the soup and noodles of compassion


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?”


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.)


“…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

Innovation v Invention – Not knowing how to change things when you work from a template


As long as something is deemed sufficient, even if imperfect, no one will change it. Most people who work in technology or in any field that relies on innovation know that “innovation” is rarely, if ever, borne of someone expressing a specific need and someone else finding a way to meet that need. Sometimes innovation comes from hidden needs – the solving of a problem. Those who express their problem but don’t have ideas for or even an expectation of finding a solution are eventually met by those who have framed their problems with a solution in mind, developed solutions and introduced these solutions (or sometimes introduce solutions for problems that were somewhat hidden).

There are, of course, other innovations that are so novel, so innovative, that they create whole new things, new paradigms, new ways of seeing, perceiving, gathering information, organizing the world and living in that world. These tend to be things that are widely perceived as “crazy”, such as statements like “every home will have a personal computer by whatever year”. This seemed so outlandish, unnecessary and beyond the realm of possibility at the time. But there were visionaries who could see the potential for personal computing. We have seen the same with the smartphone, spearheaded by Apple, and other connected devices. We used to have crazy long-distance phone charges just to speak to someone who lived in the next county – and even though we all hated it, it is not like the majority of us tried to devise innovations to liberate ourselves. True innovation is often vision and a means to liberation (not just a run-of-the-mill solution to a problem). It anticipates a solution for many problems or features that we want to use long before we have the problem or want the features. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are written about ad nauseam as the forefathers of this sort of thing – mostly because they have been the front-men and are identifiable figures. We don’t often hear about the thinkers, geniuses, programmers who have come up with a lot of the inventions (tech oriented or not). But real innovation usually changes the world.

This is where I have a lot of problems with normal corporate life. Most companies have adopted “innovation” as a buzzword and concept – have tried to weave the idea into the corporate behaviors, running workshops on how to think about and teach approaches to “innovation”. But this is just not how it works.

In a somewhat related area, I recently read an article about why we don’t have better condoms. The most “revolutionary” development in the condom-making arena in the last 40 years has been synthetic latex condoms (since latex allergies are serious, and one wouldn’t want a latex allergy to prevent someone from having safer sex…). (Durex apparently used the word “revolutionary” in its marketing of a polyisoprene condom.) This is not innovation, at least not by its modern, accepted definition. Perhaps if we think of the literal definition of “innovation” – it is a bit like “to make new again/improve”, in which case, making small, incremental changes and improvements IS innovative. And polyisoprene is a variation of an existing product and existing material. True innovation, as the word is used, should be called “invention” – meaning that you will end up discovering something completely new and different from what anyone could have imagined. Some completely new material that totally changes the game.

Condoms have never been the most interesting topic for anyone – and because, until the onset of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, condoms were seen primarily as a non-invasive birth control method (not something gay men were particularly into), they were not something anyone really needed to talk about. It was also not high atop anyone’s “let’s revolutionize this design/material” agenda, going back to the point that if something is sufficient, there is no real reason to fast-track change or seek to think about it in a new way. Indeed, at the height of the AIDS crisis, real innovation had to go into something more urgent – seeking viable, life-saving treatments for the disease itself. (It was not entirely clear early on, before the virus and its spread was fully understood, that condoms could act preventively.)

If you believe Danny Resnic, hard at work on his Origami condom, polyisoprene is a symptom of Americans’ failure of imagination when it comes to condoms. “When I first told people I was developing a new condom, they went, ‘Well, what could be different about a condom?’ ” he said. “They couldn’t imagine anything different, because there’s never been anything different.” Resnic thinks men have become desensitized by latex condoms. “They’ve come to accept that level of sensation as the maximum.” If they use condoms at all.”

I would argue that lack of invention in many areas comes down to this same lack of imagination. There seems to be no shortage of imagination in technology. And while changes occur frequently in areas like healthcare and pharmaceutical/medical device development, the regulatory and legal requirements, costs, lack of “sexy factor” and human factors considerations make this field much more difficult to operate in. Real change seems to occur only when there is a loud enough public outcry or public health emergency (the response to HIV/AIDS in the 80s – only because the gay community and its few supporters were vocal, organized and demanding enough or to some extent in response to Ebola, which some argue came belatedly). Some “imagination” is not as possible to implement – and certainly not as swiftly as one would desire – in healthcare and medtech.

When looking at something as “boring” to most as condoms, we have a working template, and very few people have the interest or imagination to change or improve it.

Made Up Make-Up? Innovation and Shifting Trends


Every place you go today, someone is opening their mouth too much and too enthusiastically about “innovation” and setting an “innovative mindset”. While I am all for shifting the way of doing things to reach unheard-of, unthought-of conclusions, innovation – as those who really work with it know – is the end product – sometime after it is in the market or being used. Usually a person or team does not come up with an innovation by sitting in a workshop talking about what would be innovative. It comes from a lot of different places, angles and factors and can only be called “innovation” – or true innovation – after the fact when its results are known.

