Building Empathy Systematically

This talk by Megan Phelps-Roper is one of the most powerful and important TED Talks I’ve ever heard. These lessons are badly needed by me, by anyone who discusses politics or religion, by our president, probably by nearly everyone.

I continue to want to build some kind of system in which people could learn this way of thinking and practice with others with whom they would normally disagree. How could it be done? What protections would need to be in place?

I’m imagining technology at the moment (something that matches you up with non-anonymous people with whom you disagree about any political or religious issue, to have a friendly, civil conversation) but I’ve also imagined analogue methods of achieving the same thing.

I think each user would have to have “reputation” so the haters / trolls could be quickly weeded out (or steered towards those with proven experience dealing well with such attitudes).

If the system saw things were getting heated (A.I. detection?) it could prompt the users to shift gears / topics, pause the chat for 30 seconds. Or put up reminders about how to handle the uncomfortableness in a healthy way.

The key to the whole thing is that whatever happened, whether via technology or not, we maximize the parts of the experience that leave the other thinking, “that was a decent human being that I like, and with whom I happen to disagree sometimes.”

I’ve wondered if an analogue version of this would just use technology to match people up in certain geographic areas to meet in pre-selected, well lit, calm places (staffed with trained security) to converse over a table. Walk in, shake hands, talk for 30 minutes, and leave.

One hunch I have is that people who were new to these “empathy chats”, whether they were digital or in person, would be joined by a third person who was experienced. They would moderate and help steer and encourage, and set the tone when the two others were less certain.

I know this whole concept is pretty far out and more than a little harebrained. Likely very naïve or at least overly optimistic. But if you’ve read this far, I want to hear what you think. What are the strong points / weak points? What would prevent you from participating?

I originally posted this as a Twitter thread, but decided I wanted to also have it here on my blog.

Work & Nothingness

People kinda tease me because I keep my desk at work fairly clear. I actively remove everything from it. I’ve removed my lamp. I’ve put all my old desk toys in a box under the desk. I put my phone under the desk and forwarded my calls to my cell. I’m considering drilling a hole or two in the desk so that most of the cords can be invisible and just come out where they’re needed. And it goes even deeper: I don’t have much in my backpack. My car is usually empty.

But these are just surface-level symptoms of a larger mindset. The real question is why. It’s given me so much joy, I want to share it. So, why do I do this?

What I’ve found is that as you approach nothingness, the only thing left you have is the work you’re doing. You’re there to do the work. So do the work. If there’s something else for you to do, something else to look at, something to be distracted by instead of doing the work, get rid of it. Do the work.

The more work I do, the more I find that this principle of ruthlessly removing the extraneous is really central to excellent creation. It echoes what I wrote years ago here and I’m shocked to find I don’t back away from that nothingness these days. I go forward, closer and closer to it. It’s beautiful.

I should say that I understand there are plenty of people who can focus without any distractions, even if their desks and their lives are crowded with all kinds of junk. I’m not one of those people. So if you find that you aren’t one of those people either, try nothingness. You’ll acclimate and you’ll love it.

Thank You

Almost four weeks ago, Steph and I boarded a plane in San Jose, California, bound for Minnesota. A lot has transpired since then, but rather than going into all that yet, I think it’s even more important that I take a minute and thank the folks who are responsible for us getting on that plane on time. Note this isn’t an exhaustive list, and doesn’t include all the wonderful time we spent with dear friends and coworkers, reminiscing and saying goodbyes. These are just the people who really broke a sweat to make this move happen for us.

Torrey and Shirley came to our house on the last day of packing and cleaning to help in any way they could. Torrey helped me to pack the final few boxes of our stuff, including the precious “nursing glider,” and gave me some sorely-needed friendship. When all your stuff is in a big white box and you’ve been living out of a suitcase for several days, it’s refreshing to have a friend who knows the proper response to, “I haff tvelve metchsteek.” Shirley, having never been to our place before that day, was happily cleaning kitchen drawers and a disgusting ceiling fan within 10 minutes of stepping through the front door. That’s some solid character. Where can one find more excellent people like these? I don’t know what I did to even make their acquaintance, but it must’ve been done very well and entirely by mistake. I have never earned such things.

Thank you, Torrey and Shirley.

