Balancing Responsibility with Empathy

balancing responsibility with empathy

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When you’re giving advice, one of the main tensions is the idea of balancing tough love with, well, love. Balancing responsibility with empathy.

Part of me is team responsibility – team “lift yourself up by your own bootstraps.” I made all the right decisions. I put in the hours at a high-paying job and I’m frugal. Obviously you have to make the right choices or you won’t succeed. In order to make the right choices, you have to have the mindset that you’re the only one that can help yourself, because often, you’re the only one who can.

Part of me is team empathy. I’ve been in gifted and talented programs since I was in second grade. I’ve been surrounded by smart kids who have made all the right choices. And still, because of health or other circumstances beyond their control, some of them don’t get the same outcomes. It’s not all a matter of mindset or making the right decisions, but a matter of luck and timing.

So how do you balance these two competing ideas -how do you encourage or advise people to keep making the right decisions when luck is so integral?

When to Use the Responsibility Mindset

To me, it makes a lot of sense to focus on what you can control. I think talking about privilege is pretty stupid, honestly. Let’s take Bill Gates. He’s “privileged” in that he’s a healthy, white man who grew up in a wealthy area. Would he have gotten where he is if he were Asian? Why does it matter? Even if we prove that Bill Gates was lucky – so what? Everyone still has to play the cards they’re dealt.

Judging your life based on other people’s cards is futile. It doesn’t make any difference to look at others who might be more advantaged (envy) or less advantaged (pity). If I don’t like my life, I have to focus on what I can do to change it right now. And I have to believe whatever I need to believe to advance myself. Learning about my disadvantages doesn’t serve me. Neither does complaining.

There are often different mindsets between those who succeed and those who fail so mindset is generally important but it’s not essential and it’s not enough.

When Mindset Doesn’t Work

There’s this scene in Sex and the City when Charlotte and Carrie go to a seminar with a dating self-help guru (bear with me and try not to roll your eyes too much). The guru is all about manifesting and mindset (I told you to stop rolling your eyes!).

Here’s the scene: a woman in the crowd has just stated that she followed the plan of daily affirmations and has met a great new guy. Enthusiastic applause. Then, Charlotte stands up.

Charlotte: I’m just wondering how long that woman was doing her affirmations because I’ve been doing mine every day. And I want to believe but nothing is happening. I just don’t think it’s working. I just don’t think it will work for me.

Guru: I hear fear. I hear doubt. You have to believe love to receive love. Keep repeating your affirmations and eventually your heart will catch up with your head.

Charlotte: That’s the thing though. I did find love. I believed that there was someone out there for me. And I met him. Finally. And we had a beautiful wedding. And then everything just fell apart. …. And now I just feel lost. And I am I’m trying to put myself out there but I feel hopeless.

Guru: Perhaps you’re not really putting yourself out there.

Charlotte: Oh.

Guru: …I mean emotionally and physically…. Maybe you’re not really trying.

And at this point, Charlotte’s friend, Carrie, intervenes and defends her friend, saying Charlotte really is trying. Charlotte really is doing the best she can do and her mindset is strong.

I was reminded of this scene after hearing so many personal finance gurus talk about “Mindset! Mindset! Mindset!” What happens when the guru is pressured – hey, the mindset isn’t working? Well, the guru places the blame on the person, of course. You’re not following the plan! And I think this does a disservice to people following the plan for the following reasons:

  1. Mindset isn’t everything.
  2. Empathy is always important.

The Difference Between Good Decisions and Good Outcomes

You should all read Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets. Basically, Duke says that when we look back at our decisions, we tend to judge whether they’re good or bad based on their outcomes. The problem is that you’re ignoring the presence of luck.

This plays out often in the personal finance world. You’re told over and over to go to college. Georgina goes to college, gets a great job and benefits and can easily pay off her loans. Georgina must have done everything right. George goes to college, has trouble finding a job and struggles to pay off his student loans. Well, he shouldn’t have taken out the loans. George made a mistake.

The problem is that you’re presented with a scenario and people are trying to figure out cause and effect. Basically, they’re trying to place blame. We want to think we live in a world where we put in A and get out B, but that’s not the world we live in. Also, we’re terrible at figuring out cause and effect.

So what do we do? We haphazardly place blame whenever someone has a bad outcome. We see this play out in every aspect of our lives.

You got sick? You should pray for healing. If you’re not healed? Well, you didn’t pray hard enough. Or you have secret sin.

You’re fat? You should be more self-disciplined. Didn’t lose the weight? You’re not trying hard enough.

Can’t make ends meet? You’re not budgeting strictly enough. You likely have some secret luxuries.

Sometimes you can do everything right and be sick or fat. Sometimes you can cut your expenses to the bone and still not earn enough. Sometimes you can do everything right and the outcome comes out wrong. And the worst part might be the people that don’t know you, telling you where you went wrong.

When to Use Empathy

Pre-civilization, people used to think that if something bad happened, you must have done something to anger the gods. We haven’t actually gotten that far away from this kind of thinking. We see a bad result and there’s a kneejerk reaction – what did you do wrong?

You can be “mindset! mindset! mindset!” but other people are going to tune you out without empathy. I think it’s a huge problem not to have empathy anyway.

Balancing Responsibility with Empathy

Personally, I think the rule of thumb should be, that you use the responsibility mindset with yourself, and empathy with others. This is not to say you shouldn’t be empathetic to yourself or that you shouldn’t use tough love with others, but this seems like a good first approach. You know a lot about yourself, your decisions and your situation. You don’t know what happened to the other person. I’m pretty self-controlled and I know there are tons of people who could beat me when it comes to doing the right things. I don’t know that the person who had a bad outcome made worse decisions than me. I shouldn’t assume that.

If someone is reaching out to you for advice, they are often looking for empathy, even if they don’t know it yet. You don’t necessarily reach out to yourself for that reason. The  problem with the guru from Sex and the City is that she had very little emotional intelligence. Charlotte clearly wanted someone to affirm her. And perhaps the cold-hearted among you (cough Asians cough) might say, well you just need to know the information and ignore your emotions. But sometimes people need support and understanding. It’s the common trope that women often communicate for the sense of community, not to be given advice.  I think that’s really beautiful. Some people want to figure things out for themselves but they need support along the way. Hammering the same defective advice short circuits that communication. You’re creating problems where there weren’t any. You’re not solving anything.

When people are struggling, I hope I can be more like Carrie and less like the personal finance guru. I want to be the person who seeks to understand, not seeks to promote my own agenda.

What about you?

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