Practicing Empathy

After a five hour delay for a one hour flight, I stepped outside of Newark Airport, inhaled the essence of New Jersey, and lit a cigarette.

“I thought Chinese people didn’t smoke,” said a husky man of about 50, as he lit his Marlboro Red and dropped his leather satchel between us. He was wearing blue jeans that withstood perhaps thousands of hours of labor on highways and a loose dark green shirt that usually has brands of fishing companies on it.

“I don’t know if Chinese people smoke,” I replied smiling, “but I know a lot of Koreans do.”

He was friendly, but his assumption—anyone’s assumption—that I am Asian and therefore automatically Chinese is something that I am used to hearing. It frustrated me in the past, but like bad news on T.V., I got used to it.

On my ride home, I replayed the event in my head. I was surprised that, given my emotional state and overflowing bladder, I didn’t snap or respond with an attitude. I smiled through the conversation and not once felt any hostility toward this man’s ignorance. I liked him; he was a character. I explained to him what Uber was and the kind of work I did at a software company.

And then it hit me: This is what empathy does.

Empathy is hard because life doesn’t have a pause button. We can’t freeze time and think about our thinking. We either react because that’s what we’re used to doing or we respond mindfully because we are self-aware and want to make better decisions.

Empathy builds compassion. If you look up the definition of ‘compassion’ it may start with “sympathetic pity.” People don’t need your pity, they need you to accept them as they are. If love can change our world, we first need to practice empathy to build compassion so we can learn to accept people as they are. That is love.

With the gentleman that I met, it was about understanding why he decided to say that to me so effortlessly. To understand how someone make’s decisions, it’s helpful to know what they know, what they believe, and where they’re from. I didn’t have the time to know what he knew or believed, but I could guess where he was from, and that already said a lot. His physical appearance and demeanor provided cues and, naturally, I made a judgement. “People like this may say things like this,” is what I told myself, which is why I wasn’t angry because the expectations for this particular man was different. It would have been equally shocking if he starting speaking French and breakdancing because “people like this don’t usually do things like that.” It’s a mismatch of categories in our mind.

His comment was out of ignorance, and for me to get angry based on my expectations for how I believe people should behave in 2015 is entirely self-serving and fruitless. Was he wrong? In a way, yes, he could have said what he wanted to say differently. But we have no control over that. All we have control over is our response to the event. My response was empathy, not entitlement.

This experience inspired me to practice empathy more often, with simple things. For example I used to be confused by the urge of wanting to take a selfie and upload it to Instagram or Facebook. Taking a selfie makes me uncomfortable, but other people do it habitually, and multiple times a day. Instead of sticking to my cynical judgements about people who take selfies, empathy helped me understand the behavior and motivation behind it. Once you understand that and connect that dot with human nature—the desire to belong and be seen, the hit of dopamine that rushes in the brain when you get a like—you really can’t be angry about it. It’s being human.

Empathy is hard because it requires you to pause and to critically think. Why spend the time understanding these people who we already labeled as worthless? Why spend the time understanding a bully, an enemy, or a person who mistreated us? Why bother empathizing with a customer who goes across the street to your competitor?

That’s a decision that we have to make. It molds our character and influences the way we lead our lives, raise our children, and contribute to our community.

Laszlo Bock On What Makes a Great Resume and What to Say at An Interview

 

Laszlo Bock, original image found on: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/google-brainteasers-conundrums-piano-laszlo-bock-482019

A resume is best viewed as an introductory letter—this is who I am, and this is how my skills and knowledge will contribute to the growth of your organization; this is the value I seek to provide.

Often times, though, resumes are boring. They lack any details and are excessively inundated with clichés.

Some of the best interview and resume-writing advice comes from Laszlo Bock, who’s in charge of hiring at Google. Thomas L. Friedman, a writer for the New York Times, interviewed Bock and asked him what makes a great resume and what’s the best advice for job interviews. Every time I share this with a friend, they immediately say, “Send me that.”

Bock admonished:

“The key,” he said, “is to frame your strengths as: ‘I accomplished X, relative to Y, by doing Z.’ Most people would write a résumé like this: ‘Wrote editorials for The New York Times.’ Better would be to say: ‘Had 50 op-eds published compared to average of 6 by most op-ed [writers] as a result of providing deep insight into the following area for three years.’ Most people don’t put the right content on their résumés.”

What’s your best advice for job interviews?

