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Try Walking in your Opponent's Shoes!

2015-07-18

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. According to psychologists, empathy increases pro social behaviours. According to me, pro social behaviour is the defining factor of success in any field or profession. Of course, I can only speak from my own experience.

I like to call myself an experience designer. I write fiction, plays, scripts and make sure that they reach the audience in the form that was intended for them. I draw maps for journeys of human imagination and then look for ways to bring them to life. Sometimes I sell them to producers, theatres, or publishers. Sometimes I myself raise funds for hiring a team of directors, actors and other creative professionals who breathe life into what I wrote. Sometimes I choose to direct what I write myself.

My road to creating content professionally started when I was seventeen. I won a second prize at a national competition of schoolchildren’s essays. I got a fancy wristwatch, was interviewed by the National Television, and decided that being a writer was cool. My family was very worried about this decision. I was the top student in my class and everyone at home envisioned a very successful future for me. Being a writer or an artist of any kind didn’t fit anywhere in this vision. So I started studying the English language and literature… A little better, but still miles away from what could lead me to any kind of success in life. I came to enjoy my studies and now I realize they laid the best foundation I could possibly have for everything I do now. It wasn’t so much about the vocabulary or grammar or pronunciation. It was about coming to realise that we as human beings try to understand everything that surrounds us, i.e. every single detail in this universe exudes a meaning for us. So if we want to live a happy and successful life, we have to learn to listen, observe, understand, and communicate. But that’s what I realise now. At the age of nineteen, I just was fascinated by words, signs and messages from the universe.

I never stopped either writing or wanting to be an artist either. I wrote short stories, plays, novels, performed and directed in all sorts of fringe theaters and eventually discovered motion picture arts. The discovery was accidental and trivial: I was asked to write a script for a television commercial. But what it opened to me was magical, and I couldn’t bear to imagine my life without it anymore. So I applied for a Fulbright scholarship, got it, and left for the State of New York to study television, radio, and film at the S.I.Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

According to my old habit, I was an earnest student. I came from a country where television was making baby steps and film industry was virtually non-existent. So every piece of knowledge I received at grad school seemed like the God’s utterance directly into my ear. I got an exquisite training in my grad school. There’s absolutely no question about it! Again, it wasn’t so much about technical skills such as shooting, editing or lighting. It was more about understanding the game and developing the attitude that will keep you in the business. I coned my resume writing skills to perfection and mastered intricacies of networking. I met with world-class professionals in the industry and visited studios where it all happens. I couldn’t wait to start working. I felt so ready!

When we, Fulbright grantees, sign a contract with the US Government that agrees to cover our tuition fees and living expenses, we agree to the so-called two years home residency requirement. It basically means that on our graduation we have to leave back for our home countries and spend there at least two years working in the fields we studied. So on getting my Master’s degree, I went back to Vilnius where I got a job at a company that produced television dramas. It was an entry-level position, but I expected nothing more. I was told time and again by my mentors and instructors that no one in the industry would give me any responsibility until I proved I was capable of handling it. So I revised my professional vocabulary, carefully selected my attire, and went to work prepared to show to my bosses and co-workers that I would be the most useful, productive, collaborative, and promising employee that company had ever had. What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that none of my bosses or co-workers had any clue what I was talking or asking about. They didn’t understand the terms I used, they had never seen script formats in which I worked, they had never heard of the work ethics I tried to practice. After my first day at the new job every single thing I studied so hard at my prestigious top-ranked world-class grad school suddenly appeared completely useless. My zeal helped me neither build strong working relationships nor make friends with my colleagues. On the contrary! It frustrated everyone. It upset everybody’s routine. It made people think twice as hard and spend twice as much time on their work because they had to explain to me over and over again that “things are just not done this way around here”. Nothing, no quotes from best-selling books, no clips from award-winning movies, no online tutorials by internationally acclaimed masters could help me prove my case.

The people I worked with hadn’t gone to any film or television schools, nor had they experienced any organized film or television industry. The Soviet rule destroyed all such things in Lithuania. So after the Restoration of Independence my colleagues had to start rebuilding Lithuanian film and television from scratch. They learned everything they know by trial and error, and the international (mainly, Western) authorities I tried to resort to had no significance whatsoever in the battles they fought on the daily basis. I was devastated, discouraged, distressed. My time at work slowed down to the point of standing still. I started counting the days until my two years of required home residency would expire. I was going back to the States on that day sharp!

