Attending Alcoholics Anonymous as a Guest

aaI recently attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for the first time. I’m not an alcoholic myself, but a friend of mine who is let me sit in as a guest. It was a fascinating experience.

The meeting was held in a church basement in a room dedicated to AA. A large AA banner hung on the wall next to a list of the famous 12 steps that guide the program’s philosophy. As people filed into the room, I was immediately struck by the diversity of participants. There were people who looked legitimately homeless alongside people dressed in nice button downs who could have fit right in at any law office. Black, white, hispanic, Asian. Fresh faces out of college next to people who seemed to be pushing 80. About an even male-female split. Truly, all walks of life.

After opening remarks from the volunteer coordinator, one participant got up and delivered a brief speech about his life. He was to be the main speaker for the day; everyone else who spoke at the meeting did so in reaction to the main speaker’s comments. The main speaker shared his story, abiding to what I gather is the suggested format: what it was like before, what happened, what it’s like now. Or: what life was like as an alcoholic, what catalyzed you to change, and what life’s like now. What it was like for him before was pretty brutal: constant drinking, constant fighting, constant arrests. What happened was that he hit rock bottom, one or two arrests away from heading to the slammer for good. What it’s like now is that he’s a successful business owner, property owner, and faithful husband.

He finished his remarks by saying: “Thank you for helping me stay sober today.” Today was a common theme. Day by day. To not drink for the rest of your life feels overwhelming; to not drink for the rest of the day feels within reach. Focus on today.

As people spoke in reaction, they introduced themselves with the famous utterance, “My name is Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.” Everyone else said, “Hi Joe.” Joe then proceeded with his comment.

One person who spoke in response had been sober for just two days. He was struggling. Another had been sober for 11 years, and yet still attending daily meetings. Another had been sober for six months, and yet was nervous he was going to fall off the wagon. His doctor had prescribed pain killers after a surgical procedure and he felt tempted. (Prescribed pain killers by doctors came up three times in this meeting.)

At the end, everyone held hands and repeated the Serenity Prayer aloud.

As I walked out, I envied the community and fellowship to which I had just been witness. A lot of people seemed emotionally close to others in the room who they’ve seen multiple times a week for years. One person said they had met their spouse at AA. I imagine for some AA is as much about a social network that functions in everyday life as it is a place where one focuses on sobriety. I could feel social connection in the room.

As the most popular addiction treatment philosophy by far, AA ought to be subject to scrutiny. And there are many critiques of AA. One is that it was designed to help the most severe alcoholics — those truly powerless over alcohol — but it’s routinely adopted by a broad section of the population. Indeed, an estimated 12% of people at AA meetings are there by court order after a DUI or such. It’s not clear that getting a DUI means that you’re powerless over alcohol and cannot ever take another sip — and that you must attend a meeting every day. Another critique is that the 12 step program should not be expected to work for everyone and yet many people in addiction-recovery believe just that. Those evangelists believe that if you fail in AA — as countless people have, the exact numbers being hard to measure given the decentralized nature of the org — it’s your fault, not the fault of AA’s unique approach. In fact, AA is just one of many, many approaches to dealing with addiction. Finally, there’s a view that says that if alcoholism is truly an illness it ought to be treated with real medicine, not treated with therapy as practiced by volunteers and peers.

What I do know from my one in-person experience at a meeting and from my friends who attend daily is that some number of people are being greatly helped in AA; that the social bonding and social accountability is real and critical to the recovery process; that the words shared in the room, at least in the one I attended, are wise and eloquent and useful. Those who find success in AA find it to be a real blessing.

Update: I edited the second to last paragraph to clarify that the official organization doesn’t blame people who do not succeed with AA’s approach–it’s rather a stance that critics attribute to AA evangelists. Also, see this comment in the comments section of this post for a response by one person who attends AA.

Book Short: From Beirut to Jerusalem

I finally got around to the book many have recommended over the years: Tom Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem.

