Empathy: Where does yours come from & how do you use it?

empathy: noun. The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.*

I recently came across a piece on empathy by Chad Fowler. Chad's point is how the most successful people are highly empathetic. I agree with this, and I do tend I think of myself as an empathetic person. Specifically, I think empathy is an essential for those who create experiences with technology. Fortunately, it's a skill you can practice and learn.

Sympathy is sometimes confused with empathy, which is the ability of parties to relate due to mutual experience. Sympathy lacks the requirement of having this shared experience. For instance, I never in my life have broken a bone, but I can sympathize, offering comfort to someone who has. I actually find it easier however to empathize with others, putting myself in their shoes to feel their pain by projecting unto them my own experiences as reference.

This weekend, I finally started watching the first season House of Cards. For those like me who haven't seen it (we're living under a rock apparently, even President Obama watches), the show centers on Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey's characters--an NGO executive and  House Majority Whip, respectively. Ask anyone who's seen the show about Spacey's character, Congressman Frank Underwood, and you'll hear words like conniving, manipulative, and evil. I'll add another one: highly empathetic. If anything, watch the series first two episodes (masterfully directly by David Fincher), then ask yourself how anyone as effective at his work as Spacey's character could achieve what he does without completely understanding the feelings and motivations of those with whom he interacts. 

One trait I see in Underwood though is his inherent feeling of superiority to others. For my own part, I'm  quite the opposite. Perhaps the single largest reason I don't feel I have a superior perspective to others is because my instinct is that I'm going to fail. Why then not entertain as many angles as I can?

I've fought against this sense of inevitable failure over and over again, to the point where now I can quickly silence and overcome it. However, I think a notable well of my empathy comes from that self-doubt in my gut reactions. With much practice, I now know how to fight it off, so I can now use it as a momentum to propel forward when I choose. 


No doubt the fictional Congressman Underwood has a fear of failure too---why else would he do what he does? (I won't spoil the series for those who haven't seen it by citing examples.) The biggest difference between he and I believe is to what ends we channel out empathy.