I would never have imagined, for example – and this is a point that lies at the heart of “innovation” – something happens that no one imagined, knew was needed or possible that changes the game somehow – either an entire market, a market segment or even whole industries and cultures – that we needed or would see some kind of major innovation in the area of consumer cosmetics and access to them. But the tech-news circuit is abuzz this week with the story of Grace Choi, a Harvard Business School grad, who realized that she could use cutting-edge 3D printing technology to print her own cosmetics.

Recently I started refreshing my basics of marketing knowledge by taking an online course via Coursera/Wharton. One of the cases the professor made was the changing face of consumer interaction with cosmetics. It used to be, if one were not going to the drugstore or big box store (e.g. Wal-mart, Target, etc.), the consumer had to ask for help from a salesperson, all the merchandise was hidden away behind a counter and each brand had its own area/station – meaning that there was not a lot of opportunity for testing and comparing things right next to each other or without having to interact on some meaningful level with another person. This perhaps created a more upscale, customer-oriented experience but for some it was inconvenient and intimidating. And completely out of the customers’ hands. The marketing model and the ways in which the brands were marketed to consumers started to change, though, when online shopping became the mainstream and when the retail experience changed by introducing stores like Sephora. Sephora is an emporium full of all kinds of different cosmetic brands, offering some staff to help out but mostly putting the testing and trying experience into the customers’ hands. To some degree, shopping online changed the process of buying cosmetics as well – but makeup is still such a trial-and-error thing – the expense of it makes one really want to test things out before committing to buying, which led to the very logical but very different retail experience in the form of a Sephora experience.

Now, thanks to some clever innovation, technology and someone simply saying, “Why not?”, we can see the next incarnation of this developing trend of putting the power (whether it is cosmetic creation or something entirely different) in consumers’ hands.

But now with her Mink printer, Choi has used 3D printer technology to remove the middle man (and its often exorbitant mark-up and lack of choice) from the equation, creating a whole new groundbreaking platform to think about. A consumer is at home and can select, print and try just about anything they want in the convenience of their home, the privacy of home, without breaking the bank. This has major implications, of course, for the multibillion dollar global cosmetics industry, especially as this innovation becomes mainstream and is perfected for consumer use. It’s early days – and maybe right now really will only appeal to Choi’s target audience (teen and young-adult women) but like everything that revolutionizes daily life, our purchasing habits – we will start to think about these things in a different way. Today we think about going to Sephora and testing out lots of colors, brands and styles. Yesterday we thought we’d go to the Chanel counter and have to ask for help at the local department store. And tomorrow we can print anything we want.

I exchanged a couple of surface-level Tweets with thinkspace (thinkspace) (after reTweeting their initial Tweet about the Mink printer) and they posed the question, “Would you buy the printer?” And the truth is, probably not now. With most things, I am not an early adopter – and I am not the target audience for this product in any case. I like to wait for things to be perfected and to offer a few more choices and options before I jump in and buy. But as someone who is always thinking about where innovation is born and how it unfolds in unexpected ways, this struck me as a game changer – even if people don’t start printing their own make-up en masse – it may shift the dynamic in terms of how cosmetics companies reach out to consumers, in the choices they offer – and that is just the beginning.

And it really could not come at a better time. In a 2012 McCann WorldGroup study, women expect brands to do more than they currently do “to help guide the process of discovery, choice, purchase and application of products, as beauty regimes become more complex”. If this is the feedback cosmetics companies are getting and they don’t respond, then I assume it’s about time that some other solution come along and deliver what people are asking for.

When I drink I don’t panic…

Do not play fast and loose with my heart…

Delirium for creativity


Not too long ago, I was having a workshop with a few colleagues – all of whom are creative and thoughtful people who are willing to color with all the crayons in the box when it comes to throwing out new, different ideas. But for the most part, we are working in an environment where “innovation” and “creativity” is enforced – that is, we are required to be in a bunch of workshops where we are supposed to be creative on demand. Between noon and five, come up with all the ideas, as if ideas and creativity happen with a gun to your head or with deadlines. When you are in “work mode” you are also in a different frame of mind. Never mind that “corporate creativity” is a bit, um, unreal. (And company-mandated brainstorming shows no evidence of working or leading anywhere except to maybe wasted time.)

Apart from creativity and unusual ideas popping into my mind randomly and unexpectedly, I have learned that the weird, outlandish and sometimes best ideas come when I am deliriously tired. A Washington Post article I recently read about the best time of day to be creative captured this thinking.

“A key aspect of solving “insight” problems is being able to overcome an impasse in your head. To come up with an original idea or novel solution, in other words, we must be able to approach it from a different perspective. During our “non-optimal” times of day, we’re more influenced by distracting information, and are less blinded by an initial solution that, when we’re more clear-headed, might seem obvious but turns out to be wrong.”

Many people just have brains wired to think differently – they see the world in a completely different way. For the rest of us, we have to find other strategies for tapping into creativity. For me, exhaustion lowers all the rational boundaries in my head that would automatically discard ideas. And I should know – I push myself to exhaustion more often than any rational person should.

