Empathy as Superpower

In an industry where understanding people on a deeper level is essential, our superpower is empathy. The value we bring (shout out to the strategists, but really, everyone) is our ability to grasp the wants, motivations and fears of those who may not be like us. 

It isn't easy. While data gives us clues about our target audiences, we know deep down that true understanding comes from talking and interacting, not just observing from afar. As a mentor of mine said recently: meeting people as humans, asking questions with empathy, being open to learning from them—that's when the power of our talents is most amazing. 

Some days, it's hard af. The days we don't feel like interacting with strangers (anyone who's done man-on-the-street interviews knows what's up). The times an attempt to understand someone feels like we're condoning beliefs and actions we vehemently oppose. But we dig way down, activating a different part of our brains, temporarily separating ourselves from our beliefs and pulling the goggles of objectivity over our eyes. We don't abandon what we stand for—we dissociate to learn in the name of it.

We remember examples from history. During World War II, the US Office of War Information asked anthropologist Ruth Benedict to study patterns of Japanese culture in an attempt to better understand and predict the enemy's behavior. The Chrysanthemum and The Sword (which you may remember helped Don Draper win the Honda pitch in Mad Men Season 4) was written at a time when the Japanese seemed completely backwards as a people. The book looked beyond the stereotypes and facts, and used interviews to help explain why the Japanese did what they did.

We celebrate and learn from others doing the hard work today. The wizardry of Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York to pull life stories that remind us that our differences sprout from shared emotional seeds. (Check out his latest series from Macomb County. See also: David Lynch's Interview Project)

The measured patience and genuine curiosity of sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who spent five years among tea party supporters in Louisiana trying to bridge the deep divide in American politics. Her episode on Ezra Klein's podcast is a crash course on how to ask questions that get people to open up, and what it takes to "turn off your alarm system" when you encounter opinions you don't agree with—10/10 would recommend listening.

It's easy to like and share data. It's harder to take to the streets locally. But it's hardest to expose yourself to people who are wholly different than you, to approach them without judgement for the sake of understanding. Make no mistake—empathy isn't soft. It takes strength and grit to go the highest level of high, step outside ourselves and wield empathy as a weapon. 

The world needs us now more than ever. Not everyone can do it—it's a heavy responsibility to bear. But as those who've chosen a career based in understanding people, we have to try

Boom! Pow! Zap!


Special thanks to Megan & Gabe for their thoughts and examples, which were central in putting this superhero's manifesto together.