This is the book that put Tom Friedman on the map. At the time of publication, 1989, he wasn’t super well known. This book, which won the National Book Award, really raised his profile and justifiably so. It’s wonderfully written. He integrates extensive on the ground reporting over years of living in the region with historical vignettes and research. For those who primarily know Friedman today as a D.C.-based commentator/columnist, From Beirut to Jerusalem is a throwback to him as journalist not pundit.

As a novice to the complex issue of Israel-Palestinian relations, I learned a ton. It’s fantastic background for those looking to understand some of the core issues at work in the Middle East. Sadly, not much has changed since 1989 at a macro level, so the book doesn’t feel dated.

Among other lessons and insights, I was amazed to learn about how arbitrary many of the national boundaries are in the Middle East. E.g., Britain carving out land and calling it Jordan, France (effectively) creating Lebanon. And how, historically, men did not identify themselves with countries so much as with religious affiliation or with tribe, clan, village. “Many of the states today — Egypt being the most notable exception — were not willed into existence by their own people or developed organically out of a common historical memory or ethnic or linguistic bond; they also did not emerge out of a social contract between rulers and ruled. Rather, their shapes and structure were imposed from above by the imperial powers…boundaries were drawn almost entirely on the basis of foreign policy, communications, and oil needs of the Western colonial powers…”

Many other lessons that I’ll type up in the months ahead.

Is Tyler Cowen the New Charlie Rose?

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Tyler’s begun a new interview series at GMU and his conversations with the first two guests, Peter Thiel and Jeffrey Sachs, are amazing. Available as transcripts, videos, or podcast episodes.

In each conversation, you feel like you’re in the presence of two first rate thinkers in honest exchange with each other about what’s happening in the world. There are lots of insights to take away from each, but the meta lesson for me — especially in the Sachs dialogue — is the level of expertise one develops after years of thinking about the same question. Sachs has been thinking about developmental economics for a long, long time, and the depth of his experiences and views — right or wrong — really comes through.

Some specific quotes. At one point, Sachs says the following, and there’s an interesting back-and-forth about different ways to solve global problems:

I believe that knowledge matters and that the more clarity, the more evidence, the more appropriate an analysis, the more likely we can find a good outcome to things. Many people are cynical. I tend not to be. I’m sometimes accused of being gullible as a result, or being too soft in the face of whatever. But I believe that there’s a way to reach an agreement, typically, among pretty conflictual and often pretty antagonistic actors.

Sachs also is bullish on China:

[China’s rise] is happening. That’s the story of our time. It’s happening.

One and a half billion, two billion people including other parts of Southeast Asia — they’re on an upswing. That’s great. It’s wonderful. It’s the most significant scaled improvement of material conditions in the history of the world in a short period of time. It’s deep. It’s great civilizations, great cultures, great capacity.

In the Thiel conversation, there’s the following:

TYLER COWEN: Let’s say you’re trying to select people for your Thiel fellowships, or maybe to work for one of your companies, or to start a new company with. Just you, Peter Thiel, as a judge of talent, what trait do you look for in that person that is being undervalued by others? The rest of the world out there is way too conformist, so there must then be unexploited profit opportunities in finding people. If you’re less conformist, which I’m very willing to believe, indeed would insist on that being the case, what is it you look for?

PETER THIEL: It’s very difficult to reduce it to any single traits, because a lot of what you’re looking for, are these almost Zen-like opposites. You want people who are both really stubborn and really open-minded. That’s a little bit contradictory. You want people who are idiosyncratic and really different, but then who can work well together in teams. And so, this is again, maybe not 180 degrees opposite, but like 175 degrees.

Later, Tyler reads a question someone sent him that could be summarized, essentially, as what should a person do today to be successful in the modern economy? Peter says:

I’m always super hesitant to answer questions that are so abstract. If there was some general answer to the question, it would almost certainly be wrong. If I give you some general answer, and everybody could follow it, then if everybody followed that answer, it would be the wrong thing to do.

It resonated with me because the “What’s the one thing I need to do to achieve XYZ?” is such a common question I hear asked of speakers and authors.