The changing workscape: New frontiers in virtual office possibilities


Given the fact that people do have different work styles that lend themselves to working in different ways – and that workplaces are constantly paying lip service to the idea that we have to infuse our entire organizations with innovative ways of working, and we finally have the mostly seamless technology options to make this feasible – we are in a unique place to encourage virtual work and home offices now more than ever.

Everything is affected by the interplay and interconnectedness of technology and our work lives. Why would workers accept being forced to be chained to a desk in an office – or conversely, why would employed limit their talent pool to the immediate vicinity? Especially in global companies that seek budgetary solutions to increasingly competitive and austere business landscapes. Not every employee is going to want to work remotely all the time, and not every job or project is ideal for this set up. But being flexible enough to see where efficiencies can be gained, employees can be happier and more productive, where costs, sometimes significant, can be saved and even semi-unrelated matters, such as increasingly long and taxing commutes to and from offices and traffic gridlock can be reduced, is the first step toward a new “frontier”. Looking at the way a remote worker thinks, or how the workforce thinks about remote work, it is clear that the trend leans toward a more flexible future. And would give people the sense that they had greater freedom and more control and balance in their lives.

How workers think about remote work

How workers think about remote work

The change is coming – it’s happening – but it is slow. When Marissa Mayer made the controversial decision to call the sheep back to the farm (her Yahoo! workers were told that telecommuting was strictly verboten and were required to return full-time to the office – a topic I cannot seemingly shut up about), it seemed like the most backward move, and the tech media dissected and analyzed this perplexing choice to death. A Forbes writer captured my thoughts in a nutshell:

Some research published by the MIT Sloan Management Review suggests that bosses are roughly nine percent more likely to consider an employee dependable if you spend time at the office. I know that was the consensus when I entered the workforce thirty years ago, but I thought we were a little more enlightened now.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine sent me an article written by Robert Pozen for the Harvard Business Review. This study conducted by Kimberly Elsbach found (agreeing with the MIT study), after interviewing 39 corporate managers, that they all generally felt like employees who spent more time in the office were more dedicated, more hardworking, and more responsible. These guys sound just like my dad.” (Emphasis in italics is mine.)

The writer goes on to argue the same points I am always making – as a knowledge worker, it is not like we are ever really “turned off”. The idea of a 40-hour-work-week and the whole 8 to 5 mentality just does not exist. The writer continues, “When manager(s) judge their employees’ work by the time they spend at the office, they impede the development of productive work habits.” He goes on to question whether Mayer, in making her unpopular decision, ignored research on the subject. It seems to me that Mayer ignores data and research all the time since taking the helm at Yahoo! Her choices, as I write about ad nauseam, seem driven by some sort of strange gut instinct (that is not well-tuned) than by data, research or good advice.

What really gets to the heart of it though is an article called “A new workplace manifesto: In praise of freedom, time, space and working remotely”, which covers the full range of benefits of telecommuting, pitting them against the downsides of the traditional work model (e.g. long commutes that lead tomisery, associated with an increased risk for obesity, insomnia, stress, neck and back pain, high blood pressure and other stress-related ills like heart attacks and depression, and even divorce”; the uncontrolled level of interruption and idle conversation, useless meetings and so on once you get to the office; go home in another hell commute. Go home, repeat.). As the article points out, it is drudgery. And the author, David Heinemeier Hansson, is in a position to know. As the creator of popular project management tool Basecamp and web framework Ruby on Rails and a partner in the software company 37signals (renamed/reinvented recently under the Basecamp name) – all active parts of a busy virtual-work future, he has his finger right on the pulse of this aspect of the changing workscape. He and co-author Jason Fried have captured a great deal of this – and addressed many of my complaints and dreams – in a book called Remote: Office Not Required. (Recommended!) You can also check out remote job opportunities on WeWorkRemotely.

The article gets to the point I have been trying to make – the drudgery of the surroundings of work is not to be confused with the work itself. “It’s time to reject the false dichotomy between work and luxury. See, none of this is about escaping the intellectual stimulation of work itself. Work is not the enemy we’re trying to outrun. We’re simply running from those accidental circumstances.”

I love my work, but I know I have always been better at it when I have the focus and freedom to do it from my home office. No commute, no being exposed to all the office illnesses that spread like wildfire, no major drains on my concentration. Naturally this works because I am primarily a writer and need the focus. Maybe someone who is a project manager who has many stakeholders to manage would have a more difficult time of it, especially in a tradition-driven, traditional industry. But this too is changing. Productivity solutions and software are making all-virtual companies a reality.

Apart from having to sell the idea to the more staid and conservative workplaces, there is still a kind of stigma attached to the idea of virtual work, as though it is inherently scammy, “But it’s still early days and it’s still “weird.” Like Internet dating was in 1997. Remote working still reminds most people of either scammy signs at the side of the road that promise, “$1,000/day to work from home!” (without mentioning what the work is exactly) or social hermits who never leave their house or put clothes on before noon.” (I love the reference to “like Internet dating in 1997”. If we have gotten past the stigma there, why can’t the same be said of something productive like work?)

That’s the Good News” – John Grant