A Different Take on Empathy

There was a moment in the Civil War where Ulysses S Grant found his legs. Although he’d had experienced leading men into battle during the Mexican-American war, part of his early stumbles can be explained by fear. Or, at least, the anxiety that comes along with being uncertain of yourself. In July of 1861 he was sent to break up a notorious group of guerillas led by Gen. Tom Harris. Grant hemmed and hawed in his mindit wasn’t the fighting, it was the fighting as a colonel. If there was some way he could be the lieutenant-colonel, he later wrote, and someone else could be the colonel he’d  have been fine.

And so, racked with misapprehension, he marched his men on their mission. But when he arrived at the Harris’ camp it was empty. They enemy had left, knowing Grant was coming. Grant changed in this instant. His fears disappeared and did not return. Grant wrote later in his memoirs “it occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him…from that event to the close of the war…I never forgot that the enemy has as much reason to fear my forces as I had his.”

It’s probably a strange take on this, but such a realizationthe power you have over your opponentis deeply connected with empathy. It’s understanding and acknowledging that there is a world outside your predominant emotions. And that this is a logical world, one that is ripe with people who feel what you feel not because you are special and came to it first but because we are all the same.  In a perverted way, it’s very hubristic to think only you would feel fear in this situation. It is to deny, essentially, the enemy a sense of personhood or self. It is to assume that your emotions matter and nothing else doesor rather, that they do not even exist.

So I think you apply Grant’s realization to many parts of your life. The awkwardness of introducing yourself to strangers. Fighting with your girlfriend. Business negotiations. Selling a product. Taking a test. Pitching an idea. It’s not simply that you have something to do or say, there is another person who will be responding to you and that response is equally daunting. And you have to remember that well before the stage of being very attuned to others is the realization that those others exist. And the power that comes from taking that first step. Because most people don’t.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.