Eric Barker shares his non-intuitive, scientifically-backed insights on what does and doesn’t lead to success.
Want followers? Want to get more from a negotiation than you go in expecting? Want more loyal relationships with your employees? Want people to be committed to your cause? Want deeper friendships and romantic relationships?
Empathy is the key. It’s the ability to understand what another person is feeling, even if their situation is unlike yours. Empathy is the foundation for relationships, for anticipating others’ needs, for anticipating hot buttons, and for being able to help others. It’s even where great inventions and innovations come from—understanding someone else’s world so thoroughly that you solve problems they didn’t even realize were solvable.
Empathy is a skill, and it can be learned. It’s usually learned face-to-face, but in the wonderful world of technology, we don’t get nearly as much facetime as we once did. But it’s still possible to learn and exercise your empathy skills, explicitly.
We’ll use gender and race as examples, because we can all find someone of different gender and race, and this exercise will help us glimpse into their very different worlds.
In day-to-day empathy, you can even use this with very similar people. Because even people from very similar circumstances can have dramatically different experiences.
Their reality may not be directly knowable
My female friend Vinda told me she never walks home alone after 11 pm. I scoffed. I’d lived in that neighborhood for over ten years. We’d even walked home together. It was perfectly safe… no catcalling, harassment, or anything. Ten years.
I began casually asking women who lived in that neighborhood if they walked home alone. My friend Lauren is a black belt. I asked her, and she looked at me as if I was nuts. “Of course. I’ve always had to do that. All women do that. Why do you ask?”
That’s when I realized that my life as a man is fundamentally different from my friends’ lives as women. When I’m with them, the world is one way. When they’re alone, it’s different. And it isn’t knowable by me, because my very presence changes it.
Find out about their life
Ask them about their life. Let them tell you, and trust the answers. This exercise isn’t about deciding whether you agree with them; this is about learning how they experience their life, from their perspective. Ask them to tell you about what it’s like to be at home, at work. What do they worry about? What do they take for granted? Where do they feel safe? Unsafe? Loved? Ignored? Noticed?
If you have an opportunity to learn about and observe their life directly, take it.
Imagine their life from outside
Once you have an idea of their life, make a mental movie of what their life is, as reported by them or as you’ve seen it first-hand. Things to consider:
- What is it like to live in their neighborhood? Their apartment? Work in their office? What is their commute like?
- Who are their friends? What do they do together? What clothes do they wear? What do they do for fun?
- How do other people treat them on a daily basis?
- What do they worry about? What are they confident about?
For a short time, I was a “Big Brother” in the Big Brothers / Big Sisters program. My “Little Brother” was an African-American boy. When we would walk down the street together, people would turn and stare. Pretty much everywhere. It was a freaky experience for me, as I’d never experienced that. As a black boy, he experiences that every single time he walks through a predominantly white neighborhood.
I imagined what it’s like to live his life. Where he’s never experienced walking through a group of white people without having them look at you with curiosity or suspicion. Where the only people he can relax with are people of color, with cultural norms, language, hopes, and fears that aren’t the same as white people.
Now, take their perspective, literally
Now that you’ve got the movie of their life, rewind it, and mentally step into it, so you’re looking through their eyes. Roll the movie, and notice what their experience is like. The notice the feelings that you/they have as they live that experience.
In one of my more dramatic examples, I was talking with a friend who had said “Yes” when they meant “No,” and ended up doing drugs they really didn’t want to do. My friend explained how important it was to be liked by the group. And in that situation, from their perspective, they thought saying “No” would make them look scared and foolish in front of their friends.
Succumbing to peer pressure is really not a big issue for me. So I decided to empathize.
I imagined the scene from the outside: a group of friends sitting around in a circle, passing around drug paraphernalia. Everyone’s laughing and joking, and saying, “C’mon, just give it a try. We’re all doing it; it’s fine.” I imagine my friend cringing back, but nevertheless accepting and taking the drug.
Stepping into the movie. I suddenly felt a clenching in my chest. A thought came to mind: “I really don’t want to do this, but if I don’t, I’ll be an outsider. They’ll stop inviting me places. I’ll be all alone.” My friend’s fear, longing, and conflict; it all became real to me in that moment.
Your results will vary; that’s a good thing!
