The Dark Side

A CTO once told me
that he had asked his CEO
“How many times have you wanted to fire me?”
to which the CEO replied,
“7.”

The CTO said his empathy realized instantly
as he knew the CEO was honest.
How did the CTO know?
Because he himself could count 5 times
when he thought he’d be fired.

Sincere honesty
can inspire the realization of empathy
in the prepared mind.

Unfortunately,
so much moral correctness
is published in leadership books,
that sincere honesty often seems unacceptable.

If you have employees,
there may have been times
when you experienced a deeply-rooted,
ferocious,
yet silent anger
accompanying a sudden urge
to fire them.

This is normal.

If you were surprised by your dark side,
this is expected.

The dark side is dark,
not because it’s “bad” or “wrong,”
but because we couldn’t see it.

When our dark side becomes visible,
it’s tempting to pretend we didn’t see it,
to leave it in darkness,
which can make things worse,
until we learn the choice
to respect our dark side
without admiration.

Tolerating vs Respecting

Tolerating isn’t sustainable.
Respecting is.

There are workshops that teach listening
as a collection of techniques,
like:
Smiling.
Nodding.
Saying “mhm.”
etc.

Even if you do all of that,
if internally you’re merely tolerating the experience,
you can feel drained
You may even feel like you’re engaged in “emotional labor.”

That’s a recipe for burn-out and resentment.

Respecting
is a practice of making new value from what we perceive.

It’s not a technique,
but rather a skill that naturally emerges
from a shift in our perception.

For example,
art students,
especially those trained in the traditional crafts
learn to respect by actively perceiving value in the mundane
through drawing,
sculpting,
woodworking, etc…

Once we learn to respect,
What we perceive in the world
can energize us,
so much so that we may be so immersed in the art of respecting,
that we forget to eat.

Power with vs Power Against

Here’s something I learned from carpentry.

Wood is wood.

No matter my desire,
it’ll never be metal.

If I must only use wood
to make furniture,
I have no choice, but to
respect
listen to, and
consider its context.

This is not because I’m a good moral person.
It’s just physics.

This doesn’t mean we should do as the wood tells us, though.
In fact, woods don’t speak!
It just reacts to our behavior.

To realize our empathy is to
be creative in our response to the reaction of an “other,”
like wood,
so as to flow with them,
as one,
like water.

It’s when we’re in such state of togetherness
that we can use our power
with each other,
instead of
against each other.

Difficult,
but possible
through practice.

Micro-Innovation by Ravit, a Check-in Agent at United Airlines

I’m writing to express my gratitude to Ravit at the United check-in counter inside Tel Aviv, Israel‘s Ben Gurion Airport.

I hope Ravit gets the recognition she deserves. I can’t remember the last time I met a check-in agent so vivacious and, dare I say, fun to interact with.

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While my trip to Israel had been inspiring, I was tired nonetheless. I could not wait to get back home. Until I encountered Ravit, my energy was low. I was also grumpy that I could not check in at the kiosk just because I wanted to check a bag. From the first interaction, Ravit joked with me in a tone so playful and warm that I could not help, but laugh along. Her presence was like an oasis to an otherwise dried-up state of mind. So much so that I was grateful that I did not check in at the kiosk. I felt restored and refreshed after our interaction. I cannot tell you how much I appreciated that.

Facing people as an agent at the check-in counter while being true to a personality so vivacious and playful is not an easy thing to do. Especially when everyone else in the airport seems so serious and stern (This is not a criticism. I know it is well warranted given how serious the security situation is in Israel). Not only that, but given the kinds of struggles many people experience at the airport, I wouldn’t be surprised if she has experienced people who respond to her energy in negative ways. All this means it would have been much safer for Ravit to express no emotions and instead focus on getting her task done. But no, Ravit was willing to be vulnerable enough to be herself and treat me as a human being, not merely a task to be completed.

Thank you Ravit for your willingness to bring brightness and positivity to a world that is often biased toward darkness and negativity. I consider your actions a good example of the kind of micro-innovation I hope to see more in the world. May you continue to bring joy to the lives of people with whom you come in contact.

 

UPDATE:

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Men, not Unlike Women, are Complex

In a workshop I lead,
a woman—a wife—
publicly shared
that she never realized
how complex
men were.

She’s always assumed
men
were simple.

She witnessed
that when a coach creates a space
in which men
can be brave enough
to expose their feelings
of fear and shame
the complexity gets articulated.

It’s difficult o articulate what we’ve yet to learn how,
especially when there is social risk.

It often feels easier
to hide
or to repress.

