Category Archives: Reflections

Fahrenheit 451 – a classic that makes you think

After The Handmaid’s Tale, this book by Ray Bradbury is another classic and another book describing a dystopian US future. Guy Montag is a fireman and a fireman’s job is to burn books. When some secretly hidden books are discovered, usually through a tip from someone close to the booklover, the alarm in the fire station will sound and the firemen will rush out to burn them. The fire chief explains to Montag that it used to be ok to be different and read books. When the population grew ever bigger and denser it became important for the authorities to make sure there were no outliers and individualists. When everyone is the same there is no reason to compare yourself to others, thus taking away a major source of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

This reasoning is interesting, as in The Handmaid’s Tale underpopulation and the need for people to focus on simply reproducing as much as possible is cited as a reason to keep people from thinking for themselves.
We see this in the real world too. Different leaders come up with a myriad of reasons to explain why it’s important that they get more power. Most authoritarian regimes come into power because at least part of the people feel that they might have a point. Most of them will come to regret this later when the veil hiding the regime’s selfish wish for more personal power evaporates.

Both in Fahrenheit 451 and in The Handmaid’s Tale it is suggested that by taking away people’s opportunity to read you take away their opportunity to learn and think for themselves. Both societies were dreamt up by authors and it makes sense for authors to feel that books being banished and reading being forbidden is a disaster.
Personally, I love learning through reading books, but I think there are also other ways to learn and educate yourself on a whole range of different topics. Not reading books doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not actively working to learn and grow. You could watch TV shows that make you think or watch online documentaries. You can read blogs, listen to podcasts and listen and talk to other people and learn from them.

Entertainment in Fahrenheit 451’s society is provided by interactive shows that do nothing to educate or challenge people. The shows are displayed on large screens. The ultimate setup to strive for is for all four walls of your living room to be replaced by the screens. The people in the shows are described as “family”. Montag’s wife Mildred loves the screens (they have three walls covered) and proclaims that she is happy talking to her “family”. When she’s not watching the screens she has earbuds in her ears that allow her to listen to the radio or to the sounds of the sea or the jungle. They are noise canceling, so she can’t communicate with others while wearing them. Mildred doesn’t like disruption and she doesn’t want to be challenged to think. Neither do her friends when they come and visit.
There aren’t many women in the book and most of them aren’t painted in a positive light.
Thankfully Clarisse, the girl who lives next door to Montag, is one of the heroes. She makes him wake up from his apathy by asking him seemingly simple, but provocative questions. She makes him think for himself.

This is also what the author is challenging us as readers to do. Think. Don’t just live your life on auto-pilot, but think about what you are doing and why you’re doing it. This comes back to David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water” that I wrote about here. If we are the fish from the speech it’s important to make a conscious decision to recognize the water that we’re swimming in. Even when it’s always there. Especially when it’s always there.

After coming back from holiday last year I noticed that I didn’t feel good at the end of my evenings. I needed the disruption of the holiday to even notice this. I live alone and when sitting down with a cup of tea in the evening I always turned on the TV. I thought I felt better with the TV on because it provided some background chatter. Often I ended up watching though, even if nothing decent was on. When bedtime came around I felt like I didn’t get anything out of the evening. To conquer that feeling I stayed up longer, hoping that watching some more TV would make me feel better. It never did, but going to bed late certainly made me feel tired.

It’s been almost a year now since I stopped watching TV on weeknights. I also canceled my Netflix subscription. Instead, I read and I started to learn to play the piano. Both reading and playing the piano give me a lot of joy. It makes me feel like I used my time wisely and like I did something that I will still feel good about in the morning (do you ever consider when you have trouble going to bed because you think just one more episode won’t hurt, whether you will you feel better or worse in the morning because you watched that extra episode?). When I read or practice instead of watching TV I feel like I’ve had a longer and more fulfilling evening. It makes it easier to go to bed on time (sort of, I’m still a night owl).