Empathy is individual. My Little Brother’s experience may not apply to all black people. Maybe just black men. Or maybe just him. And maybe my imagination of what it’s like to have all eyes watching distrustfully is nothing like the way he experiences it. You can always describe your experience and ask. With practice, you’ll get better at it. We all have the ability to feel empathy Your brain is built to make this work.
Give it a shot
There are a lot of chances to practice this empathy technique. Start with friends and family members, people you already know well. Then branch out. Try someone of a different race or religion. Try someone of a different race or gender. Try someone on the opposite side of a political issue. Try someone of a very different socioeconomic class.
This will be a stretch. You’ll need to learn something about the other person’s situation in order to gain the insight. While you can still get a surprising amount of benefit by simply constructing your own idea of what their life is like, you’ll get the most by seeking out the other person, asking questions, and listening. You won’t be listening to engage or react, however, but to learn. And to trust that, at least during this exercise, they’re reporting their real experience to you.
Empathy is the foundation for human relationships. It’s what lets us build bridges to people who aren’t like us, and even to people who are. Take the time to build your empathy muscles explicitly.
In my article on focusing your life around what you’re good at, what’s needed, what you love, and what’s scaleable, the “what’s scaleable” is a piece that’s new to me, and may be new to you. It’s worth talking about, though.
The Myth of Hard Work says that if you work hard, you’ll get ahead. And if you work harder, you’ll get aheader. If you work super-hard, you’ll be Bill Gates. (And if you work hardest of them all, you’ll be Batman.) Sadly, that’s wrong.
The Industrial Revolution enabled fortunes to be made because it allowed scale. A lone blacksmith could only make a single horseshoe an hour. In a horseshoe factory, however, a lone machine operator can make dozens of horseshoes an hour. What makes the riches possible is that machines and technology allow us to scale.
Scaleability matters to whatever you do
When I’m working with a coaching client around any project that involves a lot of people (generally it’s a business), we often spend some time honing in on scaleability. The business buzzword “leverage” comes into play here. We look for ways they can scale their results without scaling the work and cost to the same degree.
Some businesses don’t scale well at all. To add one more diner’s worth of revenue, a restaurant needs more kitchen capacity, more food, more server capacity, and time to cook that diner’s meal. Some of those elements can be squeezed out. By offering a limited meal, cooking in advance, and dispensing with servers, fast food restaurants can serve more customers with fewer resources. But even so, scaling still requires a lot of effort and systems.
The internet allows unprecedented scale
The internet’s joys and woes come from the fact that it makes new kinds of scale possible. Craigslist, a single website, can handle all the classified ads. All of them.
How does your business scale? In non-information company, growing a business requires resources up front. If Ben and Jerry’s wants to add a new product like Oreo Ice Cream cake, they have to buy honkin’ truckloads of Oreos, then find customers for all that delicious Oreo goodness.
But in information businesses, growth happens by reaching more people.
How the internet enables scale
Before the internet, some people who sold information sold it in physical form, books and reports. Scaling required more physical resources. Other people sold it electronically, but charged for the access points. Bloomberg made his billions by renting out Bloomberg terminals, over which he was able to cheaply send his real product, the information.
The internet provides a common access point that anyone can use: the web. And everyone already has the physical stuff they need to read the information, monitors and computers. So internet businesses don’t require hard, upfront investment to scale.
That’s why, when revising our company strategy, we shifted from a coaching-driven model to an online course driven model. It fulfills that fourth circle. It scales better.
A 20-minute video about online businesses and scale
I’m helping my mentor Danny Iny achieve scale by introducing him and his products to my list. I happen to believe very strongly in him and what he has to say, so we’ve become affiliates. We introduce each others’ products and services to our audiences, allowing us to reach more people without the kind of investment that would be needed for a traditional business to scale. (WalMart, for instance, grows by having to buy or rent a new store location. Then they have to sweep it. And then hang curtains. And get the utilities connected… Who wants to work that much?)
Danny has a video that lays out the fundamentals of why online businesses are a good thing from a business perspective. Danny grew a seven figure business in just a couple of years, and I’ve found his grasp of business to be superb.
Danny’s video explains the fundamentals of online business. You can check it out here:
Entrepreneurship isn’t about taking risks
Entrepreneurship is all the rage these days, and I’ve had a lot of people ask me if they have “the right personality type” to be entrepreneurs. They think entrepreneurship is about risk-taking. Entrepreneurs must love risk, right? Since obviously, corporate employees love safety, and they’re the opposite of entrepreneurs. This sounds like a great story and a great rationale. It’s just wrong.
