How Important is Empathy?

It is everything.

And you can go ahead and say that I am projecting my personal belief system or that there is no objective standard to hold people to or whatever. If that’s what it takes for you to rationalize being a douchebag, awesome. We have two tasks, to do what you enjoy (happiness through excellence) and to be a good person (integrity via empathy and honesty).

I’m sure you’ve dealt with someone who flabbergasted you with their narcissism. How could they treat me like that? They’re stunning in their lacking ability to think of anything outside themselves. How can you walk around screaming on yourself when people are clearly trying to concentrate? They never stopped to think that maybe you’re sensitive about something. Why are you such a black hole? They would never accept you treating them that way. Why are you such a hypocrite? It all comes down to being devoid of empathy–purposefully or unintentionally blocking their humanness.

I don’t know why, but I have trouble with this myself. How do you step away from being wrapped up in your own selfish desires, your own cognitively biased mind, or desire to “win” and actually consider what is right? It’s really easy to be cold or uncaring or snap because you’re tired. The path to progress and improvement is in the resistance to that. When you stop and think why we’re pushed to act that way (selfishly) you see that it’s sort of a perverted modern adaption to the desire to accumulate as much as we can, fuck as many women to have as many kids who we then give those things away to as a head start. You don’t get to take any of that with you when you die.

Think about industrial society. It satiates literally every human need. I have obese homeless people on my street. Our abundance gets us all twisted up. And of course I’m not saying that you can do without these evolutionarily ingrained benchmarks for happiness–the feeling of a woman’s biological clock running out isn’t a societal creation–but really, what do they fucking matter? If I put an entire cake in front of you, you might be tempted to eat it–but should you? Does it truly make you feel good, or does it just address an instinctual urge?

Which brings me back to my actual point: Empathy. It’s what makes us worthy of the rest of the stuff. That’s what Frankl said, that the one thing that industry and technology will never be able to do is satisfy “the need to find and fulfill a meaning in our lives.” That onus is on us.

The Golden Rule is cliche, but nevertheless the ethos of being good. Treat other people, as you wish to be treated. And understand that it is a human struggle–you fail all the time at it–so don’t hold it against people when they do. I don’t want to give the wrong idea, I am so fucking far from the ideal I put forth here. I sit back sometimes and am appalled and shamed by my own behavior. Saying that you think empathy is important really isn’t all that impressive either. At the end of the day, do you or don’t you make it a priority?

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.