Many men live this way
their entire lives.

There’s significant misunderstanding
or misperception
between men & women.

Much well-intended,
but overly simplistic misinformation
as well.
(i.e. Men are from Mars,
Women are from Venus)

These may mask things in the short term,
but things can eventually erupt.

The Resentment Threshold

There are no perfect leaders, only real ones.

That might as well have been the name of the latest Dove campaign. Except, it wasn’t. It was called “There are no perfect moms, only real ones.”

Here it is.

There are no perfect moms, only real ones / Dove

As I watched it, I was reminded of all the Founders/CEOs with whom I’ve worked and continue to work. I was inspired enough to make the following remix of the transcript for them.

Although I use the words “CEO” and “Founder” in the remix, the same script can apply to middle managers or anyone who feels personal responsibility for the well-being of other humans.


Leader 1: Everybody has ideas on what it means to be a “good leader.” And most people feel like they have a license to tell you (laughs) what they think it means to be a “good leader.”

Leader 2: I’m a first time CEO and I’m just figuring it out as I go. Often times people who lead other companies, people who call themselves leadership consultants, people who used to lead companies, they all want you to do it their way. But I have to be that person that stands the ground.

Leader 3: What we do here is unconventional. Because our team is made up of people from significantly different nationalities using their second language to communicate with each other. I would say they have such a different set of challenges. They’re facing something unique.

Leader 4: We’re both our team’s CEO. You get people that are like “What do you mean you’re both CEOs?” We’re like “Yup. (laughs) We’re gonna be co-CEOs.”

Leader 5: I live to be the best version of myself, and I can be. Part of that is being a CEO. But I live to dance. I can do my art and not be any less of a CEO.

Leader 6: I found my startup without a co-founder. I’m happy where I am. I get to make business decisions on my own.

Leader 7: There are so many ways to be a leader. I don’t think I can be the leader that I want to be without climbing being in my life. It keeps me who I am and allows me to be a really good leader to my team.

Leader 4: There’s no one right way to do it all.

Leader 1: You are the only expert of your own team and organization.

Leader 2: Believe in yourself. Believe in your ability as a human being. What you can do is what you can do.

Leader 3: Do what fits your organization. And trust yourself.


This commercial struck a chord with me because I’ve found that feeling personal responsibility for the well-being of others to be one of the most anxiety-inducing experiences ever. For many Founders/CEOs, the pressure to make payroll each month is stressful enough. It goes without saying how much stress is involved in parenthood.

A common byproduct of feeling a sense of personal responsibility for the well-being of others is feeling like we should do things for them. (An instinct often fueled by compassion.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or bad about doing things for others. In fact, one could argue that it is one of most noble things we could do. What I find interesting is that there are times when we cross the threshold of “doing things for others” and unknowingly enter into the realm of “expecting things from others.”

Let me take my parents as an example.

My father’s interest lies primarily in playing sports. My mother loves playing sports, too. At the same time, her primary interest lies in history and archeology, especially around the topic of musical performance. Given this difference in interests, my mother has spent her entire marriage looking for a solution to a seemingly simple challenge.

“How can I get my husband to be interested in the things I’m interested?”

She tried to get him to watch historical period dramas on TV. She tried to teach him how to sing. She tried to take him to different historical landmarks around the world. She tried to get him to read history books.

All. Failed.

Then recently, my mother came to the following realization:

I need to stop doing so much for my husband.”

When asked “What do you mean?” she said she has always wanted her husband to change because she personally felt responsible for his well-being. When probed further, she said she wanted him to change for his own good. In other words, she considered her efforts to change him as doing him a favor. So when she saw that he was unwilling to change, she associated his behavior with a lack of appreciation for the effort she was putting in to doing him a favor. This naturally lead her to feel resentment. Well… she no longer wanted to feel resentment. Thus, the need to stop doing so much for her husband.

My mother also came to accept that my father is happy staying interested in sports and sports only. As much as he may come to value acquiring other interests in the future, he did not find it sufficiently valuable now. For now, what he valued more greatly was to feel accepted and appreciated for the way he was. (Can you spot the Gordian Knot?)

I remember doing the same thing when I was an employee. As an employee, I did my best to provide value to my employer. Not only did I do this, but I did my best to do them well. Very well, in fact. Although, after a certain threshold of “well,” I started to feel resentment. Why? Because I was not appreciated or acknowledged for doing these things well.

What’s obvious in hindsight is that the things I did extra well were things I valued greatly, not things my employer valued greatly. Since my employer did not value those things enough, it was no wonder the employer was not spontaneously inspired to appreciate them. In fact, my employer was probably frustrated with me for not doing the things he valued instead.

