Forty One

On Sunday, I turned 41.

I’ve been told that in “Korean age” I’m 42.

There’s something interesting about reflecting on what happened in the past after I have had a 10+year distance from it.

In my 20s, I listened to a lot of computer scientists’ inspiring lectures. They were world-famous, which gave their words that much more weight. In hindsight, it would have been one thing to learn of their views and to appreciate them for what they were (i.e. views) while quite another to be persuaded by them. For better or for worse, I leaned toward the latter.

In hindsight, there were a few critical reasons why their views had such a big impact on me.

  1. The vision they portrayed were of a revolutionary caliber with a moral framing of “saving the world.”I have a need to rebel against authority and the status quo. Their vision fulfilled that need. I could not refuse being part of the rebellion—especially if it was framed as a way to save the world.
  2. Their views also made me feel understood and accepted.Having lived my whole life as a third culture kid, I’d been looking for this feeling from mother/father figures for a long time. When I didn’t get it from my parents, I was ecstatic to get it elsewhere, even if it were from total strangers.
  3. Finally, I was under the impression that someone had the answer to life.I considered life to be a problem to be solved, and thought that if I can only find that person who has the solution to life, I’d have figured it all out. It just so happened that these computer scientists sounded so confident that I couldn’t help but assume they knew the solution to this problem called life.

All throughout my 20s, my tendency to hyper-empathize with these influential figures grew larger. As a result, I now understand my 20s as a phase of living their lives not mine. It wouldn’t be until I turn 30 that I realize how easy it is to confuse living someone else’s life with living our own.

Then at the age of 29, I received a challenge. A bewildering challenge at that. One that made no sense. An artist I met at a computer science conference challenged me to go to art school. It seemed like a crazy and irrational idea. Especially because I thought so little of art at the time. I was a man of science, engineering, and design science. Art, I thought, was fluffy, useless, bullshit. In fact, you may have noticed that I put the word “science” next to the word “design” a la Buckminster Fuller, as if to imply that the word design alone was somehow not good enough. “Why would a man of science, engineering, and design science stoop so low as to study art?” was the kind of thought I had back then. (Arrogant much?)

It took me over a year since receiving this challenge of conducting my own, *ahem* scientific, experiments and to gradually build the trust & respect necessary to empathize with artists. When I finally did, it also became clear that this was a challenge I could not refuse. I had to answer the challenge. Why? Because I realized that not answering the challenge meant continuing to live someone else’s life.

Living someone else’s life of rebellion didn’t give me a sense of comfort, but it did give me a sense of safety and that ever-so-desirable feeling that what I’m doing was “important work” that “mattered.” Yet, for better or for worse, I was no longer interested in safety or mattering. I was now interested in being honest with myself in ways I had never been. I was willing to break myself wide open to find out what the hell was inside me instead of continuing to chase after something outside of me because an influential figure had persuaded me into thinking that it was the right thing to do.

For better or for worse, that’s precisely what art and my 30s offered me. It forced me to face my deepest & darkest fears. It crushed every little belief and assumption I had developed over the years. It shook me to my core and took me places I’m both horrified and grateful to have been.

To be clear, I do not recommend this to anyone. I’ll spare you the details for now as I’m not quite ready to write about them just yet. Maybe give me another 10 years.

Above all, I say all this to set myself up to say “thank you” to all those who have stuck by my side throughout my 30s. That’s it really. Because it is through your grace that I’m still alive today both psychologically and physically. I will never forget that.

You know who you are.

May you stay beautiful, always.

with warmth and curiosity,

August 19th 2018

photo credit to Sue Langford

Hyper-Empathizing with Our Companies

When we, as parents, hyper-empathize with our children,
The children’s lives feel like our own.

When we, as founders, hyper-empathize with our companies,
the companies’ lives feel like our own.
So much so that we’re willing to sacrifice our health to keep them alive.

Sacrificing our health to keep our company alive
Can produce behaviors critical to the well-being of our company
In its early stages of development.

But as our company develops—as do our children—
Some of our “sacrificial” behaviors born out of care
Can also stifle its development,
Not to mention fuel our frustration, resentment, and disappointment,
As we can’t help but take everything personally,
When we hyper-empathize.

The 3 Basic States of Empathizing

Imagine two circles: self & other.

Not empathizing is them separated,
Empathizing is them intersecting,
Hyper-empathizing is them overlapping.

When we hyper-empathize,
we lose any boundary or distinctions between self vs other, and
our sense of identity becomes significantly affected.

A mother throwing herself in front of oncoming traffic
to save her child
is hyper-empathizing.
A business owner who feels like a failure
because her company has failed,
and kills herself,
is hyper-empathizing.

It’s important we learn the ability
to notice when hyper-empathizing works against us, so as
to choose another way of being.

