Irony is when we judge others as lacking empathy

I recently heard someone share with me
the following fear:
“I’m worried I’m pursuing an uncommon path,
because I’m afraid of the common one.”

Instantly,
I was reminded of others who had shared with me
the opposite fear:
“I’m worried I’m pursuing a common path,
because I’m afraid of the uncommon one.”

I’d like to share with you something I wrote back in 2011. I was in the 3rd year of my research into the creative process I only knew to call “making art.” I had such strong feelings about my research that I felt compelled to…

Rejected Commencement Speech

In startup circles,
there is wide-spread worship
of “growth.”

The lure of building a company worth $1 billion,
known as a “unicorn,”
looms large.

In contrast,
we often hear people demean survival,
with phrases like “mere survival is not enough,
we must thrive!”

The reality is that building a company
often feels like being in a war.

Not because we’re in a competition,
but because we get hurt,
—emotionally—
often to significant degrees.

And what I find interesting
is that when I help founders recover
from these emotional wounds,
I often see them naturally grow—
their minds,
their hearts,
and their relationships.

The kind of growth made possible
precisely because they got hurt.

Just as our muscles grow
by getting hurt
then recovering,
perhaps we can also grow,
by recovering.

By surviving.

By telling the God of death,
Not today.”

Words often mislead us.

This is normal.

In fact,
I spent much of my first book
talking about how words like
courage,
humility,
respecting,
listening,
considering,
acting,
had misled me.

Words do often lead our attention.

Yet, where the attention is led
can surprise us,
because words only have meaning in context,
And that context resides
not only with the person uttering the word,
but also the person interpreting it.

So much of our verbal disagreements happen
because we are unwilling
to let others lead our attention
to their meaning.

We’re more interested in arguing
that their use of the word is “wrong” or “bad,”
while our use is “right” or “good.”

Perhaps.

Except we’re back to the problem solver’s mindset.

Let us be honest.

Is this mindset helping us solve the problem?

If so,
great.

If not…

It may be time
to switch
to the paradox dissolver’s mindset.

I once attended a workshop
that laid out a model of how shame develops.

The model suggested,
that when children feel overwhelmed with emotion,
—pleasant or unpleasant—
their natural instinct
is often to reach out to others
—like their parents—
to process it.

Yet,
for better or for worse,
parents may unintentionally “reject“ such reaching out.
And with repeated “rejection,”
children may start to subconsciously judge themselves
as unworthy of love and attention,
when overwhelmed with emotion.
Thus planting the seed of shame.

In hindsight,
I spent much of my life coping with shame.
I did it by pursuing a self-image
of someone who never felt overwhelmed.
A stoic who could always “figure it out,”
through sheer intellect and will power.

It wasn’t until I began my work on empathy,
that I learned the choice
to empathize with that part of me,
instead of hyper-empathizing with it.

It was perhaps as Carl Jung once said,
“Until you make the unconscious conscious,
it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

One of the most profound things
I learned in art school,
is that we can learn
to physically see the world
differently.

To draw from observation,
I had to look at objects
and learn to see light
instead of objects.

To make a poster,
I had to look at a piece of paper
and learn to see a deeply 3-dimensional space
through the surface of the paper.

To sculpt figures,
I had to look at a naked person
and learn to see their muscles & skeletons
hidden underneath their skin.

To learn to act,
I had to learn to see myself in the character
in between the words written in the script.

In each of these cases,
I’d say “Oh, I see…,”
and that change of sight
would profoundly shift my thought,
which then naturally shifted my behavior.

It is no coincidence,
that the professors I admired in school
never bothered to change my behavior.

They merely helped me see differently,
after which a change in behavior
was inevitable.

One of the most difficult
and important need to manage
is our need to matter.

It is an existential need
that taps directly into our sense of self-worth.

Few are willing to admit to this need being a major driver.

Some admit to this in a roundabout way
by saying “I’m going to prove them wrong,”
which is a response to people who violated our need to matter.

Most will brush off the existence of this need
by emphasizing other needs
such as the need to contribute,
which is deemed more “altruistic,”
thus more acceptable and in alignment
with our desire to retain a self-image
of a “good” person.

Our need to matter
can serve as a powerful motivator to achieve something,
because achieving that thing may seem like the way to matter,
thus empowering us to persevere in the most difficult of times.

At the same time,
it can also blind us to behaviors that conspire against us.
Behaviors that, in hindsight, were excessive.
Behaviors we later regret.
Behaviors that may even cost us our lives
or lead to the demise of everything we’ve worked hard to build.

Our need to matter is a double-edged sword.

May we manage it
and manage well.

First time we snowboard,
draw,
lead,
we tend to use a lot of force.

When our snowboarding,
pencil marks,
teammates,
are not to our liking,
we may apply even more force.

Years later,
when we snowboard,
draw,
lead,
we may feel more relaxed.

When we have to stop abruptly,
make a bold mark,
assert a final decision,
we may still use force.

But these are different uses of force.
In the first case,
it was probably because we were afraid of falling,
making a mistake,
being judged.

Once we can empathize with
the snowboard,
our drawing tools,
our teammates,
fear can vanish for a moment
in the experience of oneness
beyond “I” vs “them.”

Force used in fear
resists
Like two opponents wrestling.
Force used while empathizing
flows
Like two partners dancing.

One of the most common block to insight
is cynicism.

To realize empathy with cynicism
it can be useful to model it
as doubt + judgment.

This implies that
once we strip our cynicism of judgment,
we can more clearly confront our doubt.

Then as we develop the requisite skill and will
to zoom into our doubt,
it can lead to the discovery
of our worry or concern,
ultimately fear,
over a future we do not wish to see happen.

When we can clearly see and hear
this undesired future
we can also increase the probability
of realizing empathy,
which ultimately helps us create choices,
the kind that gives us a feeling of possibility
beyond the horizon of cynicism,
which is a key
to designing toward a future
we do wish to see happen,
instead of staying stuck
unconsciously envisioning a future
we do not wish to see happen.

I find it
to be of significant importance
to distinguish options
from choices.

Options need not provoke emotions.

We may have 5 options to choose from for lunch.
Yet, none of them may move us to make a choice.

We can weigh the pros and cons of the options all we want,
but this may merely fuel our inner conflict,
until we feel moved enough to make a choice.

Choices,
unlike options,
has an emotional component.

Some choices are made begrudgingly.
Yet, the kind I find most fascinating
is the kind that arises the moment we realize our empathy.

That moment when we’ve finally moved
from a state of dissonance,
of not empathizing,
to a state of resonance,
of empathizing.

That moment when what we once could not see
becomes surprisingly self-evident,
and oh so obvious
in hindsight.

That moment we go
“Oh, of course…!”

p.s: My gratitude goes out to Dr. Paul Pangaro for the wonderful conversation that inspired this post.