I want to start off with an apology.
An apology to the people I’ve met, interacted with in class, at work, on the street and in life whom I failed to show empathy towards.
The greatest revelation I’ve had in the past 2 to 3 years of life has been how paramount empathy is to reaching personal fulfillment and self-actualization. At least the kind I hope/plan to create for myself.
I’ve always been proud to be a fun-natured, easy-going, social butterfly, but somewhere in the midst of being around so many people and being so driven to succeed, I realized what I was overlooking to an extent for many years was the role empathy plays in shaping relationships with others. I am a great friend, but going to therapy and experiencing some of the hardships I’ve experienced in life (or getting to a point to assess them years later) has put me in a much better position to accept this lesson fully and gain a deeper sense of empathy that seemed previously far out of my reach (or worse; I hadn't felt was necessary).
Last year, I had to experience a divorce to the most beautiful women I’d ever known (inside and out) and one of the main takeaways I got from the marriage, however short, was how critical empathy is. You may be thinking is this some kind of post-therapy speech to self-congratulate or whatnot, but this is simply me confessing that I've now realized times where my own lack of empathy led to disappointing returns in relationships or experiences as a friend/coworker/etc - in order to fully allow for the next stage, which is progressing.
Don’t get me wrong, I know there are plenty of people who are happy/successful/wealthy as can be without one iota of empathy, but I’ve personally learned painstakingly how different from those people I want to be. I don't want that kind of life and I don't want to be that kind of person who fails to see the why and how of a person because the when and what is so much easier to interpret.
The person I want to be tomorrow is far more patient, understanding, willing to listen, and empathetic than the person I am today, but the trend line I’m creating for myself – based on where I was before – is one I believe will get me there.
Professionally speaking, and when you have as many meetings as I do for Localeur; meetings with advisers, fellow entrepreneurs, investors current and prospective, and venture capitalists, I’ve realized that empathy is what separates the advice I take and run with from the advice I simply ignore.
Localeur's board member selection in the coming years will consists of successful CEOs, entrepreneurs and VCs, but it'll start with people who show true and lasting empathy. When I read blogs from guys like Fred Wilson and Ben Horowitz, I sense a level of empathy that makes them exceptional VCs...not just picking winners after they've become hot deals.
Recently, I had a meeting with a guy who showed such a total lack of empathy – stemming largely from his desire to hear himself talk more than his willingness to listen (admittedly, something I’ve too been guilty of in the past) – that I honestly can’t say a single thing he said resonated. It doesn’t mean he didn’t say anything of value, but it does mean that his advice will go very very far down the list of things someone has told me I should be doing to build Localeur that I’ll get started on.
A recommendation, fundamentally, is so much stronger than a review.
Ultimately, the definition of empathy I apply both personally and professionally today is a slight enhancement of what Webster’s will say – “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
Being a natural sharer, a risk-taker and entrepreneur is something a lot of people, most people perhaps, can’t identify with. Most people are more reserved, more reluctant to leap, and more likely to work for someone else.
I think going through the various things I’ve gone through in the last couple of years (divorce, rejection, the challenges of being a Black CEO/founder in tech), and seeing what I’ve seen in coming across thousands literally thousands of different people in my line of work each month, has opened my eyes even more to the significance of one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
I want to understand, so I will seek harder than I ever have. I will no longer dismiss because it's a better use of my time. I will rely on empathy.
Turning 30 last year was definitely a factor, too, and the new tattoo on my wrist reads, “Experience Everything,” which I truly believe is possible...if not directly then at least through interactions with others when empathy is genuinely applied.
My mother, Sabrena Spearman, is where my lessons in empathy begin, but I’m very thankful that I have some other women and great friends in my life – Stephanie Hatfield, Nadya GP, Amber Madison, Lani Camille Thomison Jessica Thompson, Meegan Moore, N. Madeira Cofield, Janel Jefferson, April Bain and Rachel Guest to name a few – who continue to get me to that high empathy quotient I so badly desire. My mentor Heather Brunner is such a great force here, too. I learn from every single interaction I have with these women.
Not to be left out, there are some men who’ve been amazing too at teaching me empathy from my brother Kahron and high school track coach Rob to lifelong friends like Colby Broadwater Obi Ihekweazu Larry Luk Terry Lickona, Michael Francis and Adam Bain and Dre Hayes and many others have been right there too, seeking to understand where I was coming from.
I am a better doer, thinker and leader, not to mention a better business partner to Chase White, as a result of all these people. I will be a better CEO tomorrow than I am today not solely because I'll get smarter and better at running the go-to-market strategies, investor pitches and financial modeling and such for Localeur, but because of empathy and building our community from the ground up, too. Empathy builds trust. Without empathy, trust is very hard to come by. I know that now more than ever.
More importantly, I'll be a better person to my family, friends and other loved ones as a result of realizing a lesson I had to experience a good bit of pain over the last year or two to learn. I'm so thankful and feel blessed for that. Sorry for the long diatribe/post. I hope you understand.