I had one of those trains of thought last week that come, at least to me, in repose. It began with pride in a colleague and ended with pride as a father, and along the way, I was reminded about something I have treasured in my time at Dodge.
I was on vacation on the island of Vieques, which is as quiet and laid back as northern New Jersey is energized and in your face. I took a break from reading and checked the Dodge website – not to work, mind you, just to see what was going on.
It was the day of my colleague Wendy Liscow’s blog entry, “When I Put On These Shoes,” which I read admiringly. As part of Leadership New Jersey’s Class of 2010, Wendy had spent a day in the shoes of “Miriam,” a harried mother and victim of domestic abuse, and through this simulation, she glimpsed what it is like to negotiate the health care and social service systems as a poor, battered, and frightened woman.
As Wendy pointed out, no day-long exercise can approximate the full realities of Miriam’s life, but it was an admirable exercise in empathy. I got to thinking about empathy, and where it comes from, and how we can create more of it.
Ironically, I had put down my book for a few minutes to take a break from it. I was deep into Colum McCann’s novel, Let the Great World Spin. (If you stop here and order the book, I will have done you a favor today.) I don’t usually take book jacket blurbs too seriously, but I think Dave Eggers got it right on this one when he wrote, “There is so much passion and humor and pure life force on every page that you’ll find yourself giddy, dizzy, overwhelmed.”
I had in fact been feeling overwhelmed: fighting back tears over a mother who had lost her son in Vietnam; feeling confused and unsettled as an Irish monk in the Bronx struggled with his vow of chastity; holding my breath as a man walked out onto a tight rope suspended between the two towers of the World Trade Center. (Yes, the actual walk of Philippe Petit in August, 1974 provides the back drop for all the action.) I thought to myself if you don’t have a Leadership New Jersey to create an experience of empathy for you, reading literature ain’t bad.
But what comes of all this? Experiential education works, and great art works, to expand our sympathies and understanding. But what changes as a result?
Here my train of thought took me to the other part of my bookshelf I love – the much nerdier section of books on organizational development and change. The latest page-turner there is called Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath, and the subtitle is How to Change Things When Change is Hard. It doesn’t have the prostitutes and judges and cops and man on a wire a hundred and ten floors off the ground of Let the Great World Spin, but it has its own excitement if you’re in the change business.
And it has its own metaphor for how change happens: a human rider on an elephant going down a path. The Rider is the analytical part of our brain – the part of us that plans for the future and thinks through all the alternatives. The Elephant is the emotional part of our brain – the part that loves routines and familiarity and comfort.
It’s an effective metaphor right off the bat because it reminds us who is in charge. We can know intellectually what we should be doing and pull on the reins, but if the Elephant decides to go in another direction, that’s the way we are going. It’s what happens when we decide we should lose a few pounds but there are Oreos in the house.
You can see both the dangers and the possibilities inherent in this metaphor. The Rider can think long-term, but can also get overwhelmed by choices and spin his or her wheels through endless analysis. The Elephant is not thinking long-term – in fact is not thinking at all. It tends to go for instant gratification if it is there for the taking, or it hangs out in the comfort of the status quo.
But the Elephant is what moves us – literally and figuratively. It is motivated by love and compassion and sympathy and loyalty. It is motivated by empathy. It can provide the energy if the Rider can provide the direction.
So the Heaths simplify the complicated terrain of change – social change or personal change – down to three simple suggestions: 1) Direct the Rider; provide crystal clear directions to a destination we can understand; 2) Motivate the Elephant; engage people’s emotional sides; and 3) Shape the Path; do what you can to create the conditions for change, given the situation you are operating in.
Not a bad way to think about what empathy does – it motivates the elephant. No wonder Leadership New Jersey engages the emotions of Wendy and the rest of her LNJ cohort: because changing the lives of the Miriams of the world is hard indeed.
I think this is what the “phil” in philanthropy is about, too – the emotional commitment that leads us to tackle things that are hard. What a daily privilege that has been for me here at Dodge since the fall of 1998. It is why we have been such a steadfast supporter of the arts, and of experiential education. It is why we tell stories, here on the blog and elsewhere. It is why, when we talk about a more Creative and Sustainable New Jersey, we don’t just analyze the problems as the Rider; we try to motivate the elephant by envisioning, and feeling, what is possible.
One final thought finished my musings on empathy. Dodge co-sponsored a conference in 2000 called Learning and the Arts, where one researcher reported she had found only one significant correlation between life experiences and observed empathetic behavior – many of the “high empathy” people had had experience in drama.
I won’t have my first-hand daily experience with empathy at Dodge after June, but I look forward to a vicarious one over the next three years. My younger son Rob was just accepted into the MFA program at Yale School of Drama, as an actor.