“What you want to do is say: ‘Here’s the attribute I’m going to demonstrate; here’s the story demonstrating it; here’s how that story demonstrated that attribute.’ ” And here is how it can create value. “Most people in an interview don’t make explicit their thought process behind how or why they did something and, even if they are able to come up with a compelling story, they are unable to explain their thought process.”

When we write a resume, we usually think of ourselves first. It may be better to empathize with someone who is in charge of reading resumes, what their worldviews are, what their mission is for the organization. The people who read resumes and pass them along are looking for potential; they’re responsible for finding and hiring an all-star team. Make it easier for them not by thinking about yourself, but thinking about how you can play a major function in the growth of the organization.

Knowledge That You Need to Make Smarter Decisions

Over the last few months I’ve been devouring books and studies about decision-making. I started with the timeless Thinking, Fast and Slow by nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, and down the rabbit hole I went.

Learning about sunk costs and ego depletion made me reminisce about past events. The more I read about our psychological hiccups in decision-making, the more I realized I was woefully underdeveloped in something that we do everyday that impacts the quality of our lives and the manifestation of our character.

All of the decisions we make create or influence change, for good or ill.

The first difficult thing to admit is, “I am not as good of a decision-maker as I claim to be.” If you’ve been to a movie, realized within minutes that you hated it, but decided to stay based on the justification that it took you 25 minutes to get there and $12 for a ticket, you didn’t make a smart decision. When I think about simple consequences like this, it makes me wonder about the other kinds of decisions I make in my life.

There is a growing body of knowledge that can help us understand the decision-making process, and in turn, learn to make better decisions.

If we do something everyday, it’s worth the time and investment to learn how to do it well. Here are some resources and insights that I’ve gathered from my studies.

Systems 1 and 2

To begin, we have to start with the psychology of the mind.

As Kahneman said in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

“I adopt terms originally proposed by the psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West, and will refer to two systems in the mind, System 1 and System 2

– System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.

– System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book. I describe System 1 as effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2.”

Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, share the metaphor of the mind using references from Jonathan Haidt:

“Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.

[…]

The weakness of the Elephant, our emotional and instinctive side, is clear: It’s lazy and skittish, often looking for the quick payoff (ice cream cone) over the long-term payoff (being thin). When change efforts fail, it’s usually the Elephants fault, since the kinds of changes we want typically involve short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs. Changes often fail because the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination.

The Elephant’s hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the Rider’s strength, which is the ability to think long-term, to plan, to think beyond the moment.

But what may surprise you is that the Elephant also has enormous strengths and that the Rider has crippling weaknesses. The Elephant isn’t always the bad guy. Emotion is the Elephant’s turf—love and compassion and sympathy and loyalty. That fierce instinct you have to protect your kids against harm—that’s the Elephant. That spine-stiffening you feel when you need to stand up for yourself—that’s the Elephant.”

Consequences versus Identity

Another fantastic book not directly on decision-making but how the processes itself leads to desired change, Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, share two different models of decision making:

“[James] March says that when people make choices, they tend to rely on one of two basic models of decision making: the consequences model or the identity model. The consequences model is familiar to students of economics. It assumes that when we have a decision to make, we weigh the cost and benefits of our options and make the choice that maximizes our satisfaction. It’s a rational, analytical approach.

[…]

In the identity model of decision making, we essentially ask ourselves three questions when we have a decision to make: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation? Notice what’s missing: any calculation of costs and benefits. The identity model explains the way most people vote, which contradicts our notion of the ‘self-interested voter.’

[…]

Generally, when we use the word identity, we’re talking about an immutable trait of some kind—such as racial, ethnic, or regional identity. But that’s a relatively narrow use of the term. We’re not just born with an identity; we adopt identities throughout our lives.

[…]

Because identities are central to the way people make decisions, any change effort that violates someone’s identity is likely doomed to failure. (That’s why it’s so clumsy when people instinctively reach for ‘incentives’ to change other people’s behavior.) So the question is this: How can you make your change a matter of identity rather than a matter of consequences?”

Opportunity Cost

Coined in 1914 by Austrian economist Friedrich Von Wieser, and anticipated roughly 150 years earlier by Benjamin Franklin when he said, “Time is Money,” the concept of opportunity costs is simple: If you don’t do this, what would you do instead?

A key concept in economics, opportunity costs is about scarcity and choice. As Seth Godin brilliantly said,

“Opportunity cost is the value of the lost opportunity, the benefit of the thing you could have done instead of what you’re doing now. … Opportunity cost is at its most expensive when we miss opportunities. It’s not merely the cost of making a choice, it’s the real penalty of standing by as something important is happening without us.”

