admonishment to vigilance

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“‘Drive,’ she said when she sat down next to Sami. ‘Where to?’

She thought for a moment. Without looking at him, she said, ‘To where the country ends.’

‘For me it ended a long time ago,’ he hissed.” –To the End of the Land, David Grossman

Each day, the least democratic thing we could imagine (or even couldn’t imagine) happening happens. And then the next day, something even less democratic happens. This is true in the political realm, and it’s increasingly apparent in technology (now that we have algorithms deciding for us what we can/will see).

“‘I went,’ he told her, ‘because every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.’” –The Plot against America, Philip Roth

How much of what we think and see is influenced by what we are fed pre-emptively? How can we think for ourselves and discover new things when there are limits on what we see (thanks to algorithms and our blindly, blithely feeding all of our own data into massive data crunching/manipulating machines)? I have been thinking about this for some time. Most of the jobs I’ve had were directly within or at least adjacent to/dependent on the collection, analysis and use of data about users and their behaviors and habits. Many companies exist solely because of their access and ability to harvest data – it has created entirely new business models and applications. But it’s never been mysterious what was going on (even if most average people don’t consider the implications). I don’t know why people are now, suddenly surprised.

Just as I was trying to figure out how to discuss this, an article appeared on HBR.org:

“The ability for an elite to instantly alter the thoughts and behavior of billions of people is unprecedented.

This is all possible because of algorithms. The personalized, curated news, information and learning feeds we consume several times a day have all been through a process of collaborative filtering. This is the principle that if I like X, and you and I are similar in some algorithmically determined sense, then you’ll probably like X too. Everyone gets their own, mass-personalized feed, rationed by the machines.

The consequences are serious and wide-ranging. Fake news and misinformation are pervasive. Young kids are being subjected to algorithmically generated, algorithmically optimized pernicious content. Perhaps the least concerning implication is that there is systemic bias in our information feeds, that we operate in and are informed by tiny echo chambers. It’s a grotesque irony that our experiences of the world wide web today are actually pretty local, despite warnings from the likes of Eli Pariser back in 2011.”

My own words – base oversimplifications – are totally inadequate to deconstruct and intelligently discuss the complexity of these issues. But almost every book I read contains a warning. Almost none are direct cautionary tales in the vein of 1984, but almost all advise us to consider what we have and how easy, without vigilance, it is to lose:

“Because civilization isn’t a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, re-created daily. It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible. And if he wishes to live, he must do what he can to prevent the world he wants to live in from fading away. As long as there’s war, life is a preventative measure.” –The Cellist of Sarajevo, Stephen Galloway

But then, we also need to consider that the erosions and explosions of “civilization” also come about because not everyone agrees about what constitutes civilization – this fundamental disagreement poses its own dangerous fragmentation.

Photo by paul morris on Unsplash

the soup and noodles of compassion

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How important is compassion? Or empathy? Can you “compassion” your way through life? Can you just as readily “compassion yourself out of” experiences and connections? Every time I meet a new person, and they ask me what traits are important or attractive in others, or even what drives me, I can only reply, “Compassion”. I think they are expecting a more glib or easy answer, and “compassion” often confounds the listener. It is almost as though they don’t know what it is or how to talk about it. As time goes by, though, I can’t think of another answer. There are other things that are important to me – empathy, learning – but compassion surpasses them all. And to see the looks on people’s faces when I voice this, you’d think I was speaking an alien language.

Strange, then, to see a number of articles pop up in business press emphasizing the importance of compassion and empathy in leaders (and in innovation). All such articles mention the fact that compassion is sorely and quite visibly absent in most corporate leaders and missions (certainly in practice if not in theory). Perhaps I have been ahead of the curve, even if my commitment to compassion, in practice and daily life, still sees me on the outside looking in. After all, the presence of these traits is rare, and these articles I cite only point to the need for compassion at an executive level, not necessarily the need for compassion in every interaction we have, every action we take. I, for example, shift myself into a place inside to find the compassion each time I am tempted to unleash my inner annoyance, frustration, judgment, crankiness, tiredness, boredom. It’s not that those feelings do not exist. They just need to take a backseat, belt themselves in and let humility and thoughtfulness take the wheel.

The intersection of compassion and corporate life, though, is something else. Something interesting, actually. Lately (as in the last few years), I find myself answering questions in job interviews and professional situations in the exact same way I do when I meet people in other, more social situations.

“What do you think the most important attribute in your arsenal is?”

“Compassion.”

I know I am expected in these moments to talk about a skill or experience that makes me suited for whatever role I’m discussing. But I return to, and ramble about, compassion. This always seems somewhat out of place in the moment, but I continue to push it because it is needed. The fact that interviewers or colleagues give me blank, deer-in-the-headlights stares proves to me that 1. compassion needs to be pushed, and 2. (in interview situations) I don’t want to work in that place anyway.

This idea – letting compassion guide and inform your choices – can make life harder. It’s something of a luxury to be able to choose or not choose with this one principle in mind. I consider, for example, that an environment bereft of compassion and empathy, in which power can accumulate unchecked, leads to corruption at the top, and a culture in which ethics are not valued, and trust becomes non-existent. Responsibility has no meaning. While most of what I have read that ties into my thinking focuses on looking at leaders/CEOs who have been blinded by power and the burdens of bottom-line decision-making, I’d argue that deeply corrupt or flawed leadership has trickle-down effects, and thus poisons an entire organization and its culture. (Hence my not wanting to work in environments in which someone looks at me strangely or rolls out the slow, “Okaaaayyyyy…”-style response to my comment. If the HR department or the hiring manager or future colleagues or current colleagues cannot intuitively understand the link between compassion and the good of/functioning of the company and its culture, I don’t necessarily want to be there to fight against that.)

