Dredging up Genuine Emotions for Professional Purposes — I love when people say that someone is “just acting.” Acting is hard. Acting classes typically involve all kinds of gravitas-violating exercises designed to teach you to reach into the inner sanctum of your psyche and muck around in there and take all the stuff that you find and offer it to other people. (I dropped Acting I at Dartmouth after I was asked to allow my inner six-year-old to freely encounter others without preconceptions. I don’t have an inner six-year old. I have an inner forty-two year old. And very specific ideas about when it is appropriate to roll around on mats in front of other people and when other people are allowed to tell me how to breathe, both of which are basically never). Acting isn’t fake. It’s taking real emotions and learning how to channel them for specific purposes.
Certain careers, such as nursing and childcare, have obvious caring requirements. Some professions (trial lawyer in a class action lawsuit against tobacco companies) require a person to show up on time with a slow-burning furnace of aggression or righteous anger. Even in seemingly unemotional, office-based professions, it is tremendously beneficial to note when others are overwhelmed and you can throw them a bone, or even when the boss (often a person regarded as having no feelings at all) is feeling under-credited; employees often work on big projects that culminate in some kind of end project that can be celebrated and that attracts compliments, while the boss who steered the effort, warded off problems, and made the project possible in the first place doesn’t obviously produce a lasting, tangible product. How astute would you be to be able to offer your boss a genuine compliment on what it is that your boss does best, and that others rarely notice?
But whatever emotion it is that your job needs, a very important career skill is being able to cultivate and produce that emotion on demand. I teach test prep classes to adults. I bring a fuckload of empathy to my work. The minimum requirement of a competent teacher is presenting the material in a clear and understandable way. But think back to the last time you were in a class. Much of what runs through your mind isn’t about the material — it’s about various feelings of nervousness and anxiety (about being called on), and — based on your grasp or lack thereof of the material — possibly feelings of inadequacy and failure, or else arrogance and boredom. A teacher who reads facial expressions well will be able to note who’s feeling lost or intimidated and check in with those people by making eye contact at critical junctures to see that they’re following, and note who’s on top of the material and at the risk of being bored and call on those people for the big “a-ha” moments — there’s certainly a pleasure in revealing The Big Answer, and it is an emotional gift to give that pleasure away to others. And, of course, even when the teacher is not actively trying to check in — even when the teacher is shuffling papers during a break — other people are reading the teacher, and they can tell whether that teacher is open to being approached for questions. Empathy and openness are exuded even in our posture at the coffee station, in which way our bodies are facing when we’re opening those tiny packets of nondairy creamer. You can’t fake and micromanage those million tiny signals. Those million tiny signals come from a common core, and you have to bring it for real.
Personally, I find that, if I listen to my iPod all the way to work, I don’t have enough empathy when I arrive. I need empathy before I get in the elevator. I need to shut that magazine three stations before the train arrives. I need to imagine my most recalcitrant, least pleasant student, and then imagining being that student’s mother, and how much that student’s mother wants him to succeed and be happy. It takes three subway stops and a three-block walk. I usually arrive around the same time as my students, so I usually end up packed in a crowded elevator with at least one of my students. If I’ve been listening to my iPod, I do the “office nod” of acknowledgment. There’s no one in the world who would tell me that that’s not living up to the standards of my job. But if I’ve done the work, then I do better: I greet that person by name, and ask how her studies are going, and maybe am even able to offer an insight that benefits others in the elevator.
And this can be exhausting. In What to Charge for Your Work, I talked about jobs that it’s not even possible to do for 40 hours per week, and how someone performing such a job (tightrope walking, deep-tissue massaging quarterbacks, etc.) needs to charge accordingly. But, as with any skill, your capacity can improve with effort. Did you ever begin learning a foreign language and discover that you could learn maybe 8 new vocabulary words per day — but then, after studying the language for awhile and getting a feel for it, you could learn more like 20 vocabulary words in a day? It’s not just that the number of words you know is growing due to adding new words every day, but that the rate at which you can add words is also growing. I think this is possible if you practice deliberately cultivating emotions. When I first began teaching, I brought enough empathy to do the job well, and that was all I had: I was gruff to the people at the front desk, and possibly a total bitch to someone at Starbucks later that day. Now I have more empathy. I can help people and also give directions to tourists and also smile sympathetically at children who cry on the train all the way from 23rd to Wall St. You can grow this.
How do you develop this skill? I’d be a bit of a hypocrite to recommend an acting class (although I’m sure this is effective for many people), but I don’t think it’s a skill you need any special training for. Don’t use your commute to mentally escape. Use your commute to make yourself into the kind of person who wants to contribute to the job you’re about to do. Spend ten minutes visualizing the first ten minutes of your workday. Make a short list of all the people you see in the course of your workday. At some free moment, glance down at it: what do you think each person’s mental state is right now? Is there one person on that list you’re particularly well-poised to assist or to accomplish something with? This might be as simple as an email to someone prefaced with “no action required, just wanted you to know this is moving forward,” thus recognizing that the recipient is busy, and that you’re here to make that person’s life easier, not harder. It might mean waiting before presenting your brilliant idea to a manager damping down a crisis; your brilliant ideas aren’t about you, they’re about what you can do to provide value to whoever signs off on your checks.
Of course, there are other skills (besides being speedy and emotionally on-point) that provide a competitive advantage in a difficult job market. Not falling into the trap of doing something just because you’re good at it (never volunteer to take minutes at a meeting). I might add having an allergy to pre-defined roles (as I often tell high school students wondering what summer activity will most help their college admissions: do things that don’t have applications), and having the ability to compete with others without being a jerk. Can you always stay one step ahead of your coworkers without undermining them, taking credit for their work, or obviously muscling for position? Can you stay one step ahead of them while also … helping them?
The personality qualities I’ve brought to the fore here are characteristics that we often presume to be inherent parts of ourselves; we are or are not caring, altruistic people; we are or are not fast movers. I don’t think those things have to be true. Dredging up real empathy — or whatever emotion a task requires — is a job skill. You don’t have to be born a certain kind of touchy-feely person to make it happen, any more than you have to be born knowing Excel. You can become this kind of person, at least for the part of your week that you sell to others, and, fortunately, there’s no student loan debt involved whatsoever.