I recently attended the TEDxUW 2012 conference. The theme for this year’s conference was EDGE. The speakers – ranging from Olympic medalist winner, stutterer turned award winning orator to indie music artist who made herself a niche in the web – talked about what that EDGE meant to them. Of course, this so-called EDGE would mean many different things to different people, including myself. So, naturally, I asked myself “what is my edge?”; “what is the single most important skill that makes me unique?” I thought and concluded that my EDGE is empathy!
Empathy, in short, means the ability to feel what other people are feeling, be it happiness, sadness, concern, doubt, distress or drive. I have had the tendency to sense what the other people are going through by simply speaking to them or sometimes by just observing them. At first, I didn’t think much of it but later on I learned to use this to my advantage. From little things such as being a good friend to sensing what to do to please my teachers before being asked to do something and figuring out whom I can trust. It doesn’t always work otherwise it would be a super power. Just like everyone else, I make mistakes and occasionally I am completely wrong, however, overall, I think my empathy has made me a better person.
Who would have thought that the same empathy gives me a competitive EDGE at my workplace? Currently working as an interaction designer, part of my job is to talk to people about my designs “User Research” and figure out what are the user needs. I am a strong believer in the user research methodology for two reasons: First, it really helps validate your product designs, while understanding how your users interact with the product and secondly, we are able to find usability issues to make our product even more easy to use and intuitive. While conducting user interviews, I am able to quickly able to empathize with the users and draw out their true intentions for the product. Granted the users are not always right, as Steve Jobs famously quoted. However, I think by asking the right questions, most often than not the users will bring about the real pain points in using your product, which when combined with your knowledge and experience, can help you build a much more delightful user experience.
In addition to the above, being empathetic allows me to understand the dynamics in the work environment better; my own limitations and that of my peers, identifying and avoiding conflicts before they get out of hand and earning the respect and cooperation from your co-workers so that we can collaborate and build something truly awesome.
One of the challenges that an empathic person faces is the ability to take a decision without any emotional attachment. Empathetic beings, as I choose to call myself, are often driven by emotion that at certain times it makes it very challenging to make tough decisions that directly affect someone. Despite its challenges, I truly believe that being an empathetic person helps me be good at my work, pursue my passions and be happy.
As Psychology Today states:
Empathy is strength, and an asset towards surviving and thriving in any environment. It promotes genuine curiosity about others, which facilitates a desire to teach and learn.
I am quite proud about this discovery. What is your EDGE?
I had been pondering over a topic for the past several months: Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. I recently saw this great talk on intrinsic and extrinsic beauty and I immediately knew what I had to do next.
I am usually a very extrinsically motivated person. Most people are motivated by various extrinsic reasons. For example, I look at cause and effect before I do anything. Is it worth my time? Is it for someone whom I care about? Another thing that greatly motivates me is the joy or satisfaction I see in someone whom I truly respect.
On the other hand, people are motivated for different extrinsic reasons such as money, ambition to name a few and there is absolutely nothing wrong with their motivations. But, I have encountered only one person in my life that portrays truly intrinsically motivated values.
I will be changing the person’s name to protect his true identity, but he is a truly remarkable individual that I have had the pleasure of knowing. Let’s call him Jeff.
First thing that anyone will notice about Jeff is that he is always super involved whether it comes to studies or extra-curricular. He is one of the busiest guys I know. He moves about constantly with a sense of purpose and direction. In the brief time that I’ve spent with him, I was able to notice how much of what he accomplishes is never known by people. The truth is, as far as I can see, only about 10% or less of what he did was actually noticed by others.
I asked him once, what drives you to do the things that you do? To which he replied “just the satisfaction of knowing that I did a good job.” I have seen people who do great things but always ask for recognition, if not at least yearn for it. It is perfectly alright to be so, most people are, but Jeff always did way more than what was required of him. And to the best of my knowledge, he never even mentioned it to anyone.
Just the feeling of being in complete harmony with oneself truly astounded me. When I asked him, don’t you want to let people know what you did, he replied “people who need to know will come to know.” And when he said that, he never stopped smiling.
I have been a very empathetic person all my life. I have always “felt” what other people feel, “felt” what a good design should look like , and strongly “felt” the right from wrong.
So when I came across this TED talk by Richard Seymour on “How Beauty Feels”, it immediately had an impact on me. Richard states that most things in life are extrinsic beauty. Such things are viewed as great by some but not so great by others. For example, a Rolls Royce is viewed by some as the best car ever made while others simply don’t care much about cars.
But there are very few things in this world that are intrinsically beautiful and perceived as a great design, such that its very existence goes unnoticed and universally accepted. For instance, Richard gives the example of delayed dimming in car lights when you close the door, or the dimming of lights in the theater right before your movie begins. The feelings it creates is quite unique.
Feelings and intuition are shunned upon largely by logical thinking. And for good reason, I agree with it for the most part. But let’s think for a moment, how many really great things come out of group-think?
To quote Steve Jobs when a reporter asked him what kind of market research he had done for the iPhone, Jobs simply replied with a question of his own “What kind of market research did Alexander Graham Bell do before he came up with the telephone?”
Some things in life cannot be logically derived but, need to be truly felt.