I do not wish to judge people’s lack of appreciation for certain things as good/bad or right/wrong. What I want to highlight is that when we feel personally responsible for someone or even some thing, it’s easy to forget that there is a threshold at which we stop doing things for them and start expecting things from them. When those expectations are not met, it’s quite natural for us to feel resentment.

I’ve come to call this the “resentment threshold.”

Being a leader can often feel like a thankless job. When we lead well, people often take it for granted. When we make a mistake, people sometimes criticize us until they can see us fall to our knees. Yet we show up to work each and every day, because there’s something tugging at us. There’s someone or something we feel personally responsible for. At the same time, it’s worth noting that this same personal care can also blind us as we cross the resentment threshold.

If you’re willing, I’d like to invite you to practice noticing yourself crossing the resentment threshold. Not to judge the crossing as bad or wrong. Rather, to stay with it for a while and to be curious enough to notice it repeatedly. If it helps, you may also ask yourself the following question.

What lessons are my crossing the resentment threshold challenging me to learn?”

 • • •


Photo credit to Mark Bonica

Going Beyond Leader-Shaming

It took me about twenty five years before I started to perceive my mother as a human being.

I’m going to go out on a limb and claim that I’m not alone.

We don’t always perceive people as human beings.

“Then how do we perceive them?” you may ask.

As a means to our end.

As a teenager, I often perceived my mother as a means to permission, money, and food. She was the means to me going out with my friends, buying things I wanted, or eating breakfast, dinner, and sometimes even lunch.

Horrible, I know…

Of course, I intellectually understood that I should feel gratitude towards her for giving birth to me and for raising me. Unfortunately, those were rarely visceral experiences. So most of the times, I perceived her as mere means to my end.

The same holds true in our perception of our leaders.

I was once an employee myself. In some ways, I still am to my clients. I have also spent a significant amount of time listening to employees inside organizations as their meta-designer. In this journey, I’ve noticed at least threeinter-related lenses through which we perceive our leaders as mere means to our ends.

1. As a means to our survival: “I joined this company, because I need financial security. I keep my leader happy to meet this need.”

  • When we perceive our leaders as a means to our survival, they are an object of authority. Through that lens, we tend to latch on to every literal word they say, because it can potentially threaten our survival. A common symptom of this is when we interpret a passing and even humorous comment or suggestion they make as either an order or as a representation of our company’s values and vision.

2. As a means to achieving our goal: “I joined this company to make cool things that make an impact in the world. The leader will help me achieve that goal.”

  • When we perceive our leaders as a means to achieving our goals, they are an object of either our aid or obstacle. Through that lens, we tend to feel entitled to judge them, because it’s clear to us whether they are aiding us well enough or downright getting in our ways. A common symptom of this is when we spend an exorbitant amount of time talking about how wonderful we are compared to how bad our leaders are. According to Dr. Goldsmith, on average, 65% of all interpersonal communications in companies involve talking about (or listening to someone talk about) how smart, special, or wonderful we are and how stupid, inept, or bad someone else is.

3. As a means to our identity: “We have such an amazing leader! The leader is my role model!” or “We have such a horrible leader! The leader is my anti-role model!”

  • When we perceive our leaders as a means to our identity, they are an object to be either copied or rebelled against. Through that lens, everything they say or do is something we aspire to replicate or differentiate ourselves from. A common symptom of this is when we side with our leaders to argue against the fresh perspective of a new team member or when we side with a new team member against our leader.

Instead of judging these lenses as good/bad or right/wrong, I want to highlight how they give rise to misunderstandings inside organizations.

1. So long as we perceive our leaders as an object of authority, we’re likely to interpret their suggestions as promoting compliance. If we end up feeling repulsed by these interpretations, we’re also likely to distance ourselves from our leaders.

  • Yet, when I mediate such conflicts, I tend to discover that the leader’s intention was to encourage autonomy and self-direction. Sometimes even to connect with their team members through said suggestions. I find this akin to my mother saying things to me casually or with the intention of connecting with me, while I would merely interpret them as coercive or offensive. I just thought an authority figure should know to do better.

2. So long as we perceive our leaders as an object of our aid or obstacle, we’re likely to interpret their decisions as short-sighted and selfish.

  • Yet, when I mediate such conflicts, I tend to discover that the leader’s intention was to make decisions for the company’s long-term sustainability and the well-being of the team. I find this akin to my mother making difficult decisions for the long-term benefit of our family and my well-being. Without having been part of the honest emotional struggles of the decision making process, I had no other choice, but to interpret her decisions as short-sighted and selfish.

