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Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy

Dev Patnaik tells the story of how companies, and indeed organizations of all kinds, prosper when they tap into a power that every one of us already has: the ability to reach outside ourselves and connect with other people.
This chapter is from the book

Early one morning in 1979, Pattie Moore did a peculiar thing. A young designer living in New York, she woke up, got out of bed, and started to make herself frail. She strapped herself into a body brace that made her shoulders hunch forward. She hid her auburn locks under a white wig and painted her eyelashes gray. She plugged up her ears so she couldn’t hear. And she put on horn-rimmed glasses that blurred her vision. Transformed into a woman more than three times her actual age, Pattie headed out into the world, a wooden cane guiding her path. Leaving her Gramercy Park walk-up, Pattie stepped out into a land that was unlike any she had ever experienced. Pattie had made herself old, and now even her own neighborhood looked strange to her.

Weeks earlier, Pattie had been involved in a planning discussion for the design of a new refrigerator. She had just landed a job at the offices of Raymond Loewy, an icon of twentieth century industrial design. Sitting in a brainstorming session, Pattie listened as the other designers traded ideas for what the new fridge might look like. After a little while, she raised her hand. Perhaps the team should consider how to accommodate the needs of people with arthritis, poor vision, or reduced strength. Pattie had grown up with her grandparents at home. She vividly remembered how her grandmother had been forced to stop cooking when the infirmities of old age made it impossible to peel a potato, open a carton of milk, or even pull a refrigerator door open. Now, given the chance to design a new fridge, she wondered if there wasn’t a way to help other people’s grandmothers to continue to cook as they got older. The other designers stared at her blankly. “Pattie,” one shrugged, “we don’t design for those people.”

That moment changed the course of Pattie’s career. It seemed obvious to her that there were a lot of people in the world who were like her grandmother. And yet, there were clearly more than a few designers who weren’t interested in designing for anyone besides themselves. So she decided to change things. At the same time, Pattie realized that she herself had little real empathy for senior citizens, if only because she had never experienced the world as they did. And that’s when she started to plan her experiment.

Pattie decided to simulate what it was like to be old so that she might figure out what life was like for her elders. With the help of a friend who worked as a television make-up artist, she transformed herself into an eighty-five-year-old woman. As she quickly found out, when you’re old, the world isn’t designed for you. Pill bottles demanded too much dexterity. Telephones were too hard to dial. Climbing the steps onto a city bus was a dangerous ordeal. Occasionally, strangers would stop to lend a hand with momentary tasks, but the second they walked away, she was once again left to make it on her own in a world where the deck was stacked against her. To make matters worse, people ignored her or made jokes at her expense. It was if she wasn’t a person anymore. Pattie saw, heard, and, more than anything else, felt all of this pain as she went about her business. The experience was agonizing. Everywhere she looked, Pattie saw opportunities to make things better. Everything needed to be fixed.

Pattie continued her experiment for the next three years, going undercover in more than a hundred cities throughout the United States and Canada. Every time, her routine was the same. Wake up, become old, and see the world through new eyes. And over the course of her journeys, Pattie came to see things differently. Getting old wasn’t really the problem. It was everything else. If your hand couldn’t get a potato peeler to work, maybe there was something wrong with the peeler. If you weren’t strong enough to pull a door open, maybe the problem was the door. Perhaps so-called disabilities were caused by products and architecture, not by age and health.

Pattie’s experience would end up pointing the way for an entirely new generation of designers, ones more attuned to the world around them. It also revealed huge business opportunities that had been overlooked for years. Based on her work, companies as diverse as Boeing, Merck, and Toyota developed new offerings that grew their businesses and differentiated their products. It turns out that senior citizens aren’t just some niche market—they reflect unarticulated needs that many of us have. When you make doors that are easier for seniors to open, you make life easier for all of us, young and old.

Through her work, Pattie Moore has helped to make life a little bit more livable for people in many parts of the world. In doing so, she also revealed an important but oft-forgotten truism: People discover unseen opportunities when they have a personal and empathic connection with the world around them. For individuals, that means developing the ability to walk in other people’s shoes. For companies and other large institutions, that means finding a way to bring the rest of the world inside their walls.