Your experience might be completely different. You might not enjoy reading and watching TV or Netflix might genuinely make you feel good. If that’s the case then please continue to watch TV or Netflix! The point is to stop and think about it. Are you living your life on auto-pilot? Or are you at least occasionally appreciating the water that you’re swimming in? You need to make a conscious decision to snap out of auto-pilot, as our brains prefer to just do what we always do. The brain is the organ that uses the bulk of our energy and to use it efficiently it usually leaves its System 1 monkey brain (as described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow) in charge.

I know this all too well. I love structure, rhythm, and regularity. It means that I can use my energy on the important stuff like being kind and trying to empathize and having too many meetings and still giving everyone the attention that they deserve. And to occasionally ask “How’s the water?”.

How's the water

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

To Kill a Mockingbird – heart-rendingly relevant

This week I read a classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee. It had been referenced in many of the books that I read over the last few weeks, which meant that it was top of mind for a while already for me. I was also curious to learn if there is a link between one of the main characters in the book, who is called Atticus Finch, and Tim Minchin’s character in Californication, who is called Atticus Fetch. It seemed too similar and unusual to be a coincidence, but I haven’t found the link if there is one.

I did find that another element of pop culture was inspired by the book. As a teenager, my favorite song was Wake Up Boo by The Boo Radleys for years. Boo Radley (whose real name is Arthur Radley) is the neighbor of the protagonist and her family. They haven’t seen him in years, the kids are even unsure if he’s still alive, although their father assures them that he is. He just stays inside the house.

The story is set in the 1930s in Alabama. It’s told from the point of view of an 8-year-old white girl. It’s an anti-racist story. It should be a story about how things used to be. But it’s so relevant today that at times I found it hard to read on. It’s heartbreaking.
The protagonist is Scout Finch, whose real name is Jean Louise. She has an older brother called Jem (short for Jeremy). Her father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer. Scout’s favorite attire is her overall and she likes to play outside with her brother and their friend Dill.

At the beginning of the book, the kids are still young and pure. Their souls are uncorrupted and they are raised to be fair and just. Living in a racist environment that is very hard to retain. The hatred and disdain for people who are different are very strong in almost all adults in the book.

A black man is accused of raping a white woman. Before the trial starts people in the streets have already convicted him. Some of them even want to play judge, jury, and executioner themselves. The fact that there is strong evidence that he can’t have done it is completely ignored by most.
Atticus has been assigned to defend the accused and both he and the kids have to deal with a lot of hatred over it. It’s so persistent that it’s starting to taint their innocence.

The book is filled with examples of how standing out in any way can make you the target of gossip, exclusion, and hatred. I wish it was possible to think that this is just the small-minded people in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s. It’s not. Standing out today is still very likely to make you the target of derision and hatred and in some cases even physical attacks.

Unfortunately, our brain is designed in a way that makes it very easy to hate anyone who you perceive as being different from you. People who support a different sports team to you, people with different skin color, people with a different political preference, a different sexual orientation or from a different country, city or neighborhood. By hating others we feel like we are part of a tribe and that feels good. We all have more similarities than differences, but it’s easier and more rousing to focus on the differences.
We teach our children to do the same from a very young age. Sometimes just because we set an example through our own behavior, but it’s also considered acceptable to teach them to mock “the other”. Most of you will now be thinking about extremist parents, but many have taught their kids songs that make fun of the nemesis of their favorite football team at a young age. Or taught them jokes about people from a neighboring country. I’m sure you can think of more examples.

I plead with you. Next time you think about labeling someone as different, even if it’s just in your mind, try to challenge yourself. Are they really that different? Could they feel the same way about you? Can you think of something positive about the person? Can you put yourself in their shoes? We all once had a child’s innocence, but we lost it along the way and we replaced it with opinions and biases. Let’s try to shed some opinions and regain some innocence.