The more I understood this concept, the more painful it became doing things that didn’t add value to my life.

Framing

When we ask ourselves questions to make a decision, frames get put into place.

When we put up the wrong frames around a problem or question, we close ourselves off from the possibilities that need to be seen and questioned. This is at the heart of why we make bad decisions.

If a store owner loses their lease, they naturally insist on finding another store. That’s a frame, and it focuses our attention only on the possibility of having a physical store. But what if the store owner changed the frame by asking themselves, “What if we were online only?” Possibilities open up.

There’s a great study in Practical Wisdom by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe on how framing influences the way people played games:

“In the study, all participants played the same game, but for some, it was framed as the ‘Wall Street Game,’ whereas for others, it was framed as the ‘Community Game.’ What a difference a ‘frame’ makes. Participants were much more likely to defect during the ‘Wall Street Game’ than during the ‘Community Game.’ A similar study was labeled the ‘Business Transaction Study’ for some and the ‘Social Exchange Study’ for others. More cooperation occurred in the second case than in the first. The ‘Social Exchange’ frame, the researchers suggest, induced a motivation for the players to do what was right; the ‘Business Transaction’ frame induced the motivation to get as much money from playing the game as they could.”*

Also worth reading is Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s literature, The Framing of Decisions and The Psychology of Choice (PDF).

What people who make smart decisions do, then, is make a conscious shift from one frame to another, from one question that’s obvious to one that’s difficult and scary to answer.

* Community Game”: Liberman, V., Samuels, S. M., and Ross, L. (2004). The name of the game: Predictive power of reputations versus situational labels in determining prisoner’s dilemma game moves. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 1175-1185.

Expected Value

Expected values are the value of an outcome multiplied by the chances that it will happen.

Professor Julian Simon explains it in 9 minutes:

Decision Trees

I recommend reading my friend Michelle Florendo’s post on how she untangles messy decisions with decision trees.

This is a practice that’s helpful because it helps us understand a decision that we’re going to make. We can leverage decision trees to determine the expected value for decisions that we make everyday, like taking the bus.

Sunk Costs and Loss Aversion

My favorite psychological phenomenon are sunk costs.

In the words of author David McRaney, who explored self-delusion in his fantastic book, You Are Now Less Dumb, said:

“Sunk costs are payments or investments that can never be recovered. An android with fully functioning logic circuits would never make a decision that took sunk costs into account, but you would. As an emotional human, your aversion to loss often leads you right into the sunk cost fallacy. A confirmed loss lingers and grows in your mind, becoming larger in your history than it was when you first felt it. Whenever this clinging to the past becomes a factor in making decisions about your future, you run the risk of being derailed by the sunk cost fallacy.”

What’s worth further understanding is when McRaney said, “your aversion to loss often leads you right into the sunk cost fallacy.”

What does this mean?

He continues by sharing Kahneman’s study (PDF) on loss aversion:

“Kahneman explains that since all decisions involve uncertainty about the future, the human brain you use to make decisions has evolved an automatic and unconscious system for judging how to proceed when a potential for loss arises. Kahneman says organisms that placed more urgency on avoiding threats than they did on maximizing opportunities were more likely to pass on their genes. So, over time, the prospect of losses has become a more powerful motivator on your behavior than the promise of gains. Whenever possible, you try to avoid losses of any kind, and when comparing losses to gains you don’t treat them equally. The results of their experiments and the results of many others who’ve replicated and expanded on them have teased out an inborn loss aversion ratio. When offered a chance to accept or reject a gamble, most people refuse to make a bet unless the possible payoff is around double the potential loss.”

The wisdom is simple, but of course, difficult to exercise: Ignore sunk costs.

Why We Compare When Making Decisions

Did you buy that outfit based on your own personal preference? When you bought that new mountain bike, how did you decide that this was the right one?

By nature, human beings make comparisons in order to determine quality and to ultimately feel confident about their decision. As Dan Ariely said in Predictably Irrational:

“Let me start with a fundamental observation: most people don’t know what they want unless they see it in context. We don’t know what kind of racing bike we want—until we see a champ in the Tour de France ratcheting the gears on a particular model. We don’t know what kind of speaker system we like—until we hear a set of speakers that sounds better than the previous one. We don’t even know what we want to do with our lives—until we find a relative or a friend who is doing just what we think we should be doing. Everything is relative, and that’s the point. Like an airplane pilot landing in the dark, we want runway lights on either side of us, guiding us to the place where we can touch down our wheels.”

