Who Needs Empathy?

Can empathy be taught? Just like combining the arts and sciences in any other practice, empathy may or may not be something we can foster or go to college to learn. Simply imagining ourselves as someone who is using a piece of software, for example, is not enough.

We need to ask good questions first. Who are these people? What do they care about? What are they excited about? What do they fear? How can we best imagine ourselves as someone else? Well, it’s an art form, something that requires certain natural tendencies that can be supported in part by repeatable methods and friendly tools. You might say a quantitative sandwich is incomplete without some qualitative chips to go with it.

I was raised in a family of deeply empathetic people (to a fault) who were into cool stuff across the realms of art and engineering. They did not distinguish between art and engineering, partly out of sheer curiosity in the way they found connections and partly for a lack of formal training, which often dictates that we practice and think about each in isolation. As a direct result of their influence, art and engineering live and have always lived in harmony in the same room in my mind. One is often incomplete without the other.

Mom was a gifted musician who taught me to play multiple instruments and believed that technology was a tool that was only going to grow in its significance. It was because of her I grew up tinkering on computing platforms, such as Radio Shack’s TRS-80, Atari’s 1200XL, IBM’s PC/PCjr, Amiga, Commodore 64, and MacIntosh, in addition to the available gaming platforms of the day. She was an artist, like Dad, in her mastery of music, thinking about the world, the future and its possibilities. These gifts of experience she gave me were well complemented by Dad.

Dad was an artist by passion, not profession. He was a gifted doodler and a natural born storyteller, able to walk into rooms and captivate the people in them, regardless of their backgrounds or ability levels. Always drawing simple sketches on napkins and a chalkboard in the garage, Dad was constantly making connections between things and people and seeing trends waaay ahead of the herd.

In his free time, Dad restored vintage boats, bicycles, cars and motorcycles. He included me in each of his projects in intentional ways. He taught me the value (and fun) of being interested in and attempting to understand the hidden machinery behind things. Countless summer hours were spent sanding the teak and mahogany of vintage runabouts, applying 5–6–7–8 coats of varnish to near-perfect grain, helping disassemble or reassemble this engine or that and a lot of cleaning up. Dad insisted we always put things away “better than we found them.”

For Dad, restoring these artifacts was the art of asking good questions, learning to ask even better ones on-the-fly and sticking around for the complete and often highly-detailed answers. He was gifted at figuring things out, troubleshooting and applying a solutions-oriented approach to these challenges he created for himself. When he didn’t know something, he was arguably even more gifted at finding someone who did.

Here’s the thing:

Dad was honest about what he didn’t know. This is radical. It goes against what most of us humans generally do: conceal what we don’t know.

I spent mellow weekends sauntering around marinas near and far with Dad. Inevitably, we would discover a hidden workshop wherein someone true to the cause would be hard at work, solving some obscure challenge in isolation somehow related to his current restoration project. Pleasantly distracted by Dad’s authentic inquiries and astonishment, the occupants of said workshops were almost always happy to open their doors, share stories about their work and guide Dad in best practices from what they’d learned. It was easy to imagine these fellow craftsmen working so diligently, dedicated to their work, perhaps secretly waiting for someone like Dad to happen upon their small corner of the world to validate and exult the work they had been, up until that moment, toiling away at alone and thanklessly.

Hanging out with Dad, even standing in a dirty workshop in the dark, always led to the notion that somebody somewhere is always busy doing something extraordinary.

None of that would have been possible without a couple key things: Dad’s obsessive interest and skill with art and engineering. And what was arguably his greatest gift: his capacity for empathy, which opened doors that would have otherwise remained closed and prevented him from realizing his objectives: learning and progressing.

All the while, it was understood between all of us?—?any and all attempts to do, make or fix anything were just exercises, not facts. It was okay to make mistakes because both of my parents, lacking formal training in any of their respective interests and pursuits, also counted failure as a part of their own process. That freed us up that way. More empathy.

Arguably, success of this kind seems to come from iterations of empathy as a practice?—?as a way of life, not just as a process of creation.

Largely because of that, I came to understand that, contrary to what I was being conditioned to believe in school, the worlds of art and design were not, in fact, incompatible with science and engineering and not exclusive to themselves at all. But in school, with few exceptions, they were treated as separate worlds, and they still generally are. My teachers told me that I had to get serious and focus on one or the other. Being forced to specialize fostered a deep appreciation for polymaths like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Bran Ferren?—?people who did exactly the opposite. Small discoveries like this led me to embrace art and engineering as one and motivated me to build my fluency in both worlds even more.

Gratefully, there seems to be a growing movement of applying empathy (also more stealthily called Human-Centered Design) into the design of solutions big and small, from the Squatty Potty to the smartphone. Soon the majority of people on the planet will have connectivity to the Internet and the idea of connecting everyone to both knowledge and each other will endure. The Internet is an interesting example. So is Toy Story?—?the first completely digital film that significantly grew our collective toolset for telling and distributing great stories.

Meanwhile (and here comes the real rant), the ingredients for the next marvels are all around us, waiting for people with vision, empathy, broad knowledge, multidisciplinary skills and intense passion to make dreams real. These people don’t spontaneously show up. They need nurturing and encouragement right from the start as little kids. We need to get out of their way and let them discover their identity and passions by encouraging them to work hard, trust their imaginations, foster trust in failure as a necessary part of any process, as a step towards success and to persevere. We have to make sure they believe that anything is possible and encourage them to find their own path, even if it’s very different from our own.

These are the actions that will nurture and grow empathy in future generations. We have lost so much so there’s no time to waste.
Making more money, acting privileged and generally doing nothing won’t help.
There are too many competing motivations to put our own interests ahead of others. Sometimes we need to put our own interests first. However, what studies are showing is that the more wealthy we become, the more we feel entitled to that wealth and the more priority we put on ourselves over others. Unchecked, this may be a survival-limiting decision.

It bears repeating how important it is to periodically pry ourselves, our kids (and each other, sometimes) away from our modern miracles, the computers, mobile phones, tablets, gaming platforms, etc. to carry ourselves out into the sunlight to experience both the naturally engineered and designed wonders of our world, our planet and our civilization.

If we don’t, we lose touch with each other, ourselves, and the kids won’t ever understand what these precious things are that they will someday be responsible for protecting and improving. We need them to understand that art and design are not luxuries or incompatible with science and engineering. It’s critical to transmit to them tghat blending science and design together with empathy is required for more than just survival.

Like it or not, empathy is, in fact, essential to what makes this life, in and of itself, a miraculous achievement.