Flipping the Empath Switch

LInus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, is taking a sabbatical. The New Yorker wrote an article about it: 

On Sunday, the benevolent dictator announced that he would be stepping down temporarily, to “get some assistance on how to understand people’s emotions and respond appropriately.” Torvalds, who is forty-eight and lives with his family outside Portland, Oregon, made clear that he wasn’t burned out. “I very much do want to continue to do this project that I’ve been working on for almost three decades,” he wrote in a post to the Linux-kernel mailing list. “I need to take a break to get help on how to behave differently and fix some issues in my tooling and workflow.”

They pulled some examples of things he’s written in email to build the case of why it might be a good idea:

“Please just kill yourself now. The world will be a better place,” he wrote in one.

I found out about this when one of my favorite people on the internet (who is only slightly on the internet anymore), Gabe at Macdrifter, wrote a blog post about it. 

I kept thinking “is it possible to take an empathy sabbatical?” Can we simply will ourselves to feel empathy? Can humans, through time and attention re-factor our sense of empathy? I don’t think we can.

It’s an interesting question. Especially given the Design Thinking Industrial Complex having turned empathy from a human trait into a business buzzword.

Being able to understand what other people are experiencing and feeling is something I try hard to instill in students at the Brandcenter. Not only for the people that they are researching, but also for the creative teams that they are working with. And for the clients/bosses for which they will eventually be working. It’s important to be able to do this. I like to think that it is something that can be learned.

Mark Fenske always talks about reading fiction as a way to build empathy. I hadn’t thought about it until he brought it up, but I think he’s right. Doing ethnographic research is something that helps people become more empathetic with the people they are trying to design for. Seeing how other people live, and talk with each other, and wrestle with problems and celebrate the joys of life, can be powerful.

I think you can become more empathic. I think you can become less empathetic. There’s a spectrum that we all move up and down. Probably on a daily or even hourly basis.

But if that spectrum is a volume knob, there might be a power switch that has to be ON in the first place. Sociopathy might be the OFF position.

And while I think you can learn to move up the spectrum, I have no idea whether it’s possible to learn how to flip the empath switch.

If it is possible, the first step is recognizing that you aren’t empathetic, that it’s a problem to not be empathetic, and to make the decision that you want to become more empathetic.

So, assuming that there’s not something else going on, and there’s no hidden or cynical reason for Linus to be doing and saying this, at least he’s giving it a shot.