Let us not unwillingly fall prey
to the whims of others.

The Perils of Hyper-Empathizing

All of the CEOs I coach are also practitioners of a craft.

Some of them are sales agents or consultants, others designers or engineers, still others researchers. This is true of myself, as well.

They are also founders of their companies.

Most of us founded our company because we wanted to keep doing what we wanted to do. Then came a time when we realized that we could no longer do it alone. We realized that we either needed people to whom we could offload what we were doing or people who could do what we ourselves could not.

What commonly happens in this process is that we get stuck in a pattern of first hyper-empathizing then not empathizing.

For example, what often happens when we hire people to do what we already know how to do? We assume they can do the job just as well as we do.

Now, of course, we intellectually recognize that they are different from us. We may also intellectually recognize that they have less experience than we do. But this does not always stop us from feeling as if they will know what we know or notice and do things the same way we do them.

This is an example of hyper-empathizing.

6 Basic Concepts of Empathy

When we hyper-empathize, despite an intellectual understanding of the difference between two people, we are either unwilling or unable to distinguish ourselves from others at a more visceral level.

When we hyper-empathize with others, only to be proven that they are not like us, we often experience emotional tension. After all, our subconscious expectation has been violated. This may then push us to the other extreme: not empathizing.

We may experience a variety of unpleasant feelings when we make this shift out of tension. At the very least unpleasant, we may feel confused why they are not like us. When more unpleasant, we may feel contempt, thinking to ourselves…

“How incompetent or stupid do they have to be to not know what I know, not notice what I notice, or not do things the way I do them?”

To be clear, I do not wish to judge this good/bad or right/wrong. I simply want to highlight the fact that hyper-empathizing is very common. It happens to all of us. Wives do this when the husband doesn’t put the dish in the dishwasher. Husbands do this when the wife hangs the toilet paper under (or behind) the roll instead of over (or in front of) the roll.

At the same time, this is a slippery slope to micro-management. Micro-management is a source of tremendous stress for both the CEO and their staff. Sustained for the long-term, CEOs will burn out and staff will become passive and disengaged.

Hyper-empathizing also plays a role when the person we hired has skills we ourselves do not, but we still have an opinion on their skills.

And boy, do we have opinions.

For example, we may not be a software engineer ourselves, but we’ve heard that pair programming is an effective way to build software. So we hire a bunch of programmers and demand that they do pair programming. Oh, and to make sure they don’t misunderstand our intentions, we show them proof why pair programming is great. After all, we’re good leaders. We don’t make irrational demands. So we share research findings, success stories from our past lives, or things we’ve heard from our trusted sources of information.

When we do this, we often assume that since we are convinced of the value of something, the others will also be convinced. Now, of course, we intellectually recognize that they are different from us. We may also intellectually recognize that they have more experience than we do in their field of expertise. But this does not always stop us from feeling as if they will think or feel like we do.

To our surprise, we may hear our newly hired engineers express their concern about pair programming. Here, we, once again, experience emotional tension and we are often moved to not empathize. This time, we may feel contempt, thinking to ourselves…

“How closed-minded and fearful do they have to be to not accept data, facts, or science?”

Once again, I do not wish to judge this good/bad or right/wrong. I simply want to highlight that this is very common.

At the same time, if you demand they follow without questioning your authority, the approach can merely give rise to resentment and begrudging commitment. When people are carrying out a change initiative not only without a genuine sense of commitment, but also filled with resentment, chances are good that it will have a negative impact on the potential for the change initiative to succeed.

Moving from hyper-empathizing to not empathizing and getting stuck there is one of the most basic patterns of struggle I see in leadership.

The alternative is simple, but not easy. You have to have greater mastery over realizing your empathy so you can start by empathizing without hyper-empathizing. This can be difficult. At the same time, if you’re willing and motivated, you can learn it through deliberate practice.

Afterwards, you can also engage others in an empathic conversation so that you develop a sense of unity not merely a hierarchy of command. When we carry out a change initiative from a place of unity, there is a far greater chance that the initiative will succeed — despite disagreements. This is not magic. It’s simply because when a united group of committed individuals come across an obstacle, they are more likely to figure out a way to make things work. On the other hand, when a divided group of uncommitted individuals encounter the first sign of an obstacle, they are more likely to either give up or stay stuck blaming the people who gave the order. As the famous saying goes “See? I told you it won’t work.”

Once again, I know this is easier said than done. At the same time, if you’re willing and motivated, you can learn to do this through deliberate practice.

Heres a question you can ask yourself to get started.

“How can I involve others in the decision making process in a way that sufficiently fulfills their need to be heard and understood even if the ultimate decision may not be to their liking?”

May you get unstuck from the pattern of first hyper-empathizing then not empathizing.

• • •

Photo credit to U.S. Army