From HBR.org:

“…the research of neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi, who has found that power impairs our mirror-neurological activity — the neurological function that indicates the ability to understand and associate with others. David Owen, a British physician and parliamentarian, has dubbed this phenomenon hubris syndrome, which he defines as a “disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years.”

It is not that every leader lacks empathy; in fact, their leadership role and its responsibilities take a toll on the ability to empathize. The decision-making at the scale and pace at which people in power must do so apparently rewires the brain, making the consequences of these decisions more remote and less human. This rewiring does not have to happen and can be reversed, and compassion is the key:

“While empathy is the tendency to feel others’ emotions and take them on as if you were feeling them, compassion is the intent to contribute to the happiness and well-being of others. Compassion, therefore, is more proactive, which means we can make a habit of it. By doing so, we can counter the loss of empathy that results from holding power, and in turn enable better leadership and human connections at work.”

Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, was recently profiled in a Wharton article that focused largely on Nadella’s view that avoiding hubris, valuing learning and embodying empathy lead to success and innovation. Apart from the obvious nods to leadership-style change, i.e. Microsoft’s attempt to shift from “know-it-all” to “learn-it-all”, which is in itself a huge step toward understanding: you acknowledge that you don’t and can’t know everything but that you are always and voraciously willing to keep learning, Nadella credits empathy as a significant underpinning to real innovation:

“This is a quality one doesn’t typically see on a list of top CEO character traits. But in Nadella’s view, empathy is, among other things, a key source of business innovation. He said that although many regard it as a “soft skill,” not especially relevant to the “hard work of business,” it is a wellspring for innovation, since innovation comes from one’s ability to grasp customers’ unmet, unarticulated needs.”

I can get behind this with relative enthusiasm (I only have so much of it), but I was curious in reading about Nadella’s perspective as to how and why people can only seem to come to a place where they are willing to introduce and admit empathy (and compassion) into all aspects of their lives only after they have experienced their own personal adversity? And even then, do you only empathize with those certain things you can relate to? Moz former CEO Rand Fishkin, who recently departed Moz, posted a farewell-to-Moz, hello-to-SparkToro (his new company) letter, in which he cites empathy as one of the most important/best skills he developed – yes, developed – because, he writes, it does not come naturally.

Can empathy only be felt when you have experienced similar things (while, as the HBR article posits, compassion is more about the intent to contribute to the well-being of others, regardless of your ability to relate to or feel the feelings of others)? Perhaps this depends on how you define and interpret “compassion”, which I think folds thoughtfulness, patience, empathy and this ineffable ‘intent’ into one big fluffy ball. I don’t know that I buy it, and in some way, find it disappointing, if true, that people are only capable of empathy by learning to be empathetic through their own experiences.

Still, any and all empathy, no matter how and when it arrives, is better than none.

 

Image (c) 2018 Naomi/Paddy Litvak

friends or… work friends?

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In almost every job I’ve had, I gained one of the most valuable possible things: not just a work best friend (along with many nice acquaintances), but lifelong friendships that developed from these close work friendships. When I look at jobs in which I didn’t make friends (particularly close ones), I recognize exactly how empty those jobs were and how much harder it was to feel as motivated. Yes, as a recent HBR article maintains, these friendships can indeed be tricky. And I suppose that is why, as the article posits, only something like 19 percent of those surveyed (Americans, by the way) reported having close friendships with a colleague. This is framed as at least partly cultural (non-Americans may be more trusting, collaborative and less “fiercely independent” or bent on personal privacy?).

I have seen some of this dynamic in action. When a global company in which I worked all came together for a global meetup in Europe, the European and Asian colleagues became a more cohesive group, while the Americans seemed standoffish, less social, more formal and “observational”. That is, two years in a row, the American contingent seemed to stand on the sidelines and make observations about how the activities we were engaged in would never be allowed in the US, how we’d have been required to sign liability waivers (in case of injury, etc.). It may also depend on other demographic features (age, etc.) but the Americans’ uniform reserve always struck me as an interesting given how “loud” and “outgoing” Americans are generally perceived to be.

But this is a diversion.

One of my best friends started off as my “office nemesis”. For a year at least, we disliked each other but eventually ‘warmed up’ to become, incrementally, friends.

Another best friend became a friend almost instantly. We went out for dinner together on her first day working in the company, and we lost track of time until the restaurant owners were staring at us, waiting for us to leave so they could close. It was an immediate and deep connection that has only continued to grow, long after our lives changed, long after we stopped working together. And we have since become colleagues again. I cannot imagine my work life – former or current – or, more importantly, my life at all – without her.

I’ve never experienced the ‘tricky complications’ as outlined in the HBR article, but I can recognize that many of the points made could be issues. I suppose for me the depth of the friendships has always been valuable and deep enough that the relationship mattered so much more than just a job. In that sense, I guess, these friendships transcend the idea of a “work friendship”. I happened to meet these people through work, but our friendships had no real connection to the work itself. And you can feel and see a difference. Another good friend, whom I met through work, is a fabulous and intelligent person, and we are still good friends despite not working together any more. But there is a sense that the piece of the puzzle that bound us together closely and gave us something in common is missing, even if we still have a great time together. The impetus and intensity can be driven by the mutual passion or misery created by a job/project.

Overall it seems interesting because friendships are reportedly difficult to make in adulthood, and I suppose they are – where else can you make them than work? Unless you are involved in activities outside of work, or end up being forced friends with, for example, your kids’ friends’ parents or something, it is not exactly like a social smörgåsbord out there. I am not particularly social but don’t feel like I’ve done too badly…