Designing with Empathy

One issue we touched upon, which I think is really critical, is this idea of being easily able to influence behaviors in ways that are very important. For people who don’t know [how to better their lives], don’t think about it, or are busy doing other things, there’s a lot you could do to improve and facilitate what they do in ways that are useful. That is certainly true in behavioral economics and in design.

The other one is, if you remember in the book, we talk a bit about this sort of empathy bridge. The idea is that if we’re able to describe to you what it’s like to be super busy, maybe you’ll understand a little better what it’s like to be super poor. I think this empathy issue is really critical for when we think about policy, including neighborhood design—for you to perceive the other as not as exotic and bizarre and less good, but somebody who easily could have been you and vice versa, given a different situation. Our policies toward the poor, toward criminals, toward all kinds of people, are extremely non-empathetic. It’s very easy for us to erect enormous boundaries and distinctions based on our understanding, which creates lots of trouble in everything, from neighborhood safety to sharing our ideas and everything else.

from an interview with Eldar Shafir in Metropolis

On Racism & National Identity in America

Ezra Klein: This is a systematic creator of blind spots in our policy discussion: we are very good at talking about things that we are very comfortable with the tools to change them, and very bad talking about things where we are uncomfortable with the tools, or maybe we haven’t even created the tools, that would change them.

Heather McGhee: Well, maybe that’s part of why we are so reluctant to talk about racism. Because we feel like if the Civil Rights movement and Barack Obama couldn’t fix it, how are we going to fix it? I think it’s important to recognize how little we have done, how much some societies that have experienced great social trauma, great historical injustice, make it a part of every public ritual, public culture, have a much more self-conscious cultural front around it. And I think that’s where we need to be.

EK: When we think about how to have conversations about these parts of our (national) heritage—when we think about how to fix them—people want a fix. If you don’t have language for a fix, the political system begins to reject it.

A lot of these debates that you’ve seen in these last couple of years—and these debates really emerged at a time when the internet has allowed members of our marginalized communities to say, “This thing that doesn’t bother you is an ongoing trauma to me. It really matters to me”—and I’ll often see folks say, you’ll often see it being said around requests for people to pay attention to a grievance: Well, what do you want done? What is your policy platform here? And then if you don’t have it, eventually the conversation begins to get fought off as “soft”, as “fuzzy”, as just people complaining or people wanting to express their feelings, or wanting to be protected from something.

That is a real expression of a kind of privilege—that folks from the more historically dominant groups in this country have had a lot of time to structure their grievances into political language that we understand how to deal with. And so the debates are empirical and they’re technical, and they have policy proposals on both sides and they feel very serious.

And then you have these things where you’re dealing with a newer grievance, or maybe not a new one, but one that’s only now being taken seriously, and the debates are much more chaotic, they’re much angrier, they’re much more personal, they’re much less structured into policy questions…and then they get dismissed for that reason.

But that’s part of the issue. That’s part of how the conversation has been stacked. That we have a really good way of talking about the ways in which rich folks feel the tax system is unfair or even poor whites feel that the college admission system is unfair, but very little language about talking about trans rights or for talking about the ways in which lower level forms of misogyny affect people. I think that’s really come out as a tremendous debate in the era of the internet, but it’s one I think we’re still really struggling with how to fit into some kind of format where the political system knows how to engage with it.

— From a great conversation between Ezra Klein and Heather McGhee on The Ezra Klein Show released today. Listen to the full episode here.

Yoga Accessibility in Public Schools

I love this piece by Eddie Stern, Director of Ashtanga Yoga New York, from a few years ago:

As a yoga teacher since 1989, I am at the point where I am almost embarrassed to say that it is what I do because it can sound like such a cliche. Everyone does yoga; sometimes it feels like everyone sells yoga. The yoga scene, which has always been pretty wacky (think the Omnipotent Oom’s yoga harem of the early 1900’s), seems to be getting wackier by the day (suede yoga mat bags, anyone?).

Yoga in India was originally — and by originally I mean more or less 3,000 years ago — practiced by those living on society’s fringes: those intrepid seekers of reality that left the cities and their Vedic lifestyles to search out truth, freedom and liberation. Vedas are the revealed sacred texts of the Hindus, and to be Vedic is to belong to the Hindu culture that produced and abided by the Vedas.

While in America there are certainly are many practicing yoga with profound sincerity, it seems as though they are dwarfed by a multi-billion dollar industry that is largely focused on, well, selling stuff that we don’t really need to practice yoga.

Anyway, let it be. That spirit of commercialism and consumerism has helped to make yoga a household word, and that’s not an entirely bad thing. I believe that increased accessibility to yoga is a positive result of yoga’s modernization.

Why do I believe this? Because everyone experiences suffering. Suffering is undiscriminating and it comes to all who live on this planet. Yoga affirms, though, that there is a way to deal with it: by practicing yoga poses, by breathing consciously for a few minutes each day, and by being attentive, thoughtful human beings, we can mitigate the mental torments we all experience.

One example of how yoga has become a mainstream practice can be seen in the New York City public school system. Schools are coming to realize that yoga is helpful for public students who deal with many sources of stress and trauma on a daily basis.

