Category Archives: Inspiration

The cover of the book #GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso

#Girlboss

I’d never heard of Sophia Amoruso. That might be because I’ve been hiding under a rock, or it might be because I’m not the target audience of her successful webshop, Nasty Gal. I’m also not the target audience for her book, #Girlboss (hashtag included). The target audience of the book is young women (perhaps up to 30?) and girls. The target audience of the webshop is described on the site itself: “WE EXIST FOR THE “GIRL IN PROGRESS”. BADASS TO THE CORE, EVER-EVOLVING AND GROWING, STRIVING TO BE BETTER EVERY. DAMN. DAY. FLAWS ENCOURAGED.”. Caps included. I love growing and evolving, but I’ve always lacked in the badass department.

The book is about Sophia’s own journey from being completely broke and starting a little eBay shop selling vintage clothes to owning and running the multi-million dollar business that Nasty Gal is today. The book is filled with tips for girls who would like to start a company and become a “girlboss” too, but it also includes many tips on how to handle some of life’s challenges in general.
The book is a funny mix of stories about rebellion and an anti-establishment attitude and sensible and quite conservative advice.

In the book’s introduction, Sophia tells her readers to never grow up and to not become a bore. I failed miserably there and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Shortly after that inflammatory advice, Sophia explrds that are really credit cards and how forgetting about them can easily ruin your credit score, even if you only bought something small and cheap on them. She warns that you shouldn’t spend money that you don’t have. Nowadays this advice might not be uncontentious, but it’s very sensible!

Some of the advice and insights that speak to me (and admittedly make me feel righteous), as a manager of young people includes:

  • If you get to talk to customers on behalf of your company, you are the face of the company. Make sure you are polite and that you apologize on behalf of the company if something went wrong, even if it wasn’t your fault.
  • Compromise is a part of life
  • Promotions at work are earned by doing really good (and perhaps not always fun) work for years. They are earned by standing out and taking responsibility.

You could argue that she’s a hypocrite for moving between an anti-establishment attitude and promoting capitalism in the space of only a few pages. It made me smile though. Imagine going from having no responsibilities, all the time in the world and no money or worldly possessions to being a successful businesswoman, running a company that employs thousands of people and having a Porsche car and millions in the bank in only a few years. Part of her brain might still be trying to catch up with her current role and life. Throughout most of the book, this results in a fun and refreshing sort of quirkiness, that might be exactly what young girls who are looking for some inspiration can relate to.

Although the book clearly wasn’t written for me, I did find it inspiring. It gave me a little kick in the behind during the holidays to get up and do something useful with my time off (other than reading lots of books, which I do also think is useful) and it made me determined to get to the bottom of some work-related topics that I was still a bit mystified by.
The advice to not always take everything so seriously and see small challenges as a game does apply to me. It’s been given to me before and I still have no clue how to implement it. There’s always more to learn. It’s what makes me feel energized and alive.

I’ll finish this post with a statement from the book that I can fully get behind:
“Being mean won’t make you cool, being rich won’t make you cool, and having the right clothes won’t make you cool. It’s cool to be kind. It’s cool to be weird. It’s cool to be honest and to be secure with yourself. Cool is the girl at a party who strikes up a conversation with you when she notices you don’t seem to know many people there.”

Sand Talk

The first book I’ve read in 2020 is Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta. Tyson is an Aboriginal person from Australia and in this book he tries to show the reader what today’s world looks like through the eyes of an Indigenous person. Tyson’s background is probably as far removed from mine as it can be.
The fact that I don’t know much about Aboriginal culture means that I lack quite a bit of basic knowledge that would have helped to place some parts of the book into context. At several points in the book, I have to work hard to keep up with the pictures that are painted (sometimes literally) and the explanations that are given. Tyson empathizes with his readers. Stating he gets frustrated when elders seem to mix mind-blowing insights with random, illogical ideas. Wildly new ideas don’t just blow a mind though, they also expand it.

Learning
Expanding your mind, or learning is fun. When new neural pathways are created our brain rewards us with a chemical burst that makes us feel good. Often when people are learning they are smiling.
Today, many people are also afraid of learning. They feel insecure and prefer to have their existing ideas echoed back at them rather than learning about other people’s experiences and points of view. Seeing as learning makes us feel good, we shouldn’t fear to learn about new ideas, we should be actively looking for them! Learning about new ideas doesn’t necessarily mean you have to change your mind. You might still feel that your idea is better than the new idea, but at least try to temporarily suspend your confirmation bias to listen to and learn from others.