Entrepreneurs generally are not huge risk takers. Indeed, non-monetary considerations are often more important. In fact, many entrepreneurs try to minimize risk. What makes them different from corporate employees is that entrepreneurs maximize experimentation.
A business starts with an idea for a product or service that benefits some market: pink widgets. The business launches the widgets, trying to sell them to football players. No one buys. So they make some blue widgets. Some football players buy, but unexpectedly, many teenage goth girls buy. The next year, the company tries selling blue widgets to teenage goth girls in a different country. They sell tons. They’ve found their product (blue widgets) and their market (teenage goth girls). Now they expand into more and more countries, creating billions of the same products to sell to the same market.
In the early lifecycle, the startup is rapidly experimenting and testing the product idea and the market. Once they’ve found the combination that works, the mindset shifts from rapidly-experiment to scale-the-business. Scaling requires getting good at doing the same things over and over and over. Suddenly, it’s all about doing the same thing over and over, getting better as it goes.
This is a profound shift. Experimentation needs quick decision-making, creative thinking, and a willingness to cut corners as long as you get the learning you need. Scale requires rigor, process improvement, and a willingness to have single-minded focus, and tweak the details so you can be as efficient at mass-production as possible.
That is what you need to assess when deciding whether to pursue something entrepreneurial. Yeah, it’s risky if you don’t control your costs. But that’s only part of the equation. Think less about taking risks, and more about doing experiments. Because at the end of the day, entrepreneurship is about minimizing your risk while maximizing the learning you get from rapid experiments with your product and market.
President Trump CEO, part 4: Allocating Capital
This is part 4 in a series on President Trump viewed through the lens of being a CEO. Part of President Trump’s great appeal is that he’s perceived as a successful businessperson. He’s even been talked about as being a President with CEO experience.
My article on the duties, responsibilities, and job description of a CEO, lays out four inherent parts of a CEO’s job. These are the parts of the job that, by definition, make a CEO a CEO. The CEO can delegate some things, but others simply can’t be delegated. Capital allocation is the CEO’s fourth main duty.
Allocating capital is the ultimate expression of strategic priorities.
Trump manages money
So far Trump has shown that he takes money very seriously. His position on many international bodies and on America’s role in the world is that all countries should help foot the bill for international costs. His stance so far has, indeed, prompted some countries to step up and contribute more to the U.N.
Domestically, Trump has instituted a hiring freeze on the Government and is presumably going to look at spending within the government.
Like everything else, this is more complicated than it seems. Government spending is a huge driver of the economy, and the government is the largest employer in the country. A business certainly wants to lay off as many employees as it possible can and still keep functioning. That’s how we boost profits.
A government, however, is walking a trickier line. A business is generally not affected by the employees it lays off, or by any reduction in its own spending. But not so, a government. Stop spending too quickly and lay too many people off and it simply drives up unemployment and slows down the economy.
Will spending cuts be done wisely?
In companies, spending cuts can be done by declaration: “cut 30% costs across the board.” This is an attractive way to do things. It’s easy to understand and easy to calculate. But it’s a bad way.
This kind of cutting assumes that there’s 30% waste across the board, and it assumes that all cuts are equal. All cuts are not equal. If you consider a company like Microsoft, cutting 30% of their administrative expenses might be a reasonable goal. But cutting 30% of their programming staff would boost their quarterly earnings while probably destroying their ability to fix bugs and develop products to stay competitive.
Spending cuts + process improvement = win?
The fundamental way to reduce costs in an ongoing business is through process improvement, finding ways to do existing things better.
While the stereotype of the Government is that it is extremely wasteful, that is an oversimplification. Some Government programs (e.g. Medicare) are extremely efficient, much moreso than their private counterparts. Other Government programs (e.g. famously, the Defense Department) have huge amounts of waste.
What matters isn’t whether or not the Government runs a program. What matters is whether there are incentives and structures in place that encourage people to work smarter, work better, and improve continuously.
What gets measured gets … measured
George W. Bush was a Harvard MBA who famously was going to bring business principles to the Government. It’s not clear he did much of that. No Child Left Behind introduced measurement into the educational system, but did so in a way that many teachers view as hindering education, not helping it. The Total Quality movement of the 1970s and 1980s showed that simply setting numeric goals without adding process improvements to reach those goals isn’t, in practice, particularly effective.
The business practices that might help the government use its money more efficiently are those of aligning incentives, re-engineering processes, tying employee pay and promotions to customer feedback, and so on. If Trump implements this kind of thinking in the government, it could, indeed, signal a major shift in how efficiently we use our money.
Big allocations reveal priorities
The capital allocation I was referring to in the CEO job duties article weren’t just cost efficiency. The most important capital allocation decisions are the ones that decide which strategic initiatives stay, and which go.
Whether Trump’s spending will be thoughtful or abrupt remains to be seen. He has already declared his intent to increase military spending, while freezing other budgets. He has given directions for us to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. He has stated we will increase infrastructure spending, while possibly withdrawing from international bodies (such as the U.N.) to which we pay dues.
The President doesn’t control the budget
Though Trump can control how capital is allocated within the Executive branch, it’s Congress that sets the overall budget (or often doesn’t, in the cases where we’ve had a Democratic President and a Republican-controlled legislature). Trump can fund or defund the efforts to implement programs created by Congress, but there are limits to how much control he has over the national budget.
At this point, it’s too early to tell how Trump will allocate capital. If his skills match his claims as a successful businessman, he may well find ways to steamline the government and put it on a path to being more efficient. His larger capital allocation decisions remain to be seen, however.
Return to Part 1 of President Trump CEO
President Trump CEO, part 3: Setting Culture
This is part 3 in a series on President Trump viewed through the lens of being a CEO. Part of President Trump’s great appeal is that he’s perceived as a successful businessperson. He’s even been talked about as being a President with CEO experience.
My article on the duties, responsibilities, and job description of a CEO, lays out four inherent parts of a CEO’s job. These are the parts of the job that, by definition, make a CEO a CEO. The CEO can delegate some things, but others simply can’t be delegated. Setting culture is the CEO’s third main duty.
The CEO sets culture by modeling behavior and by the policies they set. The behavior of a CEO has a profound effect throughout an organization. Behavioral scientist Dan Ariely’s (Dis)Honesty Project shows that when a cultural norm of dishonesty sets in, everyone jumps on board.
One of the things that’s well-documented is the consistency with which Trump lies, even over things as verifiable as Inauguration attendance.
Some people speculate that this will bite Trump, and ultimately discredit him. Others think we will simply normalize to the lies. If so, given Ariely’s research, that could pose a real danger for America as a culture to begin to see lying as a perfectly fine way to interact.
While I was writing this post, Trump forbid all government agencies from talking with the press. This level of government secrecy is unprecedented in a democratic government. Culturally, the message being sent is one of a change to a command-and-control style of governance, rather than a culture of government accountability to the people.
A culture of inclusion…?
The bigger cultural fear is around marginalized groups. Immediately after Donald Trump was elected, there was a spike in hate crimes, which then eased off.
During inauguration weekend, millions of women marched, ostensibly to send a message to President Trump about the importance of woman-friendly policies under his administration. Trump did not acknowledge the marchers, and one of his first acts on his first day in office was to withdraw aid from international health organizations that discuss abortion as an option for family planning. He has also already issued executive orders that appear to be setting the stage for gutting the Affordable Care Act.
Furthermore, his cabinet picks, as well, show the least racial and gender diversity in 30 years. As far as sending a message of inclusively, the message he is sending by demonstration and by his actions does suggest a specific culture, and not one of inclusively.
The command-and-control messages Trump is sending are very worrisome. They constitute not just a cultural shift from Obama, but a cultural shift for America as a country. A major goal of the Constitution was to create a government with checks and balances that could be accountable to the citizens. While the last several Presidents have moved increasingly in the direction of low transparency and accountability, Trump is taking this so far and so hard in the direction of non-democracy that it’s scary.
In terms of the cultural messages he’s sending on the social and immigration front, he is clearly not trying to send a message that all are welcome in America. With his cabinet picks, the executive orders he has chosen to sign in his first couple of days, and so on, he is sending a clear message that he will act in the interests of only specific groups in his policy-making. People who can’t afford healthcare or education, and women, are already getting the message that they can’t look to the government for help.
Part 4 of President Trump CEO, continued…