I serve on the board of a nonprofit organization called Bent On Learning, founded in 2001 by Anne Desmond, Jennifer Ford and Courtney McDowell. To date we have taught over 9,000 school children, and currently serve over 1,500 children per week, in 10 schools. If yoga remained esoteric and mysterious, rather than mainstream, Bent On Learning would not be able to have such a strong presence in NYC public schools. In fact, we most likely would not have a waitlist of schools from the Bronx to Brooklyn, eager for yoga classes.

Interestingly, my late teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, was deeply committed to creating a yoga syllabus in the Indian school system. I did not know this when I was first studying with him, and found this out only much later after I became involved with yoga in the schools. He saw the importance of training children from an early age to be conscious of their bodies, health and the ability to strengthen their minds before unhealthy habits took root — habits that later in life are much more difficult to reverse.

I am convinced that yoga belongs in schools, especially in NYC public schools. Out of a seven-hour school day, children in most public schools get only 15 minutes for lunch and 15 minutes for recess. Only 56 percent of NY’s 1.5 million public school kids are of a healthy weight. Many schools have painted a walking track around the perimeter of their cafeterias so the kids can walk in circles to get exercise. They have to walk in the cafeterias because many schools have no gym facilities. Forty-three percent of NY’s 1,450 public schools do not even have a gym teacher. Coupled with constant exam preparation, cohabitated schools and overcrowded classrooms, the DOE clearly could use some help getting children to exercise.

A proven fact is that children need to move to be healthy, and healthy kids are happy kids, and better learners. Cooped up kids, exploding with the energy of youth, are not happy kids! BOL has a simple and practical solution to this problem: yoga in the classroom. By moving the desks to the side of the room, the classroom is transformed into a yoga room, a haven for relaxation and stress reduction, and in which the children can learn skills for healthy movement, healthy breathing and concentration.

In a realm where the popular phrase ‘giving back’ is heard in association with such endeavors like BOL, I would prefer to think that groups such as BOL are not ‘giving back,’ but simply giving. Why patronize the intelligent, vital kids we are teaching? We need them as much as they need us, for they are the future of this world, and it is our duty to help however we can.

The spirit of yoga is the removal of suffering; it is the central tenet of the earliest texts. As I stated earlier, everyone suffers: inner city kids, their teachers, the wealthy who summer in East Hampton. Suffering is undiscriminating and comes to all who live on this planet. Yoga provides tools to cultivate stability, good health, mental focus, relaxation and compassion. Bent On Learning lives by this simple prescription. The children who take our classes find that it makes them happy, and perhaps a little healthier. In the BOL syllabus book, the first definition we give of yoga is that yoga is a practice of kindness. I can’t think of anything more worthwhile to practice in life.


System design

The idea that a person is at fault when something goes wrong is deeply entrenched in society. That’s why we blame others and even ourselves. Unfortunately, the idea that a person is at fault is imbedded in the legal system. When major accidents occur, official courts of inquiry are set up to assess the blame. More and more often the blame is attributed to “human error.” The person involved can be fined, punished, or fired. Maybe training procedures are revised. The law rests comfortably. But in my experience, human error usually is a result of poor design: it should be called system error. Humans err continually; it is an intrinsic part of our nature. System design should take this into account. Pinning the blame on the person may be a comfortable way to proceed, but why was the system ever designed so that a single act by a single person could cause calamity? Worse, blaming the person without fixing the root, underlying cause does not fix the problem: the same error is likely to be repeated by someone else.

― Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

On fixed identity

As much as we want to, we can never say, “This is the only true way. This is how it is. End of discussion.” As individuals we, too, have plenty of fundamentalist tendencies. We use them to comfort ourselves. We grab on to a position or belief as a way of neatly explaining reality, unwilling to tolerate the uncertainty and discomfort of staying open to other possibilities.

The root of these fundamentalist tendencies is a fixed identity. With a fixed identity, we have to busy ourselves with trying to rearrange reality, because reality doesn’t always conform to our view. In Buddhism we call the notion of a fixed identity “ego clinging.” Ego clinging is our means of denial. The fixed identity is our false security. We maintain it by filtering all of our experiences through this perspective.

Meditation practice starts to erode that fixed identity.

The purpose of the spiritual path is to unmask, to take off our armor. The Buddha taught that the fixed identity is the cause of our suffering. Looking deeper, we could say that the real cause of suffering is not being able to tolerate uncertainty—and thinking that it’s perfectly sane, perfectly normal, to deny the fundamental ambiguity of being human.

We have a choice. We can spend our whole life suffering because we can’t relax with how things really are, or we can relax and embrace the open-endedness of the human situation, which is fresh, unfixated, unbiased.

Pema Chödrön

On travel

The same details that make foreign travel so confusing – Do I tip the waiter? Where is this train taking me? – turn out to have a lasting impact, making us more creative because we’re less insular. We’re reminded of all that we don’t know, which is nearly everything; we’re surprised by the constant stream of surprises. Even in this globalised age, slouching toward similarity, we can still marvel at all the earthly things that weren’t included in the Lonely Planet guidebook and that certainly don’t exist back home.

….We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.

— from Imagine by Jonah Lehrer