Required Reading: Empathy
I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy. Three books that I’ve read recently have touched on the subject but in the separate contexts of: motivation, creativity, and parenting.
While at first glance it may not seem like Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink is about empathy I would argue that in order to understand what motivates others you must always come from a place of empathy.
Pink describes three eras of human motivation – Motivation 1.0 was characterized by the need to survive. Humans were most concerned with food – how to find it and how not to become it. Motivation 2.0, the phase we’ve been stuck in for quite some time, has been characterized by the carrot and the stick. Today, Pink explains, carrot and stick techniques don’t always work. While rewarding or punishing behaviors can help in the short-term, for long-term fulfillment the most important motivators are instrinsic: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, which he explains as,
the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.
Each of these needs are fulfilled by looking for internal gratification rather than external rewards. Pink goes on to describe Type I (Intrinsic) and Type X (External) motivators. The key is to figure out when one technique will produce the desired rewards, a decision that requires empathy. For most creative jobs, Pink explains, Type I rules while other, more routine work doesn’t offer much psychic benefit and therefore an external reward could do the trick.
In our work as Peace Corps Volunteers I found Pink’s assessment to be spot on. For example, when working with the students at the youth foundation we used external motivators for short-term results such as offering snacks or privileges to those kids who showed up for a meeting. However, in order to motivate through the entirety of a long-term project, it was necessary to involve the youth in the planning, teach new and desirable skills, and tie the activities to a larger purpose that they cared about (town pride, being a role model, community service etc.).
Learn more by visiting Daniel Pink’s website here.
Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom and David Kelley was recommended to me by **Frankie**, who knows how excited I am about design thinking.
The authors are brothers and leaders at two of the most creative and innovative organizations today: IDEO and Stanford’s d.school. The book includes myriad examples of how a human-centered approach helps in designing products and processes. Empathy plays a large role in this, in particular during the research phase when tackling a new challenge or problem to solve.
You can find an entire Human-Centered Design Toolkit on the IDEO website here, that walks the reader step by step through this process. What strikes me about this approach is how similar it is to parts of the Peace Corps training process. While different language was used, we were encouraged not to provide our ideas or solutions to what we saw as the problems of our home communities but to engage in qualitative research for the first several months to a year before delving into a project.
From the Toolkit:
Building empathy for the people you serve means understanding their behavior and what motivates them. Understanding behavior enables us to identify physical, cognitive, social and/or cultural needs that we can meet through the products, services and experiences we create.
One of the activities from the Toolkit asks the reader to go into a situation with a “beginner’s mind” in order not to carry assumptions or to prejudge a situation. In another activity, the reader is encouraged to observe and not interpret right away. This is very similar to a framework we learned during Training called, “D.I.E.” that encourages volunteers to describe first and then interpret after talking to others from a volunteer’s community who can give a context to the situation in order for you to evaluate it effectively.
Learn more by visiting the Creative Confidence website here.
Brain Rules for Baby is John Medina’s follow up after his best-selling book Brain Rules. He explains that he was often asked when speaking about Brain Rules how his interpretation of brain research applies to children. Specifically, parents wanted advice on how baby’s brains develop in order to tailor their parenting style. Actually, he says that often a parent would ask him how to use his brain rules to get his child into Harvard. I could write a whole book about what is wrong with that question…
Medina offers various “brain rules for baby” including: the importance of talking to your child and not putting them in front of the TV, a child’s need for demanding yet warm parents, and the importance of relationships to the child’s well-being and long-term sense of happiness. As he summarizes on his website:
You will need to teach your children how to socialize effectively – how to make friends, how to keep friends – if you want them to be happy. As you might suspect, many ingredients go into creating socially smart children, too many to put into some behavioral Tupperware bowl. The two that have the strongest backing in hard neurosciences, and the two most predictive for social competency are emotional regulation and empathy.
Empathy, he explains, is important because, “when the brain perceives empathy, the body beings to relax.” Mastering this “key relationship skill” will improve all of the relationships that a child will develop over time. The quality of one’s relationships is one of the key indicators, research suggests, in determining a person’s long-term happiness. It’s not how much money you make or what your job is. It’s having good friends and partners in life.
When we were living in a low resource community on the coast of Ecuador I would often think about happiness. Many of the folks we lived and worked with seemed to be very happy despite the lack of luxuries that seem to be taken for granted in more resource rich environments. Though there wasn’t hot water, reliable electricity, or access to good transportation in our town and our neighbors couldn’t count on a steady and fair wage, potable water, or preventative medicine, people appeared to be generally just as, if not more, happy than in other places where I have lived.
Learn more at the Brain Rules website here.