A fantastic example of this in action is when Ariely shared the insights about the decoy effect.

“What if you are single, and hope to appeal to as many attractive potential dating partners as possible at an upcoming singles event? My advice would be to bring a friend who has your basic physical characteristics (similar coloring, body type, facial features), but is slightly less attractive (-you).
Why? Because the folks you want to attract will have a hard time evaluating you with no comparables around. However, if you are compared with a “-you,” the decoy friend will do a lot to make you look better, not just in comparison with the decoy but also in general, and in comparison with all the other people around.”

How Memories Influence Our Decisions

Whenever I hear rants about the rise in gas prices, it reminds me of an insight from Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational.

How much does your memory of something influence your decision?

“Here is an illustration of this idea. Consider your consumption of milk and wine. Now imagine that two new taxes will be introduced tomorrow. One will cut the price of wine by 50 percent, and the other will increase the price of milk by 100 percent. What do you think will happen? These price changes will surely affection consumption, and many people will walk around slightly happier and with less calcium. But now imagine this: What if the new taxes are accompanied by induced amnesia for the previous prices of wine and milk? What if the prices change in the same way, but you do not remember what you paid for these two products in the past?

[…]

If people had no memory of past prices, the consumption of milk and wine would remain essentially the same, as if the prices had not changed. In other words, the sensitivity we show to price changes might in fact be largely a result of our memory for the prices we have paid in the past and our desire for coherence with our past decisions—not at all a reflection of our true preferences or our level of demand.

[…]

I am not suggesting that doubling the price of gasoline would have no effect on consumers’ demands. But I do believe that in the long term, it would have a much smaller influence on demand than would be assumed from just observing the short-term market reaction to price increases.”

Intuition

 

It’s worth understanding what intuition is and how often we rely on it to make decisions. It’s also worth realizing that if you make all your decisions on intuition and everything goes well for you, you’re either lucky or gifted indeed.

Kahneman, as always, provides a great definition:

“We have all heard such stories of expert intuition: the chess master who walks past a street game and announces, ‘White mates in three’ without stopping, or the physician who makes a complex diagnosis after a single glance at a patient. Expert intuition strikes us as magical, but it is not. Indeed, each of us performs feats of intuitive expertise many times each day. Most of us are pitch-perfecting in detecting anger in the first word of a telephone call, recognize as we enter a room that we were the subject of the conversation, and quickly react to subtle signs that the driver of the car in the next lane is dangerous. . . . The psychology of accurate intuition involves no magic. Perhaps the best short statement of it is by the great Herbert Simon, who studied chess masters and showed that after thousands of hours of practice they come to see the pieces on the board differently from the rest of us. You can feel Simon’s impatience with the mythologizing of expert intuition when he writes: “The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.”

Of course, there’s so much knowledge that I am not including, like the surprising power of a beautiful face, heuristics, the nature of stereotypes, and more.

But every piece of knowledge about decision-making that you learn can change the way you lead your life. Now, bad movies won’t be the bane of your afternoon and possibilities widen once you change the frames around the problem.

Cheryl Strayed on Loving Yourself and Being Vulnerable With Your Imperfections

Photo from Vanity Fair: http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/11/cheryl-strayed-wild

The narrative that we hold of ourselves determines how we lead our lives. If we change the story we tell, we change how we live.

As the famed Debbie Millman once said, “If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve.”

Why is it so hard to love yourself?

For one, we’re hardwired to be social animals, therefore we care about how other people perceive us. We are always imaging what people are thinking and feeling. We seek validation and reassurance because it feels good to be seen, heard, and understood. If we were lone animals, we wouldn’t care about these things because it wouldn’t be important to our survival. But to belong, to be seen as both loved and lovely, is at the heart of human nature.

Some of the best advice on loving yourself and being vulnerable with a potential partner comes from Tiny Beautiful Thingsa fantastic compendium of heartbreaking letters that touch almost every trial and tribulation that a human being can experience, and heartwarming but no-bullshit responses that pushes us in the direction we must go.

A woman in her mid-fifties just got out of fruitless marriage. She’s excited for the possibilities, but then she writes, “And at the same time, I’m terrified that I’ll never feel the tender touch of a man. . . . I worry about sex. I haven’t been with another man for a long time. The sex in my marriage was routine and uninspiring.” She then lists all her insecurities.