In the meantime, albeit painstakingly slowly, life went on, and I fell back to the only thing I felt comfortable doing: writing. I wrote everything what had to be written – press releases, scripts for TV trailers, pitches, dialogues for soap opera characters. Although none of the formats I learned in the States seemed acceptable to my colleagues, none of my colleagues knew how to put into words what they expected of me. So I just started observing what they did and listening to what they said in their day-to-day operations. I didn’t forget what I learned at the Departments of Literature and Linguistics: every single detail around us exudes a meaning. So I took in every growl, every frustration, every frown I saw in my work place, analyzed them, and tried to translate them into my work. The writing I produced seemed very local and uninteresting to me, more of a step backwards than a progress. But my colleagues appreciated it. It speeded up their work. It improved their relationship with the network. It made their days easier. So slowly but steadily they started coming into my office with advice, questions or just thoughts they wanted to share. They even asked me to show them again the quotes, clips and tutorials they discarded so ardently at the beginning of our acquaintance. Eventually, I got promoted to the Head of Development, which was a brand new position at the company. I gradually introduced everyone to the formats and tools I was taught to use at grad school. Although they did make work processes quicker and more efficient, they were not what people in Lithuanian television and film industry needed. They didn’t need tools and formats that worked for award-winning filmmakers, they needed tools that worked for them under the circumstances they had every day they came to work. They needed somebody who would hear them out and help them get to the bottom of the problems they faced. Of course, it was extremely naïve of me to think that my co-workers had never heard of the books, films or people I so eagerly recommended to them. We live at the age of advanced technologies and communications. Every piece of information that is out there is easily accessible by one click of a touch pad. But have you noticed the paradox: the more means of communication we have, the less communication we end up with! It seems to me, in our age of advanced communication technologies we suffer from the deficit of simple human connection, of that special time and space where we come together to interpret and understand all the information that is available to us.

Here is one simple example. Every year the US Embassy in Vilnius organizes a series of events under umbrella title “16 Days against Gender Based Violence”. The main goal of this campaign is to combat violence and promote tolerance in Lithuania. The Public Affairs Section of the Embassy asked me if I could produce Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues for the campaign. I asked them why they were interested on this particular play. They explained their reasons. I listened. Then I analyzed what I heard and suggested the Embassy should pass on Vagina Monologues. It’s a brilliant play. No doubt about it! But it had been done so many times in so many ways in Lithuania that there was no way another production of it for the budget that we had could generate the audience and media attention that the Embassy was hoping for. So I came up with another proposition. I suggested I produce a performance in the same style, but on a different topic. I interviewed eight female immigrants who came to Lithuania from different countries, at different times, and for different reasons. I edited the interviews into a play and staged it with the original interviewees telling their stories to the audience. The piece was called Ethnic Kitchen and was very well received in Lithuania as well as abroad. I made a little trailer for it and posted it on my Facebook wall. Immediately, a good colleague and friend of mine who is a well-known Scottish theater maker reposted the trailer on his wall with a comment: GLOBAL/LOCAL/UNIVERSAL. I think my colleague’s comment on my trailer is very insightful in the sense that all the three components he mentions are indeed inseparable. There is always a part of local in what’s global and a fraction of universal in what is local. So we cannot be global unless we start off by thinking locally.

If there is one lesson I learned during the two years of my required home residency, it is this: success is always customized. We cannot be successful if we blindly follow other people’s success recipes. We cannot repeat somebody else’s success. But we can listen, observe, empathize and achieve success of our own. One of my favorite American mythologists Joseph Campbell in one of his interviews once said: “People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules… No, no! Any world is a valid world if it’s alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself”.

We cannot become alive solely by ourselves. We can only feel alive if we feel a deep, genuine, and reciprocal connection with other human beings. We often think that empathy will make us look weaker, that it’ll channel our strength to others leaving us with nothing. But in fact, empathizing with others empowers us to help them. In other words, it gives us a chance to change other people’s lives, and nothing can make us feel stronger, more self-confident, and more alive than that. Just think of it! How can you efficiently brief your team if you don’t understand how they listen to you? How can you write a compelling script if you don’t know what your audiences feel in their daily lives? How can you give a convincing speech if you haven’t put yourself in your listeners’ chairs? I dare you: if you happen to find yourself in a dead-end, put yourself in the position of the culprit of your problem. You’ll immediately know what you have to do to move forward. No matter what you are up to: running a business, negotiating a better price, or building a relationship, try walking in your clients’, colleagues’, or partners’ shoes if only for a second. You’ll see: it’ll change the way you run your business and your life forever.