“You are smart, you work hard and can get things done – but you need to work on your empathy.”
Fresh out of business school, this was the first feedback I got from my then boss. He said I needed to work on my empathy?
What on earth was empathy?
I knew it as an English word. I thought that it was similar to sympathy. Feeling sad when someone feels hurt, feeling bad for the person when you see them crying.
As someone who was ambitious, wanted to be seen as a high performer – this was news to me. I had done well, but nobody had given me this kind of feedback.
I thought I was pretty friendly, got along well with people, and seemed like a team player. My first reaction was of surprise, then shock, then denial.
As I got back home, I googled what empathy meant. The first suggestion started “often confused with sympathy…”
Empathy was an entirely different thing. As I read more examples, I realized where my boss was coming from.
He was empathetic.
Sympathy is when you feel for someone. Empathy is when you feel with someone. While it is the difference of a single word, the two feelings are starkly different.
You can feel empathetic when you genuinely care about someone.
In my young, brash worldview, I thought everyone operated the same way as I did. Everyone had the same set of constraints, ambitions, feelings.
I was very wrong.
As I started spending time with my colleagues, I started focusing on listening.
I usually had cared about talking and putting my point of view. As individual contributors in college, that’s what we optimized for. The better you put your point of view across, the quicker you are elevated in everyone’s eyes.
But the world is about the sum of the parts, not about the parts.
Listening to people, not hearing them, changed my perspective entirely. Someone wanted a more relaxed job. Another wanted to be able to spend more time with family. Someone else wanted to work on their relationship.
At that single time, each person was optimizing for very different things.
In an institutional setting, most students/batchmates are optimizing for the same thing. Getting a job, getting good grades, getting into a relationship. The world is a very different place.
You have to feel with people to understand what matters to them truly.
As I progressed in my career, I realized that getting the best out of people matters a lot. As you get more senior, it even matters more than getting the best out of yourself.
For a highly functional team, you need to understand your team. You can only understand them well if you have empathy.
Tellingly, if you look at any iconic personality, the one trait all of them will have is empathy.
To be a great artist, leader, manager, creator – you need to understand people. I remember a founder telling me, “I knew I had to build this product because these were my people who were facing this problem.”
They were not “customers”, “users”; they were “my people”.
One of the biggest reasons A Junior VC is loved is because it is empathetic to founders. Rather than being a platform that focuses on fault finding at one end, or glorification at the other end, we tell the story as it should be.
You need to understand what a founder goes through to be able to do so.
Empathy doesn’t mean that you cover up the gaps or hide the weaknesses. You highlight them, but you do so in a manner that shows you truly care.
The amazing thing about human beings is that they know if you do care.
As the pandemic ripped through our country, we saw a group of people who lacked empathy. I saw it and was furious. But that group did not care. As long as power remained, lives didn’t matter.
But there was this other group, the everyday person, who demonstrated exemplary empathy.
Managers who let their teams take time off indefinitely to care for their families. Rickshaw-wallas were doubling up as oxygen ambulances to help people. Professionals were calling hospitals on behalf of strangers to find them ICUs.
They understood what the other person was going through, felt it as if they were going through it, and did something about it.
Empathy is a superpower that can move mountains. I’m glad I learnt about its existence so early on.