Empathy: A road to innovation?

by Kristin on August 30, 2013

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Image by Mindmapinspiration

I skimmed this Fast Company article about innovation back in June, during the time in my life when there was only time to skim pretty much anything. The article’s basic linking of innovation, curiosity and empathy immediately stuck me as both so fascinating and so obvious. It hit me the way a revelation of Truth does in those moments when you see something in a particular light or hear something worded in a certain way for the first time, and it is at once brand new and very old—something you have known deep down since the beginning of time.

Now that I’ve had time to do more than just skim the article, it doesn’t delve as deeply as I hoped into this connection to empathy, but hey, that gives me an excuse to write a post. :)

Part of what first intrigued me so much about this idea is that the people who celebrate innovation and curiosity don’t always seem like the same people I associate with practicing empathy. I love any idea that breaks down those stereotypes and makes people think differently about what they want to do in this world and how they might go about making it happen.

I also love how linking empathy with innovation messes with our cultural view of innovation—as a strong, stoic, individualistic trait. We usually think of being innovative as being a sort of solitary genius, hiding away in a mysterious lab or studio, mining the depths of one’s own intelligence and creativity before finally emerging with this “gift” to the world. But if curiosity is a key aspect of true innovation, and if empathy—turning oneself outward rather than inward—is a necessary element for true curiosity, that changes everything.

If you look at a dictionary definition of “empathy” and really consider what it is, it seems clear that empathy requires an enormous amount of creativity and intelligence, not just a soft, warm and fuzzy heart. Here’s the definition from Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary:

the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner;

Vicariously experiencing feelings and thoughts that someone else is having, even if they are not clearly telling you how they feel and you’ve never personally experienced those things before? Amazing! And yes, it’s also perhaps one of the most open, genuine acts of curiosity—of wanting to know and understand something that seems at first foreign and out of reach. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple and king of innovation, urged the world to “Think Different.” Jobs himself didn’t come across as very empathic, but in some ways, perhaps empathy is the ultimate form of “thinking different.”

Finally, what I love about this whole idea, beyond the ways it blows assumptions and stereotypes out of the water, is how it can be applied to both the work of the writer and the work of the Christian. In both realms of my life, I want to be genuine and effective. I want to do something different that makes a difference, but I want it to be rooted in something other than my own whims and internal musings. I want to be open to the world and people around me in a way that informs the new thoughts and ideas of my mind, not the other way around.

What do you think? Can you see a valid link between innovation, curiosity, and empathy? And can you see ways that empathy has (or might) impact the work of your mind as much as the work of your heart?

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  • Paul Cheney

    Empathy is difficult. It was something my mother taught in action rather than explicit words. I do remember her saying once that we don’t always know why someone acts difficult; perhaps that person is sick or something we know nothing about. Empathy is not easy. We have to listen. We stop expressing and soak.

    I have lived a life of trying to be open-minded. I know because when I was in grade school a teacher complimented me for having an open mind, so I went with it. I’m not the greatest mind, therefore less open. Yet more than once I have been accused of being opinionated and dogmatic. I used to hate Joseph Smith. Now I don’t. I’ll let Mormons in the house. I’ve been told everyone is prejudice. I had to experience that hate against me before I understood what that means, nearly in my twenties. I write because empathy is a good thing, something to practice, a gift to give not to get. Empathy is one of the most powerful words in the world, like a super hero.

    • kt_writes

      Paul, you’re right—empathy is really difficult! I love how you put this: “We have to listen. We stop expressing and soak.” Thank you.

  • Joi

    At first this idea was hard for me to wrap my mind around. I’m still not sure I would have ever thought about the combination of these 3 things. To me it was like mixing plaids and stripes! But then I began to think about the big project I am working on right now — creating a new Sunday School curriculum that hopefully works for our 3 to 11 yr. olds in our particular unique church situation. Being frustrated with various curriculum material I was previewing, as well as believing that I do know what is good when I see it, was the impetus for this project. And sometimes I wonder what in heck I think I am doing as I wade into whole bunches of helpful materials, etc. But maybe it really is about empathy for what kids can grasp in a typical 45 min. in Sunday School, and if they can be surprised by some new ways of seeing God and the Bible. Can they go home with an idea that stays in their head for a while? It’s about innovation — my wanting to invent new ways of helping kids (and their teachers) SEE and feel a little “aha” and want to come back again and again. Curiosity enters, I suppose, as I fiddle with some good old stuff from other curricula, that almost works, and add new parts to make it flow or whatever; and I wonder if I am actually doing something God has gifted me to do and is inspiring me to try.

    • kt_writes

      Joi, I think your curriculum project is a great example. Having empathy for others—thinking about where they are and what they need—sparked the project, and now it is pushing and challenging you to be more innovative as you struggle with the problem. You summed it up here: “It’s about innovation — my wanting to invent new ways of helping kids
      (and their teachers) SEE and feel a little ‘aha’ and want to come back
      again and again.”