Jenny and Kristin flew all the way from Minnesota just to help us out, and were absolutely instrumental in every phase of the operation. They helped pack. They helped organize. They kept us sane. They took us out to dinner. They put us up in a hotel! (This is a big deal when all your stuff is in boxes and your life is in chaos.) When it came time to give the house its final scrub-down before inspection, they worked miracles, taking on all the back-breaking tasks I knew had to be done but hesitated to start doing. I wish I had before-and-after photos of the laundry room. What a job!

Thank you, Jenny and Kristin.

Bob and Val brought their beautiful little newborn over to our house during a heavy and pivotal time of “PODS unit tetris.” Val and Steph kept each other company while they took care of the little ones, swapping stories and having what seemed to be much-needed downtime for Steph. Val also put a big dent in our kitchen packing to-do list. Meanwhile, it turned out Bob is some kind of packing prodigy, able to shift and twist objects in his head, combining them in unexpected ways to put large things into small spaces with no wiggle room left over. I learned quickly that if Bob said, “Maybe we should turn this on its side and put it up there…” that was exactly what we should do. Only those who want their stuff packed inefficiently question Bob. I did not. The PODS unit barely fit all the things we needed it to fit, and without Bob’s efforts, our impromptu Everything! Must! Go! yard sale would have been a lot more heartbreaking.

Thank you, Bob and Val.

Jason P. came over several times to help pack, and did a lot of the heaviest lifting along with Bob. But he also spent a little time with me, speaking to my soul, telling me what Steph and I have meant to him and others he had recently spoken to, and admitting that he hoped to find a way to sabotage our move so that we wouldn’t be able to leave. To the best of my knowledge, the closest he came to such sabotage was replacing the real box content lists on some of our packed boxes with lists containing items like “Death Star” and “lasers.” It didn’t slow us down, but like Jason himself, it was grade-A material.

Thank you, Jason.

Brian D. caravanned behind me for a 90 minute drive to Tracy, California, the first half of which was during rush hour. He has a newborn baby at home and barely had an hour’s notice to do this, and he volunteered. All so I could ship my Hyundai Elantra to Minnesota on time. Take special note that Brian loves politics like I love Apple, and he did this on Super Tuesday in the evening when he could’ve been at home, comfortably enjoying CNN. That’s like me missing a Stevenote. Heavy.

Thank you, Brian.

Ted and Scott came over more than anyone else to help pack and shift things around. They were both instrumental in the early planning phases of our PODS unit’s internal layout. Ted even came a couple times late at night. But he did far more than that. I was having difficulty selling my Honda Element with only just over a week-long window in which to do so, and I couldn’t afford to ship it. Ted’s response? He has some folks he’d like to see in Denver and Minneapolis, so if I can pick up the bill for gas (less than half the cost of shipping), of course he’s willing to drive my Honda from Cupertino to Mineapolis for me. Oh, and he’ll take only two days to do it. Is that OK?

Thank you, Scott. And thank you, Ted, times 2000 miles.

Let it be known: these people are amazing, and I am very lucky to count them as friends.

A Million Parachutes

Like a million parachutes
The snow’s coming down
I lock up the front door
And turn the lights down
In the glow of the street lights,
I see them descend
Like a million parachutes,
Small men on a mission

I miss the warm,
And i miss the sun
And i miss the ocean,
I miss everyone
And i miss the bridges
That span across the bay
Tonight it seems like ages ago

Like a million parachutes
The snow still falls
The dogs are asleep now,
There’s no one to call
I put on some records
And wait for the light
All those million parachutes,
Now a blanket of white

I miss the warm,
And i miss the sun
I miss the ocean,
I miss everyone
And i miss the bridges
That span across the bay
Tonight it seems like ages ago

Credit: “A Million Parachutes” by Sixpence None The Richer

HeartBreakers: Yum!

Heartbreakers: Yum!

HeartBreakers have been my favorite candy for the last few years. I’m a bit worried that they seem to have become seasonal like Cadbury Eggs, and thus much harder to buy. Still, when I saw them in Target’s Valentine’s Day super-candyliscious-yummy-blowout-sale aisle, I grabbed more bags than I’m willing to publicly admit and made a beeline for the checkout.

Yum. Seriously, so very yum.

(This photo and the other, worse ones that I took in the series have also taught me how hard it is to photograph food. And I can only imagine this is the easiest type of all food photos.)