Turn Self-Absorption Into Empathy

“If you can learn a simple trick, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view..Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee,
To Kill a Mockingbird


In 1915, the ship Endurance was trapped in ice. Though it meant giving up his goal of a transcontinental journey, the coming series of incredibly testing events would eventually build his character and heroism more than the goal itself would. His ability to read his crew’s moods, coupled by his supreme resiliency brought them safely back home. As a leader, Ernest Shackleton understood that he needed to set the moral tone for his men, even if it meant faking his own confidence.

Amidst the harsh winter, the scarce food supplies, and little radio contact or any forms of communication, Shackleton, however, was most worried about the morale of his men —  He realized that external challenges could be overcome together, but just a few whiffs of negativity and despair could lead to much more disaster and death, especially in this weather. He had to learn to constantly imbue himself with the spirit of his men, otherwise they would lose hope of escape, they would not work as hard and they would lose faith in his leadership. If he weren’t careful, their much needed sense of togetherness would unravel.

During their first morning’s wake on the ice, Shackleton had gotten up earlier than everyone else and personally prepared hot tea for his men. He noticed that they were looking up to him for cues on how to feel about the situation they were in. Being careful to not make his men anxious, Shackleton did not discuss any ideas of escape yet. Rather, he joked with them about their “new home” and the lack of sunlight. Though he didn’t verbalize his optimism, his men felt it in his manner and body language.

They clearly knew that they were trapped on the ice for the long coming winter. To keep their minds busy and to lift their spirits, Shackleton made a duty roster every day, outlining tasks for every one of his men. He made sure to keep the roster rotating so that they would not be bored of doing the same tasks over and over again. Each day, there would be small, manageable goals for them to achieve — Some seals to hunt, a bit of construction work for their campground. This way, they could all rest at the end of the day feeling that they had done something to make the situation at least a little better for their fellow men.

As the days passed, Shackleton became even sharper at attuning himself to his men’s shifting moods and the problems that they were facing. Around the campfire, he would engage in conversation with each of them, tailoring to their subjects of interest. When he conversed with the scientists, he would talk about science, and with the aesthetic types he would talk about art and their favorite poets. At night, he noticed that one of his men who was a physicist, did not take well to heavy labor as he ate slowly and sighed wearily. When he spoke, he showed that his spirits were lowering. Without making him feel like he was dodging difficult responsibilities, Shackleton readjusted the roster so that he would be given lighter but equally important tasks.

Shackleton kept attuning to the moods and attitudes of his men. The ship’s photographer, Frank Hurley, was a man who was snobbish and always needed to feel important. Shackleton would be sure to ask for his opinions on how to deal with important matters such as food stores, and often complimenting them. He even let Hurley have a tent all to himself, making him feel more important and also making it easy for Shackleton to keep an eye on him.

The long winter wore on, and the boredom of the men started to display itself in how they talked less and less to one another. To keep their spirits alive again, Shackleton would hold sporting events during their sunless days, and at night, they would have music, storytelling, and jokes. Their holidays were not forgotten as he would have large feasts for his men. Though the days felt endless, the men became more cheerful and they seemed to enjoy the challenges that came around.

Many months passed and their situation had become even more dangerous — The ice floe that they were on had disintegrated and was becoming perilously small, prompting the men to escape on small lifeboats to the nearest land.

As they sailed to the nearby Elephant Island, Frank Hurley’s mittens were lost, so Shackleton gave him his own. When Hurley objected, Shackleton threatened to throw them overboard. Hurley accepted the mittens, and Shackleton’s fingers became frostbitten. Yet, Shackleton never uttered a single complaint.

Daring through the rough waters, they managed to land on a narrow patch of the island. However, they learned that the conditions here were too unsafe for them, even worse than how it was on the ice floe — The beach was largely exposed to the sea, and there was a great scarcity of animals for them to hunt. They could not survive here for long.

In yet another life-or-death situation, Shackleton ordered one boat on a terribly risky voyage to the South Georgia Island, the most inhabited and accessible land nearby, some 800 miles northeast — There was a very small chance of making it through, but it was better than wallowing and dying in despair in Elephant Island.

