The future will belong to those who have empathy



Empathy and vulnerability and authenticity will get you a lot further and deeper in life than high self-confidence and high self-esteem alone will ever get you.

Bear with me.

Last year I was introduced to Joan Didion’s brilliant essay “On Self-Respect” from Maria Popova’s website Brain Pickings (love).  Her argument is so convincing and well written that she pretty much wrote the last words on the subject.

The Didionian definition of  self-respect:

1.  isn’t about gaining the approval of others;

2.  can’t protect you from pain;

3.  is “a separate peace, a private reconciliation;

4.  is a discipline one can develop;

5.  once was called “character” or “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life.”

She writes that to have self-respect is to potentially have everything. And I believe her.  (I pulled out the main points but read the whole essay if you enjoy precisely worded, thoughtful writing.)

It first appeared in Vogue magazine in 1961 and then in her collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in 1968.  I doubt her essay would appear in any popular woman’s magazine today.  If it did, it would probably be chopped up, dumbed down and called “10 ways to get more self-respect by bikini season.”

Actually, it probably wouldn’t be about self-respect.  The idea of self-respect is so old-fashioned and unsexy.  Responsibility and discipline?  No way!  Today she would probably have to write about confidence and self-esteem.  That made me wonder what she would write about those topics today, our extroverted culture’s substitute for self-respect.

I did some Googling to see what people were writing about confidence and what I found was unsatisfying.  Seems like confidence is the opposite of what Didion defines as self-respect. It’s very much about:

1.  gaining the approval of others;

2.  protecting you from the pain of disapproval;

3.  performing

4.  a discipline you can develop.  Except the discipline is: “fake it ’til you make it.”

Is confidence the key to success?  Maybe in our consumerist society where success is defined as being competitive and standing out, where things rule and people see themselves as things to sell and others as things to sell to.  You need confidence to sell yourself — on the job, in school, on a date.

But, I think Susan Steele from Quietly Fabulous had it right — there’s a difference between what confidence feels like and what confidence looks like.  And it depends on who is doing the feeling and seeing.  To an extrovert, confidence is talking (usually a lot and loudly), acting decisively and looking outward.  To an introvert, confidence is thinking before talking, thinking before acting, thinking before everything and looking inward.

I’ve literally been thinking about this for months (typical introvert) and I finally decided that focusing on confidence is a waste of time.

I agree with a quotation by psychologist Jean Twenge I read in a BBC World article: “the idea that being highly self-confident is the key to success…is untrue…All you need is the belief that you can go out and do something but that’s not the same as thinking you’re great.”

True greatness demands not confidence, but rawness, according to Sara Wachter-Boettcher.

True success and greatness is not just about selling yourself or your ideas well but understanding other people and their ideas. And it starts with feeling, not just positive feelings, but everything.  It’s called authenticity.

Donald Glover is a perfect example of someone who displayed raw authenticity.  He posted seven handwritten notes on  his Instagram account in October and wrote things like “I’m afraid I hate who I really am” and “I’m scared I’ll never reach my potential”  and “this is the first time I felt helpless” and “I hate caring what people think”.  Beautiful and not a waste of time.

That kind of rawness or vulnerability is not weakness but a strength or “an act of courage”, according to Brene Brown.

Like Louis C.K.’s courageous vulnerability displayed here and written about here.

The quality that will separate “the stars from the also rans” will not be those with the most confidence but those willing to be authentic, vulnerable, empathetic.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher:  “(Empathy) means being open–truly open–to feeling emotions we may not want to feel. It means allowing another’s experiences to gut us. It means ceding control. Empathy begins with vulnerability.  And being vulnerable, especially in our work, is fucking terrifying.”  Terrifying, but not a waste of time.

In 1961, when Didion wrote “On Self-Respect”, the best of the best had character.

In the last sixty years, the best of the best were confident.

In the future, the great leaders, creators, innovators will have empathy.

Empathy and vulnerability and authenticity will get you a lot further and deeper in life than high self-confidence and high self-esteem alone will ever get you.

Thanks for bearing with me.




6 thoughts on “The future will belong to those who have empathy

  1. this makes me want to post something i journaled last night that seemed like an “over-share” but now seems like me just being scared to be vulnerable. i’m curious, where do you find the connection between being empathic and vulnerable though? in my experience empathy is understanding others’ emotions but i am interested in your take on the relationship between the two.


    1. Well I think in order to be empathetic — to understand what someone else is going through and to hold the space while they’re going through it — you have to be able to tolerate someone else’s vulnerability. And, in order to do that you have to be vulnerable and tolerate your own vulnerability. You have to feel all your feelings and let someone see it. Like in that RSA video “The Power of Empathy” (link at the end of the post), vulnerability is being in a dark hole and telling someone you’re in the hole and empathy is the willingness to go into the darkness with someone, knowing what that dark hole is and not being afraid to go there with them.
      I find the best writing is the most vulnerable or raw. That raw stuff usually helps someone.


      1. Wow, spot on. I do consider myself an empath and I feel like this is an incredible description of what it means to empathize! Thanks for this, it cam just at the right moment. Have you seen the TED talk on vulnerability by Brené Brown?


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