We take an excerpt from the first chapter of Shelley Brander’s new book that starts with examining the value of empathy and creativity.
One fateful day in middle school, a mean girl changed the trajectory of my life. I don’t remember her name, or even what she said. It doesn’t matter, really. What matters is what happened next. As soon as I got home, I burst into tears, went upstairs and threw myself on my bed. I was so despondent, I couldn’t do my homework.
I opened my bedroom door and wailed down at my mom that I wasn’t coming down to dinner. After dinner, there was a knock on my bedroom door. It was Dad. “Don’t come in!” I managed through the sobs. “When you’re ready to talk, I’ll be down on the porch,” he said.
When the sobbing finally subsided, I took my puffyfaced self down to the porch. Dad put his paper down and asked what had happened at school. I launched into a long explanation of how this girl had wronged me. I went on and on about how mean she was, how she had hurt me for absolutely no reason, how the situation was so unfair.
Dad let me ramble on and on, let me get it all out. When I was finally done, I expected him to pat me on the shoulder, commiserate about what a horrible person this girl must be, and tell me it would all be better. So what he said next surprised me.
When you start with empathy, life becomes so much bigger and richer.
“How do you think she’s feeling right now?” “I don’t know, and I don’t care!” I said reflexively. “She’s so awful! I’m never going near her again!” And then he surprised me again. He told me to close my eyes. “What?!” “Just humor your dad for a minute. Close your eyes.” I did as I was told.
“Now, I want you to imagine you are the other girl,” Dad said. “But—” I started to object. “I mean it. Really think about it. You are her. Her face is your face. Her feelings are your feelings.” He paused for a few minutes, giving me time to imagine it.
It took me awhile, but I found my way there. I was her. “Got it?” “Yeah.” “Now I want you to replay your entire interaction from today, everything each of you said to each other. But I want you to see it all—feel it all—from her perspective.” And so I did. And . . . wow. Just WOW. Of course that’s why she said what she said. She was feeling threatened and hurt and angry.
If I’d been her, with her perspective and the situation at hand, I probably would have done exactly the same thing. And really, none of it had all that much to do with me. I had taken the situation far too personally, and massively overreacted. I was sure I’d hurt her, too. I felt terrible.
How could I have missed it? I didn’t realize it at the time, but Dad had just given me a master class in empathy. I know now, this was the defining lesson of my childhood. The practice of empathy, being willing and able to step into another’s shoes, has pushed me past countless boundaries and opened up endless opportunities.
It made me a better friend. It made me a better writer. It made me a better negotiator. It made me a better marketer. It made me a better mom. It made me a better community builder. In fact, I believe this simple lesson is the most important, bedrock principle underlying the brand and global movement that I’m leading today.
So thank you, mean girl, wherever you are. I’m sure you’re a very nice person now.
And thank you, Dad. For teaching me the value of empathy. Of learning to pause and take time to really see things from another’s point of view. When you start with empathy, life becomes so much bigger and richer. Your creativity flows, not from the head but from the heart. And when it comes from your heart, there’s no need to second-guess it.
You can trust that it’s taking you exactly where you need to go.