Stolen generation
Tyson is part of the stolen generation. In the 1920s the Australian government felt that it would be a good idea to take Aboriginal kids away from their parents and put them in white foster families. Even typing it almost makes me cry. People can be so needlessly cruel, even to innocent kids. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it doesn’t happen today, as separating refugee kids from their parents at the border isn’t any better. And in The Netherlands, the government likes to send kids who have been here all or almost all of their lives “back to where they came from”. Which is a country they don’t know anything about and where they don’t speak the language. Aaargh!
Right, sorry, I was talking about the book.

Patterns and systems
Indigenous Australian cultures think in patterns, rather than in individual and concrete events, words and objects. They feel that we shouldn’t look at individual elements of a system, but that we should always look at the system as a whole. For instance, the terrible fires in Australia and the floods are in Indonesia shouldn’t be looked at as separate, standalone situations. They are both parts of the same system, they are connected. To resolve them we need to look at the whole system. We need to work with the land and our environment, rather than against it. We’ve been trying to force it into submission for a long time, but it’s starting to hit back at us. It’s time for us to adapt and to find a more sustainable way to interact with our planet. This means that many of us will have to adjust our way of thinking and our way of living. That’s going to be hard and disruptive, but fires and flooding are even harder and more disruptive.

Narcissism
We also need to work together as people, instead of against each other. Even within our own tribes, we are constantly comparing ourselves to others. This is bad for our mental health, but it also stops us from working together effectively. Aboriginal culture assumes that everybody has a bit of idiot in them from time to time. A part of you that whispers that you are special and better and more important than other people. Some people feel like this all or most of the time. Fighting this narcissism is hard and the internet and social media make it even harder. According to Tyson, the excesses of malignant narcissism need to be contained in a team effort, by all of society, working together.

Leadership
Aboriginal wisdom asserts that sustainable leadership consists of four steps: Respect, Connect, Reflect and Direct. Notice that too often we get this completely backward. Not just as individuals, but also as organizations and governments. We start with the assumption that we know better and try to Direct people, communities, or even our kids to do what we want how we want it. When that fails we might Reflect on why it’s not working (in the most positive scenario, there are plenty of examples where we just direct some more, but let’s assume we learn). We gather data and measure outcomes and figure out that we need to hear from the people we are trying to direct. We try to form relationships and Connect with those we want to tell what to do or how to behave. Through these relationships we discover the final step (which should have been the first), we find a profound Respect for those we originally felt were just pawns that we had to get to execute or support our brilliantly (in isolation) crafted plans.
Needless to say, you’re much likely to build support and sustainable relationships if you turn the steps around and start by respecting people and trying to connect with them.

The book is a very interesting read. I can relate to many of the ideas that Tyson shares in it. I’m not sure if it will be possible to get people’s mindset changed to embrace the idea of living in harmony with the land. How most of us think and live today is so radically different the change is even hard to imagine, let alone execute. This isn’t to say that I don’t think it would be a good idea. I’m just not sure if it’s possible. Where would you start if everything had to change? Colonists have tried to force their ideas and way of living onto the Indigenous people of Australia. They have been trying for a long time now and used a lot of violence and while they have significantly damaged Aboriginal lives and heritage, I don’t think they’ve managed to change Aboriginal culture. I’m not convinced it’s possible to do so the other way around either.

I tried to share some of the ideas that Tyson lays out in the book. I had to use my own words and sentences, which means that it has a completely different vibe than the book does. By doing this I did exactly what the book describes we shouldn’t be doing: I picked individual ideas and expanded on them, rather than looking at the whole system at once and look for patterns.
If you feel that the ideas are interesting then please go and read the book, so you Tyson can explain them properly and you can get a better sense of where the ideas are coming from.

Tyson Yunkaporta

The Monarchy of Fear – A Philosopher Looks at our Political Crisis

Martha Nussbaum’s The Monarchy of Fear is first and foremost a call to think. To think critically, even when it’s uncomfortable. In her own words “Even though it’s hard, it’s important to think and examine options and angles, rather than lazily jumping to conclusions and blaming minorities or women.”. If you do think critically you might think that the title suggests that the book is about fear instead of about thinking and you’d be right. Fear and thinking are closely linked in the sense that it’s hard to think clearly when you are afraid.
In evolutionary prehistory this was useful. When seeing a tiger up close, following fear’s instinctual prompting is much more useful than thinking long and hard and deep until you end up as the tiger’s dinner. In our complicated modern world, however, we can’t rely on instinct. We have to think and think critically.

There is a lot of fear in the world today and most of it is based on real problems like rising real-estate prices, increased costs of health-care and education, the climate-emergency, and the uncertainty about what the impact of AI will be on the job market and the type of work that we do.
These problems are difficult to solve. A lot of studying, modeling, and thinking is required to come up with potential solutions. Implementing these solutions will also take a long time and require that we change the way we live. Even then there is no guarantee that these solutions will indeed resolve the problems they were designed to mitigate.

With so many things to be afraid of and so few easy solutions, it’s comforting to be able to find a “bad guy” who can be blamed for it all. People have a deep-rooted need to feel that the world is just. When it doesn’t present itself in that way pinning blame and punishing the adversary feels like taking back control. When there isn’t really a person or institution to blame it seems very attractive to start “othering” groups like immigrants, religions, women, or the wealthy elites. Fear gets mixed with anger, blame and envy and makes it hard to be empathic. Fear makes us naturally asocial and narcissistic. Add all that together and you can see today’s world emerging.

Unfortunately, aggressive “othering” strategies stop people from thinking and doing useful analysis. Thinking is hard, anger and blame are easy. And they are retributive, seeking to inflict pain in return for the fear a person or group is feeling. This burning desire for payback of perceived wrongdoings is a risk for democracy.
Aristotle discussed fear in a treatise on rhetoric for politicians. In order to persuade people to do what you want, he said, you have to understand how their emotions work, and then you can tailor what you say to their own psychology. To whip up fear politicians should
• Talk about supposedly impending events that are highly significant for survival or well-being;
• Make people think it will happen soon;
• Suggest that things are out of control.
Through this recipe, fear can be manipulated by spreading false information and by phrasing impending events as unavoidable and significant threads. This knowledge can be used for good but it can, of course, also be used with bad intent. This is exactly what’s happening with companies like Cambridge Analytica, who influenced voters through social media campaigns full of lies, tailored to play into their specific fears.

To fight these tactics is hard and it requires a lot of effort and awareness from individuals. We need to all think critically and read widely. Meaning don’t just read what’s offered to you through the echo-chambers of the internet, but also actively look for other sources of reliable information. That’s not just true for “them”, but also for you and me. The echo chamber echos for everyone and adds to our confirmation bias, our natural tendency to dismiss any information that isn’t in line with our previously held beliefs.

Another way to fight the false dichotomies created by fear and misinformation is by being hopeful and spreading messages of hope. People who were able to remain empathic and hopeful in the face of fear and oppression were, for instance, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Both were able to unequivocally condemn racism without seeing racists as evil or inhumane. Even after 27 years of captivity, Mandela saw the humanity and the will to do good in his oppressors, despite their awful deeds. Most of us don’t possess this level of patience and empathy, but most of us aren’t held captive for 27 years either, so perhaps we can manage to show some empathy and kindness towards someone who is tweeting something you don’t agree with. Although never imprisoned, former president Obama is setting the right example with the most-liked tweet ever: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

I feel that the topic of this book is incredibly important. The better we understand the mechanisms behind the fear and the anger and the othering, the better we can counter it. Please remember that we have to counter it with patience and love and empathy and not with more anger and othering. You might have every right to be angry about something someone else says or does, but attacking them isn’t going to convince them to change their minds. It’s only going to make them angrier. It’s incredibly difficult, but we have to try to fight anger and hate with love and empathy. Let’s try to help each other to show love and see other people’s humanity. And if you can, read The Monarchy of Fear to get a better understanding of what we’re up against.