Sheryl Strayed responds with such beautiful empathy:

“Looks matter to most of us. And sadly, they matter to women to a rather depressing degree—regardless of age, weight, or place on the gorgeous-to-hideous beauty continuum. I don’t need to detail the emails in my inbox from women with fears such as your own as proof. I need only do a quick accounting of just about every women I’ve ever known—an endless phalanx of mostly attractive females who were freaked out because they were fat or flat-chested or frizzy-haired or oddly shaped or lined with wrinkles or laced with stretch marks or in some other way imperfect when viewed through the distorted eyes of the all-knowing, woman-annihilating, ruthless beauty god who has ruled and sometimes doomed significant portions of our lives. I say enough of that. Enough of that.

[…]

There isn’t a shortcut around this. The answer to your conundrum isn’t finding a way to make your future lover believe you look like Angelina Jolie. It’s coming to terms with the fact that you don’t and never will (a fact, I’d like to note, that Angelina Jolie herself will also have to come to terms with someday and probably already struggles with now).”

Acknowledging this is key. Chasing what seems like a solution because it’s easy, safe, and expected is what leads us to madness. This woman could have easily undergone surgery and changed up her wardrobe. But it doesn’t solve anything, it merely covers it up. The problem most of the time is not external, it’s internal.

Strayed hits us with advice that we need to hear:

“Real change happens on the level of the gesture. It’s one person doing one thing differently than he or she did before. It’s the man who opts not to invite his abusive mother to his wedding: the woman who decides to spend her Saturday mornings in a drawing class instead of scrubbing the toilets at home; the writer who won’t allow himself to be devoured by his envy; the parent who takes a deep breathe instead of throwing a plate. It’s you and me standing naked before our lovers, even if it makes us feel kind of squirmy in a bad way when we do. The work is there. It’s our task. Doing it will give us strength and clarity. It will bring us closer to who we hope to be.
You don’t have to be young. You don’t have to be thin. You don’t have to be “hot” in a way that some dumbfuckedly narrow mindset has construed that word. You don’t have to have taut flesh or a tight ass or an eternally upright set of tits.
You have to find a way to inhabit your body while enacting your deepest desires. You have to be brave enough to build the intimacy you deserve. You have to take off all your clothes and say, “I’m right here.””
This is so excruciatingly difficult because vulnerability is an act of courage.

Sheryl shares another cold-hard truth:

“So let’s talk about men. A whole bunch of them will overlook you as a lover because they want someone younger and firmer, but not all of them will. Some of them will be thrilled to meet a woman just exactly like you. The sexiest not-culturally-sanctioned-sexy people I know—the old, the fat, the differently abled, the freshly postpartum—have a wonderful way of being forthright about who they are and I suggest you take their approach. Instead of trying to conceal the aspects of your body that make you feel uncomfortable, how about just coming out with it at the outset—before you get into the bedroom and try to slip unnoticed beneath the sheets while having a panic attack? What would happen if you said to Mister Just-About-to-Do-Me: I feel terribly self-conscious about how droopy my body is and I’m not sure I even really know how to have good sexy anymore, since I was frozen in a boring pattern with my ex for years on end.”

Exactly—what would happen if we did something like that? Many of us would be paralyzed in fear because of embarrassment. There are times when we may do this simply out of desperation, learning that, wait a minute, the truth works! Not everyone can reciprocate that, of course, but honestly is there any other way?

Strayed continues:

“In my experience, those sort of revelations help. They unclench the stronghold of one’s fears. They push the intimacy toward a more vulnerable place. And they have a spectacular way of revealing precisely the sort of person one is about to sleep with.”

And Strayed ends the letter with a bang:

“I know as women we’re constantly being scorched by the relentless porno/Hollywood beauty blowtorch, but in my real life I’ve found that the men worth fucking are far more good-natured about the female body in its varied forms than is generally acknowledged. “Naked and smiling” is one male friend’s only requirement for a lover. Perhaps it’s because men are people with bodies full of fears and insecurities and shortcomings of their own. Find one of them. One who makes you think and laugh and come. Invite him into the tiny revolution in your beautiful new world.”

Tiny Beautiful Things has become one of my favorite books of all time. Cheryl Strayed’s grounded, honest advice on heartbreak, failure, career changes, or whether to invite the father that left you early in life to the wedding, are all humbling, inspiring, and sometimes heartbreaking.