For the voyage, Shackleton carefully picked five other men to be on the boat with him, one of them being an odd choice — The ship’s carpenter, Harry McNeish. He was an old, grumpy man who did not take too well to hard labor. Because Shackleton was too afraid to leave him behind, he put him in charge of fitting the boat. Carrying this task would make him feel responsible for the safety of the boat and his fellow crew, and thus keep his mind occupied with ensuring the boat’s seaworthiness.

At one point, McNeish’s spirit started to sink and he stopped rowing. Carefully sensing the danger in this situation, Shackleton knew that if he scolded him and ordered him to row, he would only grow even more rebellious. Especially with just a few men crowded in a boat for weeks with so little food, the situation could turn ugly. Instead of singling out McNeish, Shackleton stopped the boat and ordered the boiling of hot milk for everyone, saying that they were all getting tired, including himself, and a small break wouldn’t hurt to lift their spirits up again. Shackleton would repeat this same move as often as necessary.

Just a few miles from reaching the island, a sudden storm pushed them back and as they panically looked for an alternative route to the island, a bird kept hovering over them, trying to land on their boat. Immensely stressed, Shackleton struggled to keep his usual cool, but suddenly lost his composure as he swore and swung wildly at the bird. He immediately felt embarrassed and sat himself down. For 15 months, he had been keeping his emotions in check to maintain the good morale of his men. He had set the tone as their leader, and now was not the time to give it all up for such a silly problem. A few moments later he cracked a joke and laughed at himself. He vowed to himself that he would not lose himself, no matter how pressured he might be.

The tiny boat eventually made its way to South Georgia Island, after braving through some of the ocean’s worst conditions. With the help of the whalers who worked there, the remaining men on Elephant Island were rescued a few months later.

Today, the world remembers this chapter in history as one of the most stunning survival stories, noting all the odds that were against Shackleton and his men, their scant resources, the deathly climate, and the intractable terrain. A myriad of leadership lessons could be learned from this story, but for the context of this article, social intelligence is our focus.

Ernest Shackleton’s ability to pick up social cues and empathize with his fellow men might strike you as pure talent. But as human beings, we were all born with this skill to step out of our minds and emotions — As young children, it was our tool for understanding the world around us. For example, we learned to interpret our parents’ moods by observing their facial expressions. If they frowned, conveying a message that they were displeased with us — That told us how to feel, and in return, how to readjust our actions to gain our parents’ approval.

As Robert Greene put it in The Laws of Human Nature, at this moment, “You must realize that it is not a matter of acquiring skills you do not possess but rather of rediscovering those you once had in your earliest years. This means slowly reversing the process of self-absorption and regaining that outward-directed view and curiosity you had as a child”

All have us have found ourselves in situations where we were too imbued in our own emotions. We spoke when we were angry, and so we said things that we didn’t mean, or did things that we would eventually come to regret. Or maybe it wasn’t even anger — Maybe we just focused too much on our own present emotions, such as excitement, or on our own wants and needs that we failed to see the bigger picture of things.

Although empathy is already an invaluable tool for self-restraint, it could work wonders on other fields of your life as well. A leader must understand her followers’ cues; if they convey dissatisfaction or contentment, an entrepreneur must understand what the market needs instead of creating a product that no one wants, a doctor needs to understand the best treatment for her individual patients, a parent needs to be an active figure for her kids, a writer needs to find universality for her audience.

When we accept, understand and love people for their who they are, we can free ourselves from petty emotions, from needless wars — We stop reacting to everything, we have more objectivity and we stop ourselves from taking things personally. Our minds are freed for higher and more meaningful pursuits. We feel more generous toward others, and in turn, they feel drawn toward us and want to match our spirits.

Therefore, as a leader, no matter in what area, you affect your group with your mindset. You must anticipate what others are feeling or what they might do by putting yourself into a similar mood. Imagine the backstories of other people, understand what another person values, which may be inevitably different from yours.

Just like Shackleton, you must be gentle in detecting any dips in other people’s spirits. If you scolded them or acted in an authoritative manner, they would feel ashamed or singled out, and this would only bring destructive effects in the long run. It’s always better to engage them in talk, pick up their cues and find indirect, subtle ways to elevate their mood or isolate them without making them realize what you’re doing.

The poet Walt Whitman said it best — “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person”

1 Comment

  1. Romantic Ninja says:

    Love the perspective…


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