Sensemaking – What Makes Human Intelligence Essential in the Age of the Algorithm

In Sensemaking Christian Madsbjerg makes a plea for the value of the humanities in a time where there’s a lot of focus on STEM-knowledge. It was recommended by Bas Heijne, a Dutch writer and thinker whose work I love. Sensemaking is defined as the practice of cultural inquiry using human intelligence to develop a sensitivity toward meaningful differences. In other words, we want to gain an understanding of other people and their worlds and experiences. What matters to them and how is this different from what matters to us? Sensemaking allows us to empathize. This is valuable from a philosophical and political point of view, but also, at a much more cynical level, from an economic point of view. It can tell us how people will vote in the next election and what type of car they are likely to buy.

The book refers regularly to the philosopher Martin Heidegger and his ideas. Heidegger argues that our reality and how we experience the world is highly contextual and historical. Most of the time we are incapable of thinking beyond our own social context. While we feel like we’re completely autonomous individuals, our thoughts and actions are heavily influenced by where and how we live and grew up.
To gain some insights into other people and their lives, we have to let go, at least a little bit, of our own biases and assumptions. The humanities are essential in teaching us how we can do this.

Science and algorithms can explain gravity and solar eclipses and they can eradicate smallpox and measles. To explain why Trump and Brexit are happening and why we are giving measles another chance we need to study people and cultures. Making sense of cultures, customs, and meanings requires a perspective, which is why it’s unlikely that algorithms will be able to figure them out. Algorithms lack a point of view and they lack empathy.
One way to build empathy is by reading. Reading shows you that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is. It can be different. Reading allows us to experience other lives and other worlds than our own We get to live them in our imagination. While watching TV you’re a spectator, but reading makes you a participant.

My own journey is somewhat parallel to that of the world at large. Until I started working fulltime I was an avid reader. I read everything I could get my hands on from adventures to spy stories to historical novels. In high school, I got the opportunity to become a lighting engineer in the theatre production that we set. I loved it. I loved the magic of theatre and the combination of technology and creativity. When I went on to study electrotechnical engineering with the aim to make a career as a lighting engineer. I took a different turn and ended up in software development. For over 15 years, most of what I read had to do with technology. I told myself I didn’t have time to read books and I lost interest in them.

Working hard and gaining specific technical knowledge will serve you well up to a certain point in your career. Three years ago I moved away from software development towards a leadership role and I felt ill-equipped. I started reading books on people, culture, and behavior to fill the gap that I felt I had in terms of understanding what drives and motivates people.
For people in technical roles, we all accept that it’s necessary to continue to updates your knowledge. In the past large software platforms released new versions approximately every three years, which means that you had to refresh about 75% of your skillset every three years. Now that these large platforms are all offered as cloud services that are getting new releases at least weekly, a lot of technical specialists have to refresh their knowledge constantly.

What I find remarkable is that we seem to find it acceptable that people in leadership or sales roles for example still base their behavior on insights that were common 20 years ago. They don’t read up on the latest studies about human behavior. They feel that because they have been successful in the past there is no need to change. These are the same people who feel that the people with technical skills should always be fully up-to-date on the latest developments in the world of technology, have the latest certifications and preferably be experts in multiple technologies or skillsets to ensure that they can be staffed on as many different projects as possible. The hypocrisy blows my mind.

Maybe I felt driven to learn more about people and cultures because I was used to always studying technology and it felt unnatural to stop learning just because I moved away from technology. Maybe I was driven by my perfectionism. Perhaps it was just insecurity. Whatever it was my change in job sparked a renewed love for reading in me. I’m alternating reading fiction and non-fiction and both have helped me tremendously in getting to grips with my new role and who I wanted to be as a leader. Reading helps me to get up to date with the latest studies on human behavior, it helps me to get a better understanding of how people and cultures are changing over time and the stories and wisdom that I read about inspire me.

I full support Christian Madsbjerg’s plea for the value and importance of the humanities. We have so much data and logic at our fingertips that at times we stop seeing numbers and models as a representation of the world and we start seeing them as the only truth. We forget or even lose the ability to apply critical thinking. The numbers are one perspective, but it’s understanding the human circumstances that will help us to understand people’s motivations and our world. Human behavior doesn’t follow models, it’s by definition irrational and thus hard to predict.
In order to make a meaningful difference, you have to give a damn and algorithms will never actually give a damn. We need people for caring and the humanities to teach them how to.

Nonviolent Communication

I’ve been a co-trainer on a great program in which we use the Nonviolent Communication approach as described by Marshall Rosenberg, but I hadn’t read his book until now. The book contains so many great insights that I will probably read it again.

