as flippant analysis. Simplified is another word. I tend to interpret it as condescending too. It all stems from an inability to understand and place yourself in a reality you may not approve of or even care about. That is, to empathize.

Yahoo is a 20 billion dollar company. What are they supposed to do? Quit? The people in the situation are real, they wake up everyday and show up at an office and are expected to do something. They have quarterly filings, signed contracts, relationships and expectations. What are they supposed to do? In our lives, we’re much more likely to find ourselves as one of these people—just trying to maintain in a situation whose constraints we had nothing to do with—not the rebel billionaire with a chance to make things over completely.

Edwin Hutchins found, in his book Cognition in the Wild, that however organizations ultimately come to be organized determines how they think and process collectively. The factors and the personalities that formed the organization, in other words, formed and are the terrain. They matter more than just about anything else.

Since Kuhn philosophers of science have wondered if it’s even possible for a generation educated in a new paradigm to understand the assumptions taken seriously in the paradigm that came before. In a way, this is exactly the kind of gap empathy is aimed to bridge. Can you (or are you willing to) temporarily internalize a perspective you know to be flawed in order to understand the reality of someone else? This is what Hutchins wanted us to see, that to grasp why an entity makes a decision has as much to do with the choice itself as the way the group is structured. We’re missing a large part of the equation if we pretend the only thing that matters is the merits of either side of the decision.

It appears that this was the case with Cicero. Although wonderfully articulate and astute, he constantly misread the political situation because he was clueless to what went on in other people’s heads. His calculatedness, his ideals, his vision, it was always turned upside by some action he had not anticipated—as though it was some shock that Caesar had become convinced that only bold action could save Rome or that Octavian would eventually tire of being a pawn.

Because it doesn’t really matter what you think. It matters how they thought. People often confuse concept empathy with the concept sympathy. As they relate to emotions, sympathy is to agree, to share and to approve of how someone else feels. Empathy is the art of acknowledging those feelings without having to take them on yourself. Maybe this occasionally means thinking “it’s just too complicated for me to reduce to a couple sentence summary” or “I can only imagine the headspace that guy must be in” and leave the pronouncements to the charlatans and fools.

Finally, empathy gives you the perspective to “start from where the world is, as it as” as you look to change it into what you want it to be.

Schemes & Scams

August 4, 2010 — 60 Comments

During recessions there is almost always a rise in the reports of scams. People get sucked into get-rich-quick schemes and fall for outright cons. Sometimes it’s greed or laziness, and sometimes it’s more complicated. But it’s generally motivated by a sense of just not.knowing.what.to.do

It’s really easy to assume this only happens to dumb people. The reality is that we fall for scams all the time, they differ only in name. And there are so many…

-Your ‘start-up‘ is a scam. Especially yours, you, the self-described “entrepreneur.”
-Reading Malcolm Gladwell articles is a scam
Traveling is a scam.
These colleges are a scam. Grad school is a scam.
-Ebooks are scams. Reading and writing.
Productivity blogs are a scam.
-Blogging is a scam.
-Adwords/SEO/Passive income/Multi-level marketing businesses are a scam. Wait, sorry, they are pyramid schemes.
Umair is a scam.

What I mean to see is that they are mostly bullshit. Promises we’ve been sold that simply cannot and will not deliver. Scams exploit the special confidence we place in our own judgment but have never actually earned. The critical ingredient is that a victim thinks they’ve found a loophole or advantage that the rest of the world missed. Because it’s this little confirmation of their sense of superiority that carries them over any doubts or objections. (Which is why you got all indignant when I called your start-up a scam)

One of the last steps in a con is called the “cool off” and it’s how an insiderman pacifies the mark after he’s been fleeced. For instance, they might arrange to be raided by a fake cop and let the mark flee thinking he is narrowly avoiding arrest. Or they might tear up the check as a token of their honesty, only to find later it was a duplicate and the original had already been cashed. The point is that a truly masterful conman never lets the gaffe know that he’s a victim. In fact, the idea is to part ways with them thinking they’ve walked away on top.

Of course, this is also key of so many of the scams above. What’s bold about them though is that most don’t even bother with the pretense of a specific payoff or an explicit promise. Who do you even hold accountable? The reward is so vague – “we’re creating thick value” – that you’ll never know you’ve been fucked. And you’ll never have anything to hold up as proof that you were besides the uneasy feeling that you were sold a bill of goods that wasn’t quite right.

The most disappointing part of internet has been watching young people breathlessly “discover” the same scams and charlatans that have always existed and convince themselves they are a revolutionary. It’s like a rookie reporter congratulating themselves for writing a trend piece that they’re too self-absorbed and young to know gets written every single year.

We should wonder why instead of getting more cynical, we’ve become wide-eyed optimists. Stop pretending its a “transition.” It is a CONTRACTION. Things are going away that will never come back. You will not own a house. You will not get Social Security. You will not get health insurance. Not the way your parents did, at least. Sure, the technology lowers barriers to entry in many ways, but they are much much higher in the ways that matter most.

A generation that’s been coddled and then suddenly kicked in the stomach should question what it finds attractive. At least believing that you won the Nigerian lottery has a naive innocence; it’s refreshingly free of the pathetic entitlement in living with your parents while you’re ‘building your personal brand.’ Now is not the time to travel or weigh your options but to get serious and acknowledge the magnitude of the disaster we woke up into and are stuck with.

Resist the temptation of get-rich-quick schemes. There is no easy way. Avoid what makes you feel like you’re onto something that makes you smarter than everyone else (see: Gladwell articles). That’s what the bait tastes like.


July 14, 2010 — 6 Comments

Try not to get upset by people’s rudeness. Notice: how it never seems to come from someone who has ‘earned’ the right to be rude. In other words, this attitude (or stupidity) has not served them well. It has held them back and punished them. So you pity it, place it properly in context with the costs, or pretend not to care but don’t feel resentment if you can help it. Because they’ve borne more of the burden than you.

Not Noticing

July 6, 2010 — 7 Comments

Think about all the near-misses that you never knew about. Fight-or-flight situations that passed unintentionally unnoticed. To not know and continue to never know without consequence is a wonderful gift.

Especially if you’re someone like me who internalizes theses crises. I feel them churning in my stomach. My heart races or I get sick with frustration and anger.

But so many of these situations come to mean nothing. Like, absolutely nothing. You miss a surprise phone call from someone important. The wasted opportunity nags at you. But how many times has your phone eaten a call and you never knew about it? Someone gets the last word and it hurts. But what if you’d never heard it?

Your life remains utterly unchanged by these moments. The mistakes you’re aware of, but can do nothing about, pale in comparison to the countless mistakes you didn’t even realize. The last word isn’t acted on, it’s just resented or aggravating.

What you do, for example, in a heated discussion is decide the point at which the things the other person says become meaningless. And then don’t listen when it turns into excuses or rationalizations or bullshit. If it’s an email chain, don’t even open it. You can choose to make it irrelevant. In terms of your decisions and life, it already is.

Syrus wrote that we should “always shun that which makes you angry.” Meaning, you identify the triggers and you opt out of being a part of pulling them. The body has ingrained responses to certain stimuli. It’s more severe in people like me. So you avoid those stimuli because they represent nothing. They are false.

Maybe you don’t take is as far as being purposely ignorant, but you do take into consideration how easily you could have just not known about this thing before you let it matter too much.


June 25, 2010 — 7 Comments

“Who is wise? He that learns from everyone
Who is powerful? He that governs his passions
Who is rich? He that is content
Who is that? Nobody”

Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1755