3. So long as we perceive our leaders as an object to be copied or rebelled against, we’re likely to interpret their communication efforts as a form of indoctrination.

  • Yet, when I mediate such conflicts, I tend to discover that the leader’s intention was to encourage creativity and critical thinking. It’s also often the case that the communication efforts came from a place of worry. Worry of their team making a mistake or getting lost. I find this akin to my mother telling me what I should do in the future and what she thinks are the important things in life. She was saying these things because she was worried I may get hurt or lost, while I just thought she was trying to get me to think like her.

Once again, instead of judging right/wrong or good/bad, I want us to recognize that these misunderstandings are born out of the inherent difficulties of seeing through the eyes of others. It’s too simplistic to judge them as a result of poor leadership.

It’s true that some less experienced leaders try so hard to be equal that they have more trouble seeing themselves as their team members see them. At the same time, experienced leaders can also have the same blind spots. What’s important to note is that we can all develop the skills required to better prepare for and manage these blind spots by learning to realize our empathy.

Now that I’m in my 40s, I find that things have changed since I was 25. I am more likely to perceive my mother as beyond mere means to my end. I also interact with her in ways that are mutually empathic. Is it perfect? No. I’m happy that it is simply possible.

It all started with noticing myself shaming or blaming my mother, then gradually learning to choose a different set of contexts with which to interpret her words and behaviors.

Are we also willing to do the same with our leaders?

Some are. Some are not. For those willing, here’s a question you can ask yourself to get started.

“If I were unafraid of getting fired or judged, and wanted to use all the creativity and critical thinking I had to help the leader clarify and achieve the organization’s goals instead of my own, what would be the smallest next step I need to take?”

To be clear, you may say you’d rather leave the company. That is your choice. I just hope you’ll choose a better alternative than staying stuck shaming or blaming your leader. That isn’t helping anybody. As the saying goes…

“Holding on to resentment is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else.”

May you let go of the hot coal.

 

• • •

 


Photo credit to Shawn Harquail

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

The Gordian Knot of Disrespect

I’ve often heard executives ask me “How can I learn to be a better listener?”

Some of them have also told me about a workshop they partook to learn a technique called “active listening.”

In my experience, techniques only take you so far. This is especially true when we experience too much tension.

Let me share the story of one of the most memorable events that happened during my 2012 book tour.


After my talk, a woman came up to me and said how much she loved the talk. I thanked her. She then said “I wish my husband were here with me.” to which I replied “Awww~ That’s so sweet…” Only to hear her say “No, what I mean is that he’s the one who needed to hear the talk, not me.”

I was surprised.

I thought my talk was about us realizing empathy, not demanding that other people realize empathy with us. I felt annoyed. The message I wanted to communicate was not being communicated. I felt misunderstood.

I then became contemptuous.

I thought to myself “Doesn’t she recognize the irony of her not yet having realized empathy with her husband herself while faulting him for not having realized empathy with her?” I could almost hear the sound of my inner eye roll.

But then I remembered that I just gave a talk about realizing empathy.

So I paused for a second, breathed deeply through my nose, and said “You sound frustrated,” to which she replied “Oh, yes I am!”

I stood there, nodding silently.

After what felt like an eternity, she continued.

“He passed away 2 years ago…”

I found myself silently agasp.

“We fought so much toward the end of his life. I didn’t know what to do. I was scared. He kept explaining why I shouldn’t feel so scared. He even said my life was going to be better without him… I couldn’t believe he would say such a thing. I couldn’t stop yelling at him…” I could see her welling up. “I wish he had just shut up and listened to me!” she continued.

Boy, did she humble me…

The Gordian Knot

In hindsight, it’s easy to notice the other irony in the above exchange: me not yet having realized empathy with her while expecting her to realize empathy with me. So easy to see this when other people do it. So hard to see it when we do it.

What a vicious cycle this creates…

I’ve come to think of situations like these as the Gordian Knot of inter-dependent relationships.

One manifestation of the Gordian Knot is as follows.

  1. Person A observes something she interprets as person B’s lack of respect for her needs.
  2. The observation is significant enough for person A that it leads to a tension in her body.
  3. Person A holds on to her tension as she starts to focus in on her feeling disrespected.
  4. Since person A is only focused on her own feeling disrespected by person B, this naturally makes it difficult for her to realize empathy with person B.
  5. Person A then protests person B’s lack of respect for her needs.
  6. Person B interprets this as a sign that person A does not respect his needs.
  7. The sign is significant enough that it leads to a tension in person B’s body.
  8. Person B then holds on to his tension as he starts to focus in on his feeling disrespected.
  9. Since person B is only focused on his own feeling disrespected by person A, this naturally makes it difficult for him to realize empathy with person A.
  10. Person B then protests person A’s lack of respect for his needs.
  11. Person A interprets this as a sign that person B still does not respect her needs.
  12. Thus, a Gordian Knot is formed.