When Rosenberg talks about nonviolent communication he doesn’t mean talking without physically assaulting the person or people you are communicating with, although that too is a pre-requisite for creating a connection. Nonviolent means communicating using observations and avoiding judgments, expressing what we feelings instead of our thoughts, sharing our needs instead of using learned strategies to get what we want and requesting instead of demanding. Applying these four steps might sound easy, but it’s very hard to do. We are used to having an opinion about most if not everything and we naturally feel that the world revolves around us and our experiences. This is not surprising as we all look at the world from our own unique perspective. Looking at it through someone else’s eyes requires significantly more effort and is therefore often not bothered with. I’ll describe the four steps of nonviolent communication in a bit more detail to give you an idea of how it works.

Sharing observations instead of judgments (step 1)
Describing what we observe makes it easier for other people to listen to us. Although your observations will always be influenced by who you are, you can describe them using objective language, free of judgment. When we use judgmental language it’s very likely that the person we’re trying to connect with feels put off or even attacked by our words, which gets in the way of creating a connection and communicating openly and effectively.

Express what we feel instead of our thoughts and emotions (step 2)
What we feel is personal and can be directed in two ways, inside and out. What we feel external is fairly straightforward and most people would be comfortable sharing that they are hot or cold or that the chair they are sitting on is soft. Sharing what we feel on the inside leaves us exposed and vulnerable. This makes it very hard for many people to open up about what they really feel. What we tend to do is trick ourselves by creating sentences like “I feel that he might be holding something back”. In this case, we’re not sharing what we’re feeling, we’re sharing what we’re thinking. When the word “feel” is followed by “that” it will almost always be a thought and not a feeling that is being expressed. When we say that we feel sad/frustrated/happy/angry we are sharing what we feel on the inside.

Sharing needs instead of strategies (step 3)
We all have basic needs. A lot will be the same for most humans, although a few will always be more important to you than others. My most pronounced basic needs are recognition, autonomy, and control. If your basic needs are not being met you will generally come up with strategies to try and get back to a situation where your basic needs are being met. If I feel like I’m losing control I might get bossy for instance. If your basic need is attention you might have a strategy of becoming very quiet in the hope that your partner notices or you might start to sulk or stand in front of the TV until you get the attention that you are craving for.
Our strategies might work, but they don’t make us nicer people to be around and they don’t create a connection with others. If, instead of getting bossy, I were able to say that I’m stressed out or frustrated because I feel like I’m not in control the people around me are much more likely to sympathize. They might even be able to help me regain the feeling that I’m in control.

Requesting instead of demanding (step 4)
After sharing an observation, expressing our feelings and revealing our needs we can make a request to the person or people we’re trying to connect with. Making a request instead of a demand means of course that we have to ask a question, but it also means that we have to be willing to accept a “no” to our request. If we make a request and we get angry or upset if we get a “no” that means that the request was a demand after all.

Applying these 4 steps takes a lot of practice. It sounds so simple, but it’s hard to apply in a conversation. I’ve been teaching nonviolent communication for a couple of years and that plus reading the book still only got me to the point where I’m aware that I’m often unable to apply it in conversations. This week I tried to apply it in a WhatsApp conversation, which I immediately admit isn’t necessarily ideal for creating a connection. It did give me time to think about how to construct a sentence using the steps above as contrary to what many seem to believe, WhatsApp communication is asynchronous. Despite the extra time I had to think about the sentence I wanted to use to create a connection with the person I was chatting with I couldn’t do it. I was unable to construct a sentence using Rosenberg’s approach that I felt comfortable sharing. I’ll continue to practice and I’ll read the book again!

For me, nonviolent communication has always been focused on connecting with others. I was surprised to read about using it to show self-compassion. I’d never thought about that, but it makes sense. It’s also very hard to do. You don’t have to worry as much about coming across as weird because you use somewhat unusual sentences, I’m quite comfortable with my own weirdness. Not so much with my own inadequacies though. I find it much harder to be kind to myself than to be kind to others and I know several other people who are the same. We are expecting a lot from ourselves and it all has to be done perfectly and with a smile. I like Rosenberg’s advice to avoid “shoulding” yourself. We feel “we shouldn’t have done that” or “I should get up earlier”. “Should” implies a demand and it threatens our autonomy. We respond badly to demands, even our own demands on ourselves. It might not feel like you have a choice but phrasing it in your mind like it is a choice will make it easier to keep yourself motivated. “I choose to do abs exercises tonight because it will keep my bowels moving and my belly looking tight.” “I choose to go outside in the evening to throw out the trash because I want to get rid of the smelly bin in the kitchen.” I apologize for the silly examples. You can probably tell that I have an easy life, especially while I’m on holiday.

There are so many things worth sharing in this book that I could go on forever, but I won’t. I went back and forth between sharing the things that I found most remarkable in the book and sharing at least some of the basics. I choose the latter, although it pains me not to be able to talk about the role of empathy for yourself and for others in nonviolent communication. If you just read the book and tell me what stood out most for you we can talk about it and I can get it out of my system that way. Thanks!

The 4 steps of nonviolent communication

How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age

I chose to read this book because, well, who wouldn’t want to win friends and influence people. I thought it made sense to go for the updated version “in the digital age” because email and social media have a significant impact on our lives and the way we communicate.
It lists Dale Carnegie (and associates) as the writer, but upon a short investigation it turns out that mister Carnegie was born in 1888 and died in 1955. I think it’s safe to assume that his associates did most of the rewriting. Although no doubt it’s based on the original How to Win Friends and Influence People that mister Carnegie wrote in 1936.

A very short summary is partially provided at the start of the book. Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. If you’re wrong, admit it. Listening is more important than talking if you want to create a connection to someone. Find out what matters to them, discover their core desire. Apart from a good summary, it’s also good advice. Like most of the management and self-help books that I’ve read recently it all comes down to kindness and empathy.
Part of this might be my unconscious bias. I believe this to be the case, so I’m significantly more likely to extract this from any book that I read. For the same reason, I’m also more likely to pick out books that I think will promote this idea. Even though the basic principles described in How to Influence People and Win Friends aren’t new I was inspired by the stories and ideas in it.

Social media has put communication in today’s world on steroids. The speed of it all and the potential reach can be very helpful, but it can also lead to shallowness and thoughtlessness. It’s very easy to criticize or even insult someone from the comfort of your own home, enjoying the anonymity of an untraceable username and drawn curtains. You can stand out by being kind and considerate. Even if you don’t agree with someone you can try to empathize with their position and situation. You can stop and think about how they must feel, especially those who are copping a lot of nastiness online. If you are truly unable to address someone in a respectful way you could always consider to not say anything at all (I know, it’s revolutionary).

You don’t have to criticize others to appear interesting or important. If you criticize or complain about someone to other people, these people will undoubtedly wonder if (or even assume that) you would talk about them in the same way. It makes it hard for people to trust you.
If you can stay true to your own values and at the same time show compassion for those you don’t agree with you build trust. Communicating in a caring rather than a condemning way is a good differentiation strategy in a time where the spirit of communication is often less than dignifying. Whether online or in a boardroom, if you manage to speak in a spirit of respectful affirmation you are much more likely to win friends and influence people.

A lot of focus on social media is put on the number of likes our content gets. We believe that influence and happiness come from the sheer volume of impressions that we manage to collect. It doesn’t. A like on what someone posts on social media can be the start of a connection. It sends a signal that you agree with the content as well as (at least to a certain extent) the messenger. It can also create affinity to other people who are drawn to the same people and opinions, but for a true connection, you need to share more than a like. A like is safe, but also shallow.

True influence flows from drawing together people with shared interests. Influence is not about you. And you don’t need the following of a celebrity to build something of significance. You are ultimately building a community when you initiate interactions with what matters to others. You want to add true value to people’s lives. Don’t worry about how many people you are connected to but worry instead about who you are connected to. Who are they and what are you doing to value and honor them. Most happiness can, after all, be drawn from making other people feel good. It’s not the number of people and messages that matter, it’s the few that are truly meaningful that make the difference.

This really got me thinking about what I want to achieve with this blog and my weekly book posts. I’m no longer too bothered by the idea of attracting a large following or a large number of readers, but what do my posts mean to you, the people who do read them? To be honest I have no idea. I love to read and write and the weekly posts keep me accountable. After some valuable feedback from a great friend and writer, I started to make sure that the posts have more of “me” in them instead of just being a plain summary or review of a book. It has helped me to find an angle for the posts, even if there isn’t that much to say about a book. But what do you get out of my writing? Other than hopefully a few minutes of entertainment while reading and perhaps the occasional idea about a book that you might want to read.
I will do more thinking on this, but if you feel that my posts provide value to you I would love to hear about it. If you have an idea about how my posts could be of more value to you I would be grateful if you are willing to share it with me.

It’s funny that when we communicate our message, we spend a remarkable amount of time worrying about the way we come across. We also spend a remarkably short amount of time wondering what really matters to the intended recipient. This is true for blog posts, personal communication, and the marketing messages of many companies. We should pay more attention to details, to people’s needs and wants. Focus on other people’s goals and you might reach your own. Just focusing on the big picture of your own goals will get you nowhere if you need other people to achieve them. Too often we are campaigning instead of connecting.

It’s safe to say that even though the ideas behind the book are almost a hundred years old it’s still very relevant. It provides inspiration about basic ways to behave and interact with other people, as well as how to use social media.
There is one thing I don’t like about the book. At times it uses expressions that to me feel old-fashioned and demeaning towards women. It’s never direct and probably unintentional. Perhaps it’s in bits of the original 1936 text. But having re-written a lot of the book it should have been easy to come up with a different way to get the message across.

There is of course more to the book than I touched on in this post. The ideas that also stood out to me but that didn’t make it into this post were the tips on how to give feedback and how to share praise. How can you give someone feedback in a way that they will be open to receiving it and that allows them to learn from it and feel inspired by it? Rather than knocking down their confidence and making them scared to experiment and innovate. How do you handle and address your own failures? Nobody’s perfect and neither are you. What is the impact of praise on people’s motivation? Spoiler alert, it can be significant!

The War for Kindness – Building Empathy in a Fractured World

I feel very strongly about kindness and empathy. I always try to be kind, even when I’m tired and in a hurry and I don’t feel like it. I don’t always succeed, but I always try. When I learned about a book called The War for Kindness – Building Empathy in a Fractured World I immediately knew I wanted to read it.
Jamil Zaki is a professor at Stanford University who has been studying how empathy works for many years and he wrote this book about his most important findings.

The first time I started thinking about empathy was after hearing David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water”. I realize there are serious problems with David Foster Wallace’s legacy, but the speech is so powerful I still want to quote it. The speech is about making a conscious decision to think about what you’re thinking, instead of just living your life on autopilot. Many of us are like the young fish described at the start of the speech. And the people in the supermarket. And the people stuck in traffic.
If I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] — this is an example of how NOT to think, though — most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.
 
You get the idea.
 
If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
 
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Our feelings and emotions are not determined by what happens to us. They are determined by how we react to what happens to us. I try to always keep this in mind and actively practice it. People who I think of as assholes who are in my way don’t think about the world with me at the center of it in the way I do. They, by definition, experience life and the world around them with themselves at the center of it all. They might have very good reasons for behaving in the way they do. They might be very annoyed by my behavior, even if I didn’t mean to annoy anyone, or if I had a very good reason for behaving the way I did.
I know for a fact that I’m sometimes annoying for the people close to me because whenever they complain about others I try to come up with suggestions about why the people they are furious at behaved the way they did. Which is, of course, the last thing you want to hear when you are trying to blow off some steam.

In the book, Zaki describes how empathy’s most important role is to inspire kindness. It triggers us to help others, even at a cost to ourselves. This cost is worth it, both on a personal and an evolutionary level.
If many humans weren’t willing to help others we would not exist and certainly not thrive as a species. Human baby’s and kids are helpless for much longer than most other species’ offspring. They need their parents and community to take care of them, despite the cost of energy, time and money.
A personal benefit of empathizing is that it will help us to attract friends. We like people who empathize with us. Decades of evidence show that people who empathize with others have more friends and experience greater happiness.

I don’t just try to execute my quest for kindness and empathy in my personal life. I also extend it to my professional life. I work hard on building a culture that makes people feel appreciated and safe. Where leaders are kind and enable their teams to learn and grow and use their potential. Even if that potential is greater than that of the leader itself. We should reward people for achieving great things together, for helping each other and for leveraging everyone’s strengths.

Zaki’s research confirms that this is a good strategy. Organizations that focus on kindness flourish, even when it comes to the bottom line. In 2012, Google found that its people-oriented teams were also their most successful teams.
For several decades people have believed that the best way to motivate employees is by offering them bonuses for individual excellence. While this may motivate some people, most people feel unhappy in an environment in which they constantly have to outdo their colleagues. It generates anxiety, fatigue, and hostility. It limits results and increases attrition. A rewards system that promotes cooperation, on the other hand, increases morale and productivity.

The second person who has influenced my thinking about empathy is Tim Minchin. This also started with his commencement speech in which he shares 9 life lessons. Number three is about empathy and being humble.
Remember, It’s All Luck. You are lucky to be here. You were incalculably lucky to be born, and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family that helped you get educated and encouraged you to go to Uni. Or if you were born into a horrible family, that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy… but you were still lucky: lucky that you happened to be made of the sort of DNA that made the sort of brain which – when placed in a horrible childhood environment – would make decisions that meant you ended up, eventually, graduating Uni. Well done you, for dragging yourself up by the shoelaces, but you were lucky. You didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up. They’re not even your shoelaces.
 
I suppose I worked hard to achieve whatever dubious achievements I’ve achieved … but I didn’t make the bit of me that works hard, any more than I made the bit of me that ate too many burgers instead of going to lectures while I was here at UWA.
 
Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate.
 
Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually.

Tim Minchin’s idea that you can practice being empathic is in line with David Foster Wallace’s idea about actively thinking about what you are thinking about and it’s supported by Zaki’s research results.
A century ago, scientists were convinced the adult human brain was fixed. That it couldn’t grow or change. This also meant the assumption was that character and behavior was fixed. That it couldn’t be trained or adjusted. If you weren’t kind or empathic that was just who you were.
Part of who we are and how we behave is genetically determined. Studies have shown that empathy is about 30% genetically determined. For generosity, this is 60%. I guess that explains why my mum could have bitter discussions with my grandma about who was allowed to buy the other person dinner and why I have very similar discussions with my mum today.

If 30% of empathy is genetically determined this still leaves a lot of room for improvement through experience, training, and education. Our actions, inactions and life’s choices make a real difference. Education grows the brain, while stress causes atrophy. Empathy is a skill that you can improve on just like math, running, and weightlifting. People might start at different base levels, but their competency is by no means fixed.

Training to be empathic can be done by simply thinking about what you’re thinking. Feeling empathy is easier for someone you know personally than for the abstract concept of a group or a tribe. Especially if you don’t belong to that particular group. If you hate a specific group of people, getting to know someone from that group and being treated with kindness by that person can in some cases change your mind about the entire group. In the words of Mark Twain “Getting to know people and traveling is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts”.

People feel more empathy for others when they understand what they are going through. You can learn about other people and their circumstances in many different ways, but nowadays it can most realistically be experienced using Virtual Reality. Experiments show that people who have experienced a refugee camp through VR are more empathic towards refugees and are also willing to donate more money for relief efforts even months after their VR experience.

Actors pretend to be other people, which means that they have to think about what the person they are pretending to be thinks and feels. This is a form of practicing empathy. It’s therefore not surprising that students who train to be actors don’t only develop their acting talent, but also their empathy.
Reading and acting can be a way to practice empathy in safe environments, without judgment. Storytelling doesn’t just provide joy and amusement, it can also make people kinder!

I’m so fascinated by the impact that empathy can have and how you can learn to be more empathic that I could go on and on about it. I empathize with you, the reader though. I realize you have other (better) things to do besides reading this blog.
I do ask you to read or listen to David Foster Wallace’s speech and think about its contents.

If you are interested in empathy Jamil Zaki’s book is a very worthwhile read. In this post, I only touched upon a tiny little part of the topics that he discusses. If you are a parent, a caretaker, or if you work in medicine in one capacity or another the book contains some valuable insights that aren’t obvious. At least they weren’t to me.

Empathy is the mental superpower that can overcome the distance between two people. Empathy is personal, but it’s also collective. We are herd animals. We behave in the way we see people around us behaving. We observe others and copy parts of what they do and think. You only have to look at local accents to realize that this is true. Fortunately, we don’t just respond to norms, we also create them. Setting examples of kindness and empathy helps to let other people be more kind and emphatic too. Let’s create a trend together.