Fatherhood, Leadership, and Empathy
My Morning Routine
When I wake up, I go through my morning routine… read my favorite blogs, usually something that inspires me. I make some green tea. I go sit for 15 minutes in silence clearing my mind for the day, in hopes of some form of meditation. The chaos somehow getting organized in this process. I read a book for 20 minutes. I read my dailies (Tolstoy, Holiday, Larranaga). I journal. I go through my email. At 7:00 AM I go and help get the kids ready for the day: breakfast, clothes, lunch, etc… This process repeats every day from 4:30 AM to 8:00 AM. Just because it is a routine does not make it mundane. I go to sleep excited about waking up and starting again. Or continuing down the path again. Taking another step in my journey. Some days may feel like a step backward, but I think that is just my own perception. The truth is, it’s a step, and that is all I can ask for.
What I have realized in this strange year of global pandemic is that beauty lies within everything we do. In every moment, we have a choice in how to respond. We can see the negative in anything if we look for it. The same goes for finding the positivity in everything. Positivity exists everywhere. I don’t write this to paint a picture of myself as some idealistic optimist. That is not the point. I write this to paint the picture of the possibility of how we can see this world. All of my days start out the same way and I cherish those first few hours. These practices help me set the tone for success. The rest of the day might bring crazy ups and crazy downs, but when I am able to start with my routine, it all comes at me a bit slower. I am able to find moments, as my wife calls them, to breathe and recenter.
How Becoming a Dad Changed My Perspective
For me, I think this all started to change when I became a Dad. There was this shift, it was almost like a twig snapping within me, but the truth of what happened was that a bridge was built. A bridge between my heart and others. A connection that shifted everything that I thought I knew. All my preconceived notions of the world were thrown out the door and a bright light was cast over this new truth. A truth that this bridge has now connected my heart and the outside world in a way that allows me to see the world through a lens of compassion and understanding instead of anger and annoyance. My past self lived in a world where most instances, events, people, etc, were out to do me harm or take what I believed was mine. I was always searching for the injustices so I could make things right. Of course, there is still some of this in me but now I try to approach each day with a deep sense of curiosity–bringing in my beginner’s mind to try and understand the events around me instead of judging them so harshly.
I have always heard this word empathy. I have heard it explained in a way that even a 2 year old could understand, yet it never clicked for me. The most straightforward explanation, which I believe to be a great one, is “Imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes.” Yet this was still too difficult for me to conceptualize. I would say this word “empathy” in my head, then literally put myself in the person’s shoes and be like, “What if they are too small?!” Seriously, I just couldn’t quite manifest the concept in my mind.
Then on the day I found out I was to become a Dad, it started to click. Like the moment in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas when his heart grew.
“And what happened, then? Well, in Whoville they say – that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. And then – the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of ten Grinches, plus two!”
It’s true. Though my strength didn’t increase, 3.5 years later, I have 2 boys and I can tell you when they feel pain, I feel it instantly course through every fiber of my being. Whether emotional or physical, it is there. I want to rush to them and hold them and tell them it will be ok. I want to cry when I feel their sadness. I also want to be there for them so I can fix everything. Of course, I know this latter reaction is not the right answer to struggle, but the impulse is strong!
I am sure there are plenty of Dads and Moms–whether of pets or children–who know this feeling. The need to understand and love my child has taught me more about myself and others than I will ever be able to express in words, but we all feel this in some form or another.
Empathy is the Key to Any Locked Door
What I have realized and why I tell you this story: The chance to understand empathy and to be empathetic lives within us all. We are all leaders or parents or friends or loved ones and this one word, empathy, can guide us through some of our hardest times but also help us help others in their toughest times. Personally, before COVID, during COVID, and after COVID, empathy can almost always be the key to any locked door. Empathy for yourself and empathy for all those around you. Strangers, enemies, loved ones. This word, the true feeling of it, can guide you through the darkest moments and also even bring more vividness to the greatest moments.
Simon Sinek says “Empathy is the ability to recognize and share other people’s feelings—is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox.”
Simon Sinek nails this. As the President of one of the greatest organizations on the planet, Easton Training Center, I am fortunate enough to get to share my life with our incredible team; staff and students. My favorite part of this role is getting to learn about leadership and empathy with our team. Getting to grow with our team every day. A favorite mantra as of late for me is, “You never step into the same river twice,” and that has taught me that we must pour into our community every day. Each new day is a new opportunity to do good and build bridges. Friends or enemies, we must continue to grow and take care of one another. I believe our community has shown so much incredible resilience and mutual support over these past months, that we are now positioned to take on anything the Universe can throw at us.
Empathy in Martial Arts
My martial arts training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has taught me a great deal about the importance of being an empathetic human being. I discussed how the switch flipped when I became a Dad, but for a switch to flip, there had to be momentum to move it. In the 14 years I have spent on the Jiu Jitsu mat, with a short stint on the Muay Thai side, I have been building an understanding of what it means to live an empathetic life.
We know that these particular martial arts break down your ego. The balance of humility and ego are always at play in our lives, but nothing crystalizes it more than when the mat is getting mopped with your face or when you are mopping the mat with someone else’s. It is in those moments, when we have to check in with our humility and our ego, that the lessons of martial arts come into play. We have to let go of our ego to continue our training, then we have to remember humility as we improve. Being able to take another’s perspective and to truly understand their struggles builds the foundation for a compassionate attitude.
Because of the power of the mats, the power of Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai to change human beings, my children will train martial arts when they are old enough. Even if they eventually decide that my passion isn’t theirs, the philosophy of a martial artist will be forever present in our household. I look forward to raising my boys in a household where empathy and humility are an ever-present part of the conversation.
Practicing Empathy and Resources for Growth
Finally, I don’t want to leave you with no concrete answer to the question of how to be empathetic. I know there are incredibly brilliant people out there who can probably do a much more skillful job of explaining it than I can, but I’ll gladly share what has helped me. And though becoming a Dad made all the difference for me, that’s not the only way down this path. Some of the most empathetic individuals I know do not have children.
What I can advise and what I think is a must:
- Be an incredible listener.
- Don’t pass judgment no matter what the speaker has to say.
- Be there for everyone and practice deep listening every day.
- I’ll say it one more time. Listen. Actively. Intensely. With compassion and understanding.
- This doesn’t happen overnight and we can always improve. Remember you are on a journey that is bookended by your birth and your death. It is your actions in this world that matter.
- Don’t worry about the past. You cannot change what you did, but always have the ability to communicate with those you think you have wronged.
- If they are dead? They may or may not be somewhere listening (depending on your spiritual beliefs). Write them a letter. Tell them how you feel. Tell them you struggled and never meant to contribute to their suffering.
- Remove expectations from your actions. Just do, don’t expect anything in return.
- This is a constant practice. Some days will be easier than others. Take moments in your day to breathe and remember your intentions. For me, I used to draw little pictures on my hands to remind me of the day’s intentions, but now I wear a beaded bracelet that reminds me to be calm, to breathe, to live a compassionate life.
Some of my favorites recommended to me by great people who all walk this journey of leadership through empathy, living through empathy
- Thich Naht Hanh The Art of Communication
- Simon Sinek Leaders Eat Last and Start with Why
- Josh Medcalf Chop Wood Carry Water
- Ryan Holiday The Daily Stoic: 366 meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living
- Malcolm Gladwell Talking to Strangers what we should know about the people we don’t know – I recommend the Audible version!
I could have this conversation all day and I have so many more books that discuss this. If you ever feel like chatting about it, send me an email at Mike@eastontc.com. I look forward to hearing from you.