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Empathy: The Attribute, Above All Others, That Will Allow Kids to Succeed in Life and in Business

The speaker at the Traverse City TEDx event, Michele Borba, was talking about the importance of teaching kids empathy in order to reduce bullying. As I sat in the dark theater my mind wandered back 30 years. I was not a bad kid – I had my moments but I don’t think anyone would classify me as a bully, even by today’s heightened standards. But, if I’m being honest with myself, nor was I particularly empathetic, at least on a consistent basis.

If you can visualize a continuum, with Bully on one edge and Empathetic on the other, I’d say I fell somewhere in the middle.

That’s not good enough. I want my girls to be better – to be more aware of and sympathetic to the feelings, desires and insecurities of others. To constantly push the needle toward empathy. But not necessarily for the reasons you may expect. Or, better put, not exclusively for the reasons you may expect.

Yes, of course, I don’t want them to be bully kids. That’s table stakes in playing the game of life.

What’s sometimes overlooked in the “Empathy Stops Bullying” discussion is that empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – is one of the most critical attributes for a young person to learn to succeed not just in the classroom or on the playground, but also once they enter the business world.

Empathy Enables Success

Chris Sacca is one of Silicon Valley’s most successful investors, and at the age of 39 has amassed a billion dollar fortune thanks to early-stage investments in companies like Twitter, Uber, Instagram and Kickstarter.

When considering an investment in a company, Sacca meets with its founders and his focus is not solely on M.B.A. degrees, programming skills and financial acumen. He’s looking for empathy. He believes that many of today’s entrepreneurs live in an introspective state, a bubble removed from the realities of the world, which makes it impossible to envision and capitalize on the desires of their customers.

Founders may be highly educated, and have sterling pedigrees, but lack the ability to relate to those around them. For Sacca, this is disqualifying. He explains that such people, who lack empathy, have “narrow-band perspectives on the world.” They’re unable to put themselves in the shoes of those they hope to serve.

On the other hand, when an entrepreneur is in tune with the perspectives and needs of his or her constituents – customers, employees, investors, community – the business is strengthened.

A great example of corporate empathy in action is Herman Miller, the international office furniture designer located a couple hours south of Traverse City in Zeeland, Michigan. It exercises empathy to understand customer needs and build better products. The company explains how empathy powers its healthcare business in a statement: “We gain empathy by engaging with nurses and other caregivers in multiple ways. Facility tours, focus groups, gaming sessions and job shadowing help us gain insights into the work of caregivers, to really understand what they do, what their workday is really like.” These insights are then shared with development teams in order to improve products.

There is broader evidence of the power of empathy in business. A recent study of 1,500 business leaders found that “leaders with a good self-insight, who are humble and act as good role models, are rewarded with committed and service-minded employees.” In other words, empathetic business leaders build strong teams.

This research is consistent with my own experience. While practicing law as an associate at large law firms, I observed that the most successful partners tended to be highly empathetic. This helped them in business development – they were able to listen effectively and understand and identify client needs. It also helped them build loyal, hard charging teams of lawyers working under them. In this context empathy was often described as “emotional intelligence,” which seems to be the more accepted nomenclature in the business world. It’s unfortunate that there seems to be a hesitancy to discuss the importance of empathy in business.

I think this is driven by the mistaken notion that practicing empathy somehow demonstrates weakness. Practicing empathy, however, is demonstrating strength.

For example, there are few acts as strong – and empathetic – as having a difficult, but necessary, conversation with an employee, co-worker or client/customer. The easy path is to avoid such conversations and allow issues to fester. But the strong, empathetic (albeit difficult) one is to clear the air, say what needs to be said, and get relationships back on track. Communication, a fundamental building block of a successful business, is key to practicing empathy.

Raising Empathetic Kids

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As our kids get older, I’m becoming more cognizant of the need to try to teach them empathy. I think that we are born empathetic, but unfortunately, for many, that instinct tends to wane. I’m certainly no expert, but I believe that at the core of teaching empathy is exposing kids to a broad range of people, environments and experiences. They need to have perspective about others in order to understand the privileges they enjoy themselves. There are countless ways to teach these lessons, and we’re interested in hearing your perspectives on this important issue, but some areas we will focus on with our kids include:

Sports: For a young child, few experiences can help build character and empathy more than participation in team sports. Done right, with effective coaching and parental support, sports teach kids the importance of teamwork, of learning to deal gracefully with both success and failure, and of committing to a mission greater than themselves.

Work: Looking back, some of the most formative experiences I had growing up were during summer breaks while working various jobs. During high school I carried golf clubs as a caddy, worked with kids at summer baseball camps, painted streets for the city, and chopped vegetables at a restaurant. During college I worked as an intern in corporate settings. These experiences exposed me to a wide range of people and perspectives. Chris Sacca’s parents planned “sweet and sour” summers for him and his brother. For half the summer they would work a “sweet” job – in an office setting, for example, and the other half would be spent doing something “sour” – construction in the sweltering heat. This not only helped inform their own career ambitions, but also helped them understand the challenges faced by others.

Travel: One of the biggest motivating factors behind our decision to build a virtual business that we can operate from anywhere is our desire to travel with our kids. While they are still a bit young, in the coming years we plan to travel with them extensively, both within the United States and abroad. We want them to see the world in order to have a broader perspective about their own place in it.

While most kids are born with the instinct of empathy, it’s something that must be nurtured as they grow and are exposed to the trials and tribulations of the world. In her TEDx talk, Michele Borba lamented the “Selfie” syndrome that is leading our kids to be less empathetic and more focused on self.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a fierce believer in the importance of pursuing self-interest. It’s the cornerstone of entrepreneurship. But self-interest and empathy are not mutually exclusive. Both can be – in fact should be – pursued and practiced when chasing dreams. Just ask Chris Sacca.

I don’t know the specific answers to this problem, but I do know they start at home. Like most things in life, the solution requires a balanced approach. Accordingly, in our home, “kind, polite and considerate” will be emphasized to the same degree, if not more so, as “smart, athletic and high achieving.” That’s because we know that, if they are kind, polite and considerate, they’ll be successful in whatever it is they do.

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