Me on Network Intelligence, Lifelong Learning, and Beginner’s Mind

I did an on-site video interview with The Cube after my keynote speech last week in Orlando. It’s 20 minutes long and we open with the Start-up of You and then cover topics like network intelligence, optimism vs. pessimism, and cultivating the beginner’s mind. Check it out.

Millennials in the Workplace

Last week, I was quoted in an article in the Wall Street Journal about companies that seek to retain millennials:

Some managers think companies should stop trying so hard. They cite “The Alliance,” a book co-written by LinkedIn Corp. co-founder Reid Hoffman that proposes a different model for the employer-employee relationship—one based on mutual expectations and the possibility of the employee leaving.

At LinkedIn, managers often segment an employee’s career into “tours of duty” that last a couple of years. The employee and manager agree on specific goals to be met during that period. At the end of a given tour, both parties understand that the employee might leave.

“By talking openly about the fact that an employee might leave, you actually increase the likelihood” that he or she will stay on, said Ben Casnocha, a co-author of the book and Mr. Hoffman’s former chief of staff. Employers should make clear that “if it makes more sense for you to leave [than stay], that’s OK,” he added.

A client of Allied Talent, our consultancy that works with companies on talent management, is featured in the article as well:

Toby Murdock, CEO of Kapost, a Boulder, Colo. marketing-software firm, said he has adopted that mind-set. “It is a very fluid marketplace for young people,” said Mr. Murdock, 41. “Let’s be honest about that instead of trying to deny it.”

He wants young workers to consider his company a career accelerator, rather than a parking lot. That attitude has given Kapost a reputation as a career launchpad, Mr. Murdock said, and helps the company attract a stream of ambitious young candidates.

The next day I went on Varney & Co on Fox Business to discuss the topic. Here’s the clip:

There’s a lot more to say on the millennial topic. More to come soon.

Turkey: Impressions and Lessons

Istanbul feels like a city on the verge of cracking into the A-list of tourist destinations in Europe/Middle East. I was lucky enough to have a week to check out whether the city lives up to the hype. It did, and I learned quite a bit. Here are some high level thoughts on Turkey followed by a more touristy blow by blow of the trip.

  • Turkey is a modern, secular republic that in theory embraces freedom of religion. Yet its population is 99.8% Muslim, its land is home to a tremendous amount of religious history, schools teach only Islam in religion class, and a call to prayer in Arabic that blankets the city five times a day serves as a reminder of the religiosity of the place.
  • It’s one of the world’s oldest civilizations. America seems so very, very young when compared to much of the world, but especially in places like the former Ottoman Empire. Yet, Istanbul as a city feels modern, hip, energetic. It’s that guidebook cliche of a city “blending old and new”—a cliche that stands true for Istanbul.
  • Given its long history, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the country’s far-reaching cultural and commercial exports. Think of the number of words before which the preface “Turkish” adds unique meaning: coffee, towels, desserts, carpets, baths.
  • Istanbul seemed eminently livable. The Turkish people are quite friendly and helpful, the city struggles with traffic but taxis and public transit seemed ample, there’s obviously a lot of physically beauty to take in throughout the city, and the food is solid. (There’s virtually no ethnic food in Turkey, so it’s solid Turkish cuisine.) Istanbul’s geographic location and full service airport means it’s easy to go anywhere in Europe or the Middle East. The government has announced it intends to build the world’s largest airport outside the city. All this to say: to live in Istanbul for a spell of time would be a lot of fun for anyone.
  • This past week was the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. It’s unfortunate that the Armenian issue captures so many headlines in the U.S. media when the topic is Turkey, given how much else is going on the country. But it’s high time for Turkey to acknowledge the issue so everyone can move forward.
  • I like to say that entrepreneurship is everywhere. “Everywhere” includes Turkey — very much so. There are a few good VCs in Istanbul who are backing many bright, ambitious Turkish internet entrepreneurs who are creating meaningful companies. Despite the fact that today’s Turkish internet entrepreneurs seem focused on the local domestic market, I could imagine the country eventually becoming a launch pad for globally ambitious startups given Turkey’s quasi-European, quasi-Middle East status.
  • Cultural quirks. I’m a sucker for small cultural quirks that remind us of just how arbