So here is another experiment at a new type of post - I’m calling this series “Letters to my Daughter”. I know, I can’t really call these “series” if I only have one post on the topic, but give me some time. I’ll get there. Some context for this one - I have a 19-month old daughter and find myself worrying about how can I make sure she grows up to be a good, happy person. This series should be a time capsule for her, capturing some things I think I’ve learned or observed and would like to pass on to her (so she can ignore them, make the same mistakes and then try to prevent her kids from doing the same, round and round the merry-go-around.)
There you were, running around barefoot, chasing kids more than twice your age. Throwing a ball you could barely hold, clumsily stumbling around while holding the ball other times. Switching effortlessly between chasing and escaping. Having fun.
Your smile was genuine, your happiness palpable.
And it struck me – you didn’t know the rules of the game! The other kids already knew some games. Nothing elaborate. Passing the ball back and forth. Kicking the ball back and forth. Running around playing “tag, you’re it”. Simple rules within which they can improvise. But you knew none of these. You’re still mastering the “running barefoot on the grass” game. Still, together you guys were involved in this entertaining ballet mixing rules of all these games, while at the same time having no rules. And there you were, running around with those kids and having the time of your life. It was improvisational theatre, they reacting to your unpredictability and switching between games on-the-go. How was this happening? Why were you not intimidated by your complete unawareness of social conventions? How could you engage so well with those older kids? How could they improvise so effortlessly?
I realized that one of the reasons this worked, is because the older kids were getting to that collaboration sweet spot where they have the ability to be empathic, curious and energetic, but life and society have not jaded them yet. They have an under-developed sense of cynicism and sarcasm. And out of those abilities, I was again struck by empathy and its power. Empathy means that they were able to understand the situation you were in. They were able to put themselves “in your shoes”. I would imagine they remembered being there not so long ago. They were able to understand that you were still learning how to play these games. That fact, combined with children’s unique ability to be “in the moment” created this crazy juvenile garden tango.
The world you’re growing up in is one where your ability to collaborate and create with others of different backgrounds is going to be a prized skill. Regardless of the areas of expertise you wish to explore (engineering, performance arts, teaching, ...), one of the primary differentiators in your ability to contribute to society will be your ability to work in teams. Another time I’ll explain to you why this was not always the case. It’s an interesting story. But if I could rank the skills I wish you were strong in, empathy would be one of the top ones. It’s one of the key ingredients that make teams click.
If you’re able to step outside of the situation, discussion or challenge for a second, and see it from another person’s perspective, it opens up all sorts of new doors. If you can understand how the other person might feel on a given moment, you’re able to connect with them at a level beyond the facts of the discussion. And it’s not that the facts don’t matter, they abso-fcuking-lutely do (don’t tell your mother about the curse word). But facts are not enough to connect with people and convince them. Or, more commonly nowadays, problems are so complex that there is never just one solution. Defending your own perspective to the detriment of collaboration might win you the battle. But you’ll lose the war. Being able to share the feelings of somebody else is a superpower. Way more useful than invisibility or flying. Ok, not as cool as Wolverine’s adamantium claws, I readily admit. But still a superpower of incredible value.
How do you develop it? I wish I knew, then I wouldn’t have to write you this post, I could just make sure you developed it. I don’t know. Realizing that the world is not ego-centric is a start. Searching and interacting with people and situations that challenge your current understanding of reality cannot hurt. When people talk, don’t just hear their words - listen to their tone, watch their expressions, pay attention to what is not said. Go walk around the poor neighborhood of your city (there will be one) and look at how people live. Recognize the fears, frustrations and anger that are always simmering (or burning) inside you. Realize that the same battle is happening inside everybody else. Keep an open mind and realize that for the things that really matter in life, there are no right answers, just wrong answers, so don’t get too attached to your answers. Remember what your grandfather likes to say:
Word of warning – it’s not easy. Empathy can be like good posture, a healthy diet or not binging on Netflix. Everybody agrees it’s good for you, but the temptation to not do it is strong. Powerful the dark side is. It’s easier to try to impose your version of the story on others, rather than giving up control of the narrative and building one together. Easier, but less effective. And less fun. Which is why it’s a valuable superpower.
And if you go down to a the atomic level of working within cross-functional teams, it’s about relationships. Having empathy towards your team members is a pre-condition to collaboration, co-creation and respect. But there is another key ingredient in this mix, something else I would hope you are able to do well – honesty. This is one of those words you’re going to hear a lot as you grow up. Sometimes from me or your mom, as we ask you to be honest about whether you did your homework, brushed your teeth or got drunk at your friend’s house that night you stumbled home late saying you didn’t feel well. You will hear the maxim “you should always be honest”.
Honesty sounds easier than it is. It requires you to be open about your feelings, brave enough to share them, but also empathic enough to do it in a positive, non-violent way. It involves the ability to recognize your fears, ignorance or beliefs. Honesty is one of the keys to achieve trust with your friends, colleagues and community members. Honesty requires real strength of character. Because dis-honesty is sometimes the path of least resistance. Ah, the dark side. Avoid the temptation. Dis-honesty can deliver short-term results, but will lead to long-term pain and stress. And when you’re caught in it, and you will be, it will hurt. You will have broken the trust of somebody you love and the path back is arduous. Trust comes from character, and character is saying what you think and doing what you say you will do. Not once, but repeatedly. Time and time again.
I’ve failed at that occasionally. Not because of bad intentions, but because I justified to myself that the little dis-honesty was “not a big deal”. The path of least resistance for an action that doesn’t really hurt anybody. But dis-honesty always hurts. It hurts you because you have to carry the weight of the lie. You will get angry at yourself for taking the short-cut and dis-respecting somebody you care about (friend, colleague, …). You will get stressed trying to keep them from finding out. And you will feel embarrassed when they do. Frustrated at the fact that you let your fears or laziness disrupt the trust of somebody you love.
When that happens, don’t despair. All you can do is try to build it back. But it’s easier to just avoid the problem all together – just be honest. It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding.