Note: I wrote this post in a spiral notebook in 2012, on my 27th birthday, when I was on a beach in Isla Baru, Colombia that had no potable water, no electricity and only hammocks to sleep in. I found it today going through old notebooks and decided to publish it.
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been born into a great family that has always supported the circuitous, non traditional path I’ve taken so far. I’ve never lacked food, shelter or clean water. I’ve never had to fear for my safety. I’ve led a pretty good life so far. I’ve been lucky.
But once my basic needs have been met, is there one characteristic that stands out that’s made me successful and happy? Is it a characteristic I’ve seen in other successful, happy people? I think there is. But it’s not what most people think.
It’s not just intelligence or education. It’s not money. I know plenty of wealthy, educated, brilliant people who are miserable. After meandering through life for the past 27 year, I believe that, after meeting your basic needs, whether its in, friendship, family, relationships or business it comes down to one ability: the ability to see thing from other peoples’ perspectives. To really understand their motivations and truly understand why they react and behave the way they do.
It’s a simple concept, but it can be very hard to master. Humans inherently care about themselves more than other people. We see things from our own perspective. It’s human nature. So it can be hard to really think about what is motivating a person to act the way they do, no matter the situation: family, business, friendships, relationships. Over the past three years, I’ve realized just how important it is to be able to see things from others’ perspectives. And how important it is to me for other people to be able to see things from my perspective.
It’s such a powerful key to success because the vast majority of people are only thinking about what they themselves want. They might give passing though to what other people want, but at the end of the day, they’re mostly about themselves. If you try to see things from other peoples’ perspectives, it immediately sets you apart.
In business nobody cares about what you want. To be successful, you have to see what other people need and build solutions to their problems. The only way to do that is by seeing things from their perspective, not yours. I started to really understand this idea with Entrustet. We built an awesome service to help people access, transfer and delete their digital assets when they died. In the beginning, not enough paying users cared to make it a success.
I’m convinced that they didn’t care enough to use our service because we built a service that appealed to our perspective, young, digital natives, not to our potential users. We took a step back, spoke to more potential users and redesigned everything from their perspective, catering to their needs. A few months later, we were all over the press and our business was growing. It took seeing the problem from our prospective clients’ perspective to have any success.
It really hit home two years ago when I was helping another business get off the ground. Our team was made up of a designer, an engineer and two business guys (one of them was me). We had to both build a business and build a physical product. We were facing a very tough deadline and all four of us had retreated to the workshop to build two final prototypes of our physical product. Our product designer and engineer needed help building the machine and gave my fellow business guy and me tasks like “reinforce the door” or “connect the top and bottom pieces of the machine.” My fellow business guy and I looked at each other and asked tons of questions, finally doing a mediocre job. Our designer and engineer were getting exasperated at us. Finally, one of them yelled at us, “if you don’t want to be here, just go, we’ve given you the simplest tasks and you’re asking simple questions and not even doing a good job!”
What was a fun, simple project for them and their skill set was really difficult for me and my business savvy friend. On the other hand, my business savvy friend and I were apoplectic when our designer and engineer friends, even though on a tight deadline, decided to spend six hours designing a small piece of the project that had no real value, just because they enjoyed it. We yelled at them “how could you be so dense to waste so much time and money on something so trivial when we’re up against a deadline! It’s elementary business!”
It wasn’t until I went out for a walk to calm down that I realized that neither of us could see each others’ perspectives. What was simple common sense for me was incredibly difficult for him. And what was elementary for my engineer friend was complex and difficult for me. Once we realized that we had to see things from each others’ perspectives, things went more smoothly.
Being a “fish out of water” in Chile when I first moved here accelerated my learning curve. I quickly found myself out of my comfort zone. There were so many things I didn’t understand and a seemingly infinite amount of things that people didn’t understand about me. The cultures were clashing big time. People behaved differently than I expected them to in nearly all aspects of life. Two years later, I have a good handle on why people behave the way they do, which has allowed me to create value in business, make more friends and enjoy life more.
For example, one of the most annoying things I’ve dealt with in Chile is that vast majority of Chileans try to teach me spanish. In short, they are terrible at it. They mean well, they want to help, but its very hard to teach something when you cannot see the other person’s perspective. I’ve had countless people try to teach me the difference between ser and estar (two different words that both “to be” in english, but mean different things in spanish) by saying, “but one is ser algo and the other is estar algo” and looking at me earnestly expecting me to get it. Or trying to get me to pronounce the RR tongue roll by saying “just do this” and “rrrrrring” in my face. “No really, just practice it, try it, its easy.” Or saying “why do you say Pedro de Valdivia that way, its so much easier to say it correctly.” Ugh, newsflash, if it were easier for me to say it that way, I would! So frustrating.
I remember when I was 16, my Dad was trying to teach me to drive. He drove to an empty park and stopped. We switched seats and I buckled myself into the driver’s seat. He said, turn the car on. I turned the key, nothing happened. I tried again, nothing. My Dad, a bit perplexed and a bit exasperated, said “come on, just turn it on” as if I were being dense on purpose. I got annoyed. He was genuinely perplexed as to why I couldn’t turn the car on. We switched seats again and I watched him start the car. He’d neglected to tell me to engage the clutch when I was starting the car. 35 years of driving a car had put him on auto pilot. He couldn’t see it from my perspective as a new driver and remember to tell me all of the necessary steps. The classic curse of knowledge.
In US politics Bill Clinton is a successful politician because he can truly see things from other peoples’ perspectives. He may not agree with you, but unlike many current politicians that seem to believe that everyone outside of this worldview is wrong, stupid or lazy. Nothing will ever get done if people don’t even make an effort to look at why people think and behave the way that they do.
This isn’t to say that we should say that all perspectives are equal and no perspective is better than the other. I think that’s the lazy way out. We should make an effort to realize why people act the way they do. If we want to change something, we must address the triggers that cause the behaviors, not just the symptoms. For example, I think I understand why fundamentalist muslims decided to attack the United States via terrorism. I think what they did was wrong and evil, but I think I understand why they did it: they felt they were oppressed, that the US was besmirching their religion, that they had little to no economic or political freedom and didn’t see another good way to get their voices heard . So they struck back. I understand their thinking, but condemn their actions in the strongest terms possible.
If you can see things from other peoples’ perspectives, you will be a better person, a better businessman, a better friend, family member, husband or wife. It’s why business succeed while others fail. It’s why politicians win and lose. Why friendships or relationships drift apart or endure. It is the most important quality that I look for in my friends, business partners, girlfriends and politicians I vote for. It’s a skill, just like any other. So I try to practice it every day.