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What Makes You Different is Your Superpower

My title today comes from Luvvie Ajayi Jones, whose new book Rising Troublemaker: A Fear-Fighter Manual for Teens, comes out today (yes, my copy for my oldest niece arrives today too). Luvvie is one of my favorite authors, speakers, self-professed “troublemakers,” and the reason I’m mentioning her today is that the book I’m currently reading has me all fired up and her words this morning brought me some comfort (more on that shortly).

I’m reading The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts by Richard and Daniel Susskind. And if you know me at all and follow this blog, I’m sure you’re wondering how such a book has got me in a lather – truthfully, I agree with almost all of the predictions in the book, which is unfortunately terribly dry and academic (Richard already has me blocked on Twitter for some unknown reason, so this post won’t fix our relationship). I’ve read his other tomes in earnest and enjoyed his previous speeches, but I am trudging my way through this manual from 2015 like I’m wading through oatmeal.

But the part that has me upset is this – when Richard and Daniel move from their theorizing to their objections and anxieties around change, they naturally address the ones that we would expect: trust and reliability of machines over people, losing the crafts of the professions, the necessity of personal interactions, how we maintain a pipeline of expertise, etc.

In several cases, they suggest that the solution is to “decompose” (their word, not mine) the role of professional and para-professional – the idea being that there is a person who is a professional in the subject who practices in that field (in our case, the lawyer) and then there is the para-professional or the person who has some knowledge of the field but is the intermediary between the professional and the client.

Okay, we see this already in some cases, where we have business development professionals who bring in clients to the firms and then put together teams of lawyers, and then you have someone who manages the matter for the client, while the team of lawyers does the work. Not unreasonable or surprising. But here’s where my objection (to the objection) comes in.

The empathy objection

A special case of the personal-interaction objection is the empathy objection. It is so frequently advanced that it merits a detailed response of its own. As we say in the previous section, many professionals insist that human-to-human interaction is at the heart of their daily activity – the sick patient, the troubled client, the distraught student, and the beleaguered businessman surely deserve nothing less than a face they can face. This is a call not just for a trusted adviser but, as important, for an empathetic expert, someone who can readily perceive the emotional state of others – and more, can feel and share the anguish and joy of a human being, and so no machine can ever fully replace human professionals. Even if we concede that machines will never have feelings – although some experts will challenge this – there is a danger that the empathy card is overplayed. Please note that we are not about to suggest that empathy, expressed from one human being to another, is not valuable or imporant. It is a phenomenon to be cherished. What we are instead suggesting is that the role and significance of empathy in the professions is often exaggerated.

So. “It is a phenomenon to be cherished”?

This sounds like empathy is great at home, but not at work. Which is utter nonsense.

The Susskinds go on to argue that “it is a regrettable truth that a great number of professional experts are deeply lacking in empathy” which is a fair point. But they then say that, “even if we accept that human empathy is often needed in the context of professional work, it does not follow that subject matter experts are the best people placed to be involved.”

When there is bad news to impart – a disease is incurable, a huge tax payment is due, a child is not making the grade, a pet is fading, a liability is unavoidable – it is not self-evident that we should lean towards the technical specialist to dispense the comforting words. Instead, we might turn, for example, to a para-professional, someone with sufficient insight into the area of expertise as well as the genuine capacity to empathize.”

Reading this again upsets me deeply on a number of levels because I believe it:

  • Imagines a world where we lock professionals away to toil at their craft like automatons, having little to no human contact because we don’t believe them capable of empathy or human interaction (which is patently unfair).
  • De-emphasizes the importance of empathy in professional settings, which (although this book was written pre-pandemic) we’ve seen become increasingly important over the last two and half years. I believe we can all agree that more, and not less, empathy is needed by all professionals.
  • Undermines the ability of professionals to be empathetic – yes, there are professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers, tax experts, etc.) who are brusque, direct, to the point. But in some situations, that is warranted and helpful. There are also MANY who are caring, good listeners, open, and kind. The Susskinds specifically mention a fading pet and I can say with full confidence that when I lost my dog last year, not only did my vet clear his schedule immediately for me, but he put his hand on my shoulder, gave me the time to grieve alone with my dog, and cried with me. When my parents lost their dog, the same vet was worried that they wouldn’t come back to him. Professionals are people too and also feel deeply.
  • Can create challenges with and for para-professionals. While many para-professionals who already work in the legal field are well-versed in their various practice areas, they certainly would not want to deliver bad news to a client, for liability reasons. If a client had technical questions that the para-professional answered incorrectly, who would be at fault? The para-professional? The firm? The professional? There’s a reason that the profession currently operates the way that it does. We saw this during the pandemic – when clients were panicked and worried about the future, even though they knew it would be more costly and they knew that younger partners or associates were just as capable of answering their questions, they often went to the more senior partners with even simple requests because it gave them more comfort. I heard this over and over again from my lawyers.

Back to Luvvie’s words from this morning. I’m part of her community, and she asked us “what would you tell HIGH SCHOOL YOU? What is the one piece of advice you wish you had at that age?” And oh boy, I still have to think on this one for a little while. But she came back shortly afterward and said that her advice to herself would be:

I want to tell her that what makes her different is her superpower.

That’s what I needed to hear today. For me, that’s MY empathy. I am deeply empathetic and it is MY superpower. It makes me a better professional and I believe that’s true for many women professionals too, which was another reason this struck me so strongly as well – it felt as though it erased the work of women professionals to bring understanding and connection throughout our work.

So, while technology continues to bring change to our various industries in big and small ways, the one thing I believe will not change is the way that we show up for each other.