Manifesting Empathy Often Begins by Recognizing Personal Luck


I did a lot of thinking this week on why we are compassionate and, more specifically, why some people seem to be more compassionate than others? There are many reasons, but the one I focused on came down to recognition of luck.

From my experience, those that see their characteristics as a result of their experiences tend to breed an appreciation for the formulaic nature of success. The motto seems to be “Give a plant water, and it will grow”. Notice, there’s no “us” and “them”, or “the strong” and “the weak” in that saying. It’s just plants with or without water. Therefore, to these types of people, there’s an obvious nature to the plan of action when people are struggling. They need more water (sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally).

As a cathartic exercise, I wanted to dive into a moment I had that brought to light just how lucky I am.

Zoë and I were in Coffee Bay, South Africa, being toured around a village by a young local man named Eric.

To say Coffee Bay has some serious challenges is an understatement. The most recent data I can find tells a devastating story about the seaside town. 77% of Coffee Bay inhabitants are unemployed. 58% are illiterate. 29% are living with AIDS.

As I came to understand his reality, what living along what is known as the “Wild Coast” entails, it saddened me. It wasn’t the stats, however, that made me feel lucky. That came after reflecting upon his response to my simple question.

“What’s the hardest part about living in Coffee Bay?” I asked

After a thoughtful pause, Eric replied “It is very hard to be clever here.”

After taking note of my inquisitive look, he elaborated. He’s a tiny guy, and the only nearby employment is in the mines; work that demands large, strong bodies. So Eric carved out a niche with a few local hostels, offering to give guests tours of his village for a small fee. This alone gives you a glimpse into his resourcefulness and entrepreneurial spirit.

But he has larger aspirations than village tours. To put it more accurately, he aspires to have larger aspirations. He explained how uninformed he feels, and how hard it is for him to get access to information that would allow him to dream bigger dreams. There’s no internet in his village. He has to travel an hour in the back of the truck just to get a newspaper. He described to me this recurring fantasy he has of impressing some tourist with his wit, so much so they decide to financially back him as he pursues a college education.

As he’s explaining this, I’m filled with an emotional cocktail of compassion, extreme guilt, and incredible appreciation for the hand I’ve been dealt.

In my world, my inaction is usually due to over-analyzing opportunity cost, aka paralysis-by-analysis

Think about that for a second. The thing that most commonly prohibits me from pursuing my goals is the plethora of opportunities I have.

This experience with Eric changed my mindset forever. I stopped “owning” my accomplishments quite as much. I’m proud of my work ethic, but I don’t have any delusions that it’s determined my socio-economic position, or that it’s superior in any way to the Eric’s of the world.

Even if some characteristics I possess are superior, did I really manifest those attributes by myself? Or do I owe them to the endless list of mentors and teachers I’ve had, the productivity blogs and podcasts I have instant access to and the vibrant cities I’ve lived in that have exposed me to so many brilliant people that possess so much knowledge.

The answer is, obviously, the latter.

When I reflected on it further, with historical context in mind, the degree of my luck was embarrassing to admit. If the goal in life is to pursue your ambitions and dreams, I’m nearly positive there has never been a luckier demographic than an upperclass, white, male, in Silicon Valley, in 2016. I’m quite literally one of the luckiest people in history.

After my chat with Eric, I vowed to make the most of this unbelievable opportunity I am able to call my life. I still have days where I don’t wake up with a proverbial fire lit underneath my backside, but I have a lot of days I do. A lot of that energy is owed to those few hours I spent chatting in Coffee Bay.

That experience, in and of itself, is just another example of how lucky I am.