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Sympathy calls you a taxi

October 13, 2011

We hear it all the time in our industry. Good design relies on empathy. Being able to understand, perceive or feel another person’s feelings facilitates having an insight that generates an innovation. But why isn’t sympathy part of the design approach?

Sympathy: the tendency to help others in order to prevent or alleviate their suffering.

An example: The baby is crying. I don’t know why she is crying, because she can’t tell me. But I’m going to try every trick I know to get her to stop.

So for comparison, empathy is like walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and then, based on that experience, redesigning the shoes. Sympathy is like calling the guy a taxi so he doesn’t have to walk in the first place.

Sympathy helps fix an immediate problem. Empathy helps provide a permanent solution.

And now for what prompted this post in the first place.

Earlier this week I heard an interview with Maurice Sendak, whom most of us know as the author of Where the Wild Things Are, on Fresh Air. While I am a big fan of NPR, I’m not always into what Fresh Air serves up. But this interview, at various points, stopped me in my tracks.

I knew I was feeling empathy, not sympathy, because in a wee way I felt jealous.

Terry Gross is interviewing Sendak, now age 83, about the publication of his new book, Bumble-ardy. But the interview takes an interesting and moving turn as Sendak contemplates the recent loss of his partner and, basically, life from the perspective of a guy at the tail end of it.

Here's a snippet:

"I have nothing now but praise for my life. I'm not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can't stop them. They leave me and I love them more. ... What I dread is the isolation. ... There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready."

Upon hearing this, I had a never-before-felt flash of insight into an elderly person’s perspective. The bittersweet joy of aging—or rather, having aged-- was so poignant. I knew I was feeling empathy, not sympathy, because in a wee way I felt jealous. How brilliantly painful a life lived must seem. I came into work wiping away tears.

Perhaps you have to hear the interview to really understand what was so moving about it.

Here is the whole thing, if you have 20 minutes to spare.

If not, start at 15:30 and listen for a mere one minute and 15 seconds and let me know how or if you are moved.

Do you feel like you’ve walked a bit in his shoes?

Or are you compelled to save him from the “deepest pain and the wondrous feeling of coming into [his] own”?

If you don’t make it all the way to the end of the interview, I’ll tell you the last thing Maurice Sendak says, “Live your life. Live your life. Live your life.”

And if that doesn’t make you well up, let me know if I can ever call you a taxi.