In this woman’s case, she wanted him to say nothing and, perhaps, simply hold her in his arms.

He didn’t.

He had good intentions, though. He probably wanted to alleviate her fear. So he tried to cheer her up and put a silver-lining around their situation by saying what he said.

At the same time, this was not what she needed. What she probably needed was to fully experience what she was feeling in all its complex glory and, perhaps, even to fall apart in the safety of her husband’s tender, compassionate, and confident embrace.

When this need was not respected. She yelled in protest. Now he probably felt his need to feel understood or even appreciated was disrespected. After all, he had good intentions. So to fix this, he tried to explain his intentions. Well, that still does not respect her needs. So she yells again. Thus, a Gordian Knot is formed.

It takes skills of noticing, of awareness, of empathy both with one’s own sense of “self” and that of “other” to recognize when a Gordian Knot is formed. It then takes a deliberate practice of respect to untangle it.

This is not easy.

At the same time, if you’re willing, you can learn it through practice.

Heres a question you can ask yourself to get started.

What emotional need of the other person am I not respecting, because I’m only focused on my own feeling disrespected?”

May you break free from your Gordian Knot.

• • •


Photo credit to Rachel

A Blindspot of User-Centricity

There was a time in my life, when I had a hyper-focus on user-centricity.

I met with users in person. I spent hours listening to their concerns. I genuinely felt for them.

When I returned to the office to transcribe every word they had said, it all came rushing back to me. I remembered some of them tearing up with gratitude simply because I was willing to listen. Empathizing with these users… That was probably one of the most fulfilling part of my job.

But then… Upper management entered the scene, and messed things up. They would come up with all sorts of excuses to either cancel the product we were designing for these users or kill the feature that these users most needed!

“How dare they?!” I proclaimed with great indignation. “Can’t they see how much goodness this project could bring to the world? How evil and greedy do they have to be to do such horrible things?”

I was furious.

So furious that I was determined to solve this problem called ‘upper-management.’ It was clear to me that it was the thing getting in the way of bringing about a better world.

Unfortunately…

I never solved the problem.

I eventually ended up leaving the world of design, thinking to myself “There’s got to be a better model of innovation.”

This question lead me to research how artists innovate differently from designers.

One day, during the course of this research, I found myself in a woodshop. I had come into the shop with a beautiful vision of a chair I wanted to build.

My vision of the chair was not only aesthetically pleasing, but also highly ergonomic and comfortable for the potential user of the chair. I could not wait to finish it!

But then… The wood started to mess up my vision. It resisted, no, refused to bend in the exact way I wanted it to bend so I can make it feel comfortable for people to sit on it!

“What a piece of crap?!” I proclaimed with great indignation. “What good is a material if it can’t bring value to its users?”

I was furious.

So furious that I was determined to solve this problem called ‘wood.’ It was clear to me that it was the thing getting in the way of realizing my vision of a better chair.

Unfortunately…

I never solved the problem.

But this time, I did not leave wood behind in search of a “better” material. I thanked it for teaching me a valuable lesson.

What the wood had taught me was that I had a tendency to think of anything or anyone who got in the way of achieving my goal as a “problem.” This realization forced me to take a good look at all my relationships. Sure enough, I was treating my parents as problems. I was treating my friends as problems. I was even treating myself as a problem from time to time. The pattern was everywhere.

Users are important. Yes, they are.

At the same time, they are a part of a larger whole. There are many kinds of people involved in what we call the “design process.” Unless we think of all of them as human beings with equal dignity, it becomes exceedingly easy to treat any one of them as mere problems to be solved. This is a natural blindspot that develops when we hyper-focus on a single group of individuals.

Please don’t get me wrong… Doing this is easier said than done. It takes great energy, not to mention skills to do it. Skills that fall under the umbrella of realizing empathy.

In fact, even after having learned my lesson, I still notice myself treating people as problems to be solved.

So what I now do is pause to ask myself this question. “What is it that I’m having difficulty appreciating about the other person that makes it so easy for me to resort to treating them as mere problems to be solved?”

I have a feeling I’ll do this until the day I die.

 

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Photo credit to Seattle Roamer