To Kill a Mockingbird is to destroy innocence. Let’s save the mockingbird. Let’s teach our kids to be respectful of others. To look beyond the first impression and focus on similarities. It feels like the world is in a pretty bad place right now, but we made it so. We can also make it better. One person at a time if we have to. Please.

I think there's just one kind of folks

The Science of Storytelling

I started reading The Science of Storytelling because it was a non-fiction week and I wanted to change the theme away from feminism and leadership through empathy and kindness.
The author, Will Storr, decided to write the book when he discovered that there were many parallels between what psychologists and neuroscientists tell us about how the mind works and what storytellers tell us about narrative. To me, it felt like the book was at least as much about human behavior as it was about storytelling and I found it more interesting and fascinating because of it.

Storr argues that it’s not the plot that makes a book gripping and enjoyable, but that it’s the characters and our ability to relate to them and experience the change that they go through throughout a book. This change is essential. The story shouldn’t just describe what the protagonist experiences on the outside, it should also be about the world inside them. What do they feel when their core beliefs are challenged and how does this change them?

The world as we see it is actually constructed in our brains. As we observe the world our brains put a very strong filter over it, that is based on our genes and everything that we have experienced in life up until that point. No two people observe the same scene (in real-life or in a story) in exactly the same way and the amount of false information that our brains can put into any observation is staggering. We don’t do this on purpose. We wouldn’t be able to stop it even if we wanted to.
The way we experience reality is warped by faulty information. We create a distorted version of reality inside our skulls. Because this is the only reality we know, we have no way of determining what part we made up based on our biases and the narrative that we created about ourselves.

When people plead with us that we’re mistaken or cruel and acting irrationally, we feel driven to find a way to dismiss the arguments they present to us. We know we’re right. We feel we’re right. We see evidence for it everywhere. We all feel that we see and experience the one objective version of reality, yet we all experience something slightly (or not so slightly) different. The closer people are to us, the more likely it is that our filters are somewhat similar. This makes it easier to understand and often agree with these people. The more different someone’s experiences have been, the more difficult it is to imagine yourself being in their shoes. It’s not hard to imagine that this can be a source of conflict.
I can think of several moments in the last week that I have argued out loud or in my head about how my view of a particular situation is right and thus the other person’s view must be wrong. Reading this last paragraph makes me shiver. Would it be possible that how I see the world is not how it really is? Is it possible that I might be wrong?!?

The brain defends our flawed model of the world with an armory of crafty biases. When we come across a new fact or opinion, we immediately judge it. When it’s consistent with our model of reality our neural reward systems spike and we feel good about it. If not, we want to reject it and we look for justifications to do so. These responses are fully unconscious and they have a powerful influence over us. When deciding whether to believe something or not, we don’t usually make an even-handed search for evidence. Instead, we hunt for any reason to confirm what our models have instantaneously decided for us. On top of that, we kid ourselves that this one-sided hunt for confirmatory information was noble and thorough.

This process is extremely cunning. It’s not simply that we ignore or forget evidence that goes against what our models tell us (although we do that too). We find dubious ways of rejecting the authority of opposing experts, give arbitrary weight to some parts of their testimony and not others, lock onto the tiniest genuine flaws in their argument and use them to dismiss them entirely. If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, you haven’t been on social media much lately and might have been unusually productive by avoiding this time-consuming source of frustration.
If you think that you’re too smart to fall for the confirmation-bias trap you’re wrong. Intelligence isn’t effective at dissolving these cognitive mirages of rightness. Smart people are mostly better at finding ways to “prove” they’re right and tend to be no better at detecting their wrongness. I hope this makes you do a double-take and at least briefly reevaluate some of the discussions that you had recently.
While all of this is shocking, it also explains a whole lot. For instance about the debate on the seriousness of the climate emergency that we are experiencing in the world, but also about how certain world-leaders can continue to live with themselves and even still have a loyal following.

The models in our brains are flexible during childhood and adolescence. After that they become mostly fixed and changing them becomes harder and more painful. This explains why older people have more trouble dealing with change and why older people often seem to become more unreasonable and bigoted.
It also means that our experiences during our childhood and adolescence are very important. They are instructive to the people we grow up to be. Our popularity at school, the way our parents look at the world around them and the role models that we look up to influence how we experience reality and look at the world forever. It’s not impossible to change as a grown-up, but it is a lot harder.

A lot of us will naturally prefer storytellers who have a similar background to our own. If we want to get a better understanding of other people we should try to branch out. Through stories of people who have lived different lives to our own, we can experience different models first hand through the eyes of the protagonist. This can help us to become more understanding and appreciative of different cultures and ideas.
While emerged in a well-designed story, we start to think about a character as if we are them. Our bodies even physically respond as if we are. Our heart-rates might go up and our blood vessels might dilate. We become so absorbed in the world of the storyteller that we forget about our surroundings and we miss our train stop or forget to go to sleep.
This resonates strongly with me. It even adds a new excuse to the “why I don’t go to bed on time” list. I thought it was just me being stubborn and focused on the short term, but it’s actually because I’m temporarily suspended in a different world!

Although I realize we can’t force people to consume certain stories, whether in film or through books, people seeing the world through the eyes of their foes might be just what the world needs. If stories can help us to bridge the gaps in understanding and generate empathy for different cultures and ideas they might be what’s most likely to save us from eradicating the human race or even destroy our planet.
Having a better understanding of how my brain works and how unreliable it is, means that I will try to be more vigilant when I feel that I’m right. Knowing that understanding other people’s models will make me more sympathetic to their ideas, means that I will try to branch out in terms of the types of books and authors that I read. I know that I won’t be able to beat my brain and my biases, but I can at least try!

I could have written several completely different posts about this book, which is a testament to how full it is of interesting facts, stories, and information. I could have written about how happiness is mostly about being engaged in what you are doing at this moment and not about some pot of gold that is to be found at the end of the rainbow through some magical quest. I could also have written about how a gripping story follows the change that a protagonist is going through. Or about the power of metaphors and the use of cause-and-effect and how we confabulate. I also found it interesting to read about how similar a healthy brain and a mentally ill brain really are. It’s fascinating and frankly a bit scary to read about how competitive we are and how we perceive others who we deem more successful than ourselves for one reason or another.
If you are at all interested in the human condition or in how to tell a gripping story I recommend that you read The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr.

A reader lives a thousand lives

The Alice Network – impossible to put down

I missed quite a few hours of sleep this week because I was unable to put Kate Quinn’s brilliant novel The Alice Network down. The main characters are so lively and real I couldn’t wait to get to know them better and learn about what happened to them and their loved ones. Some of the characters don’t just seem real, they were real. The Alice Network was the most efficient spy network of WW I, run by Alice Dubois, whose real name was Louise de Bettignies. Although she was well known by contemporary British intelligence and military men and fiercely hated by the Germans, she’s not very well known today.

Spying wasn’t cool before James Bond and Covert Affairs and female spies had it even worse. Despite the very difficult and dangerous circumstances in which they had to live they were supposed to behave like saints. If they didn’t they were quickly assumed to be whores. The book tells the story of Eve Gardiner (a fictional character), a file girl who desperately wants to prove that she is capable of greater things. Eve has a stammer, which makes people think she’s simple-minded and weak. She has a soft and innocent face but she is an exceptionally good liar. And not simple-minded at all.

The Alice Network2

The story of Eve, which plays in 1915, is alternated with that of Charlie St. Clair, which plays in 1947. Charlie is the daughter of rich parents. Her brother fought in WW II and was unable to adjust to regular life afterward. He killed himself, leaving her parents heartbroken and Charlie wrecked with guild. Charlie is a math wizard, but after her brothers dead she starts missing school and gets herself pregnant. To make things right with the world she wants to find her cousin Rose, who went missing during the war. It’s this search that makes the paths of Charlie and Eve cross.

Quinn very quickly makes you fall in love with the characters (or hate them in some cases). They are trapped in very difficult situations, but at some level, I still wanted to be both Eve and Charlie. Eve’s courage is incomprehensible and her strength is out of this world. If I compare Eve’s life with mine I’m not allowed to complain ever again (don’t worry, I still will) and yet she remains determined and brave and never gives up. Thinking about the role that women like her played in both wars makes me feel humbled and proud to be a woman.

Charlie loves very passionately and has a similar unwavering determination. She also has a problem that she tries to ignore, even though that’s proving impossible. She hates the fancy but inconvenient clothes that her mum wants her dressed in. While her mother sends her to college to find a good husband, Charlie actually wants to make something of her life. She’s not content with the idea of just being someone’s wife.

Books like this (and the news) make me wonder what I will do if a war would break out. It’s easy to argue that we are already at a point where we should all be fighting to try and save the world from overheating and getting covered in plastic waste. That we should fight against the rise of hate of everyone who is not exactly like you. When will I start to fight? I minimize the amount of plastic packaging that I use, I have a reusable tea mug at work, I eat very little meat, I’m kind to the people around me and I regularly check my biases, but none of this is revolutionary, nor is it going to save the world. I’m a terrible liar and all my emotions are clearly displayed on my face, so I will never be a spy (or a good poker player). But there are so many for other types of activism. When will I take action? What will it take for me to step up?

I have no idea and it worries me.

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.

The Secret River – how a lack of understanding can lead to a disaster

The Secret River is loosely based on the story of Kate Grenville’s ancestor Solomon Wiseman, but it’s a work of fiction.
It’s incredibly well written. The book tells the story of William and Sal and it feels heavy from start to finish.
William and Sal meet as kids in London. William has a big family with a lot of brothers and sisters. There isn’t enough food for everyone and he’s often cold. Sal’s an only child and her family is a bit better off. William and Sal end up being some of Australia’s early settlers.

Usually, when reading I try to identify with one of the main characters. In this book, I’m on the outside looking in. None of the characters are very likable. I felt sorry for them, but at the same time, they don’t seem to handle their circumstances very well. It’s easy to say that while being sat on a comfortable sofa with tea and a biscuit of course.

In a way, the book shows the worst sides of humans. There is a total lack of empathy for other classes and people with a different background and culture. Those in a position of power treat the people that need their kindness and support the most with contempt. As they gain power people behave like their former oppressors, even though they are aware of how that behavior hurt them in the past. They take the full force of their self-loathing out on others.
Throughout the book decisions and actions lead to crashes in slow motion. With horrible consequences. While it’s easy to see it happening from a distance it does make me wonder if I would be able to see it happening if this was my life and these were my decisions and actions.

The Secret River is a strong reminder of how important it is to be open to other people and to try and understand what’s driving them. The characters in the book are unable to truly connect and reach each other and shame and entitlement is stopping them from really trying. It’s painful to watch.
The more different people seem to be at first glance, the harder it can be to connect. We should look for ways to communicate and not give up because it’s hard. We shouldn’t feel embarrassed because we are trying and not succeeding the first time.
This is a reminder for myself as much as anyone. Especially being prepared to try to connect, fail and try again. It’s ok to be uncomfortable and as today’s world is becoming smaller and more diverse it might be more important than ever.

The Secret River made me feel some of the painful history of Australia. It also made me realize while I learned about the facts of Dutch colonization, I have little awareness of the feelings and the emotions that must have been part of it. The violence, pain, and injustice.
I want to find a book like The Secret River that can teach me about the pain and injustice that are part of my own past.

I learned about The Secret River through this Youtube video.
If you are lucky enough to have an Australian iTunes account I think the Secret River mini-series will be well worth a watch.

The Secret River