Empathy Equals Growth

This is the story of how companies, and indeed organizations of all kinds, prosper when they tap into a power that every one of us already has: the ability to reach outside ourselves and connect with other people. And it’s the story of how institutions can so easily lose their way when their people lose that connection. Human beings are intrinsically social animals. Our brains have developed subtle and sophisticated ways to understand what other people are thinking and feeling. Simply put, we’re wired to care. We rely on those instincts to help us make better decisions in situations that affect the folks around us. Unfortunately, that instinct seems to get short-circuited when we get together in large groups. We lose our intuition, our gut sense for what’s going on outside of that group. Corporations become more insular. Colleges start to feel like ivory towers. Political campaigns take on a “bunker mentality.” That sort of isolation can have disastrous effects because these same institutions depend on the outside world for revenues and reputation and votes.

When people in an organization develop a shared and intuitive vibe for what’s going on in the world, they’re able to see new opportunities faster than their competitors, long before that information becomes explicit enough to read about in The Wall Street Journal. They have the courage of their convictions to take a risk on something new. And they have the gut-level intuition to see how their actions impact the people who matter most: the folks who buy their products, interact with their brand, and ultimately fund their 401(k) plans. That intuition transcends what’s traditionally referred to as market research. A widespread sense of empathy starts to influence the culture of a place, giving it a sense of clarity and mission. People spend less time arguing about things that ultimately don’t matter. Empathy can even start to ensure more ethical behavior in a way that no policies and procedures manual ever could.

Wired to Care is nominally a business book. But it seeks to answer questions that are relevant to businesspeople, educators, designers, marketers, athletes, policymakers, and citizens alike. How can we nurture the instinct that all human beings have to walk in other people’s shoes? How can we, in turn, create a wider sense of empathy to connect larger organizations to the world around them? And how can we leverage that widespread empathy to be an engine for growth and change?

In pursuit of the answers, we’ll explore how large institutions lose their connection with the outside world, how they can regain their sense of empathy, and what the results look like when they do. We’ll visit Zildjian, one of the oldest companies in the world, and see how they’ve prospered for nearly 400 years by connecting with superstar clientele, from Turkish emperors to Philadelphia hip-hop groups. We’ll dive deep into the catacombs of the human brain, to find the biological sources of empathy, and discover how mirror neurons and the limbic system enable us to feel what others are feeling. And we’ll spend time on both sides of the political aisle, with James Carville, the Ragin’ Cajun, and John McCain, a national hero, to show how first-hand life experience can give you the acuity to cut through a morass of otherwise confusing and contradictory information. We’ll spend time at big companies like IBM, Target, and Intel. But we’ll also go to farmers’ markets and a conference on world religions. All of this is to reclaim a very old idea, that quantitative data and facts are no substitute for real-world experience and human connection.

This book is divided into three sections. The first seeks to make the case for why empathy matters: how organizations lose sight of the real world and how they might regain that connection. The second section explores the mechanisms that allow human beings to connect with others and how we can create a widespread sense of empathy across a large group of people. The last section describes the payoff. It shows how widespread empathy can help companies to see opportunities faster, prosper for longer, ensure ethical conduct, and instill a personal sense of meaning in each of us as individuals.

As one of the founders of Jump Associates, I work with companies to help them find new opportunities for growth. I have the privilege of working with the leaders of some of the world’s most innovative companies, foundations, and public institutions. Some of them are people you see profiled in newspapers and magazines. Others are folks you’ve never heard of but probably should have. I also spend time teaching designers and business school students at Stanford University. In the course of my work, I’ve received a lot of requests to talk to groups about innovation. And I tell them that the problem with business today isn’t a lack of innovation; it’s a lack of empathy. As you can imagine, that statement can cause some very different reactions, depending on whether I’m talking to toy designers or oil industry executives. It’s amazing how quickly business people write off something that sounds too soft. But empathy is more than a warm and fuzzy notion best-suited for annual reports and greeting cards. It’s the ability to step outside of yourself and see the world as other people do. For many of the world’s greatest companies, it’s an ever-present but rarely talked-about engine for growth.

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