Applied Empathy

In Paul Graham’s essay “Hackers and Painters,” he makes the point that the best creators, whether they’re making visual art or software, make things for a human audience. This is true whether the creators explicitly know it or not.

They create things with the intent that other people will consume and appreciate what they are doing. It’s summarized well in Graham’s axiom, make things people want. But when you look at the work of so many creators approach their art, it seems to fail this basic requirement.

Artists in particular are notorious for this. What it comes down to is a lack of empathy. At every stage in the creative process, ask yourself — am I making this because it’s what I want? Or am I making it because it is what someone else wants? Who specifically, and what desire does my thing fulfill?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with making art for an audience of one, for simple self-expression, catharsis, or maybe for practice. The problem is when people create art from a self-centered place and then are shocked and vaguely offended when the world doesn’t match their enthusiasm.

At the other extreme, if you’re making something exclusively because you think it’s what people want, you’re likely to run out of steam and give up before you’re done. The key it to strike a balance.

Business people are usually better at this than artists, but not always. Look at this video of startup founders asking Paul Graham for advice. Graham is amazingly incisive, and I’m sure it’s not easy to open yourself up to cross-examination from such a heavy hitter. But even so I’m amazed at how bad most of these people are at describing their businesses. Many seem to have no strong concept of what problem their product solves and who exactly would use it.

Without a clear concept of what you’re trying to accomplish and for whom, you’re wasting your energy.

So empathy is a key attribute of a successful creator — successful in the sense that the creation is well-received by some intended audience. (An amazing creation that lives in total obscurity is not an amazing creation.)

To put it in plain English, a secret of success is the ability to look at things from the other person’s point of view.

Cynics will say this is weakness.  But there is a flip side: Graham notes that “empathy doesn’t necessarily mean being self-sacrificing.” Just the opposite can be true; seeing something through someone else’s eyes doesn’t mean you’ll act in his interest.

Take war or sports as an example. The objective there is to understand what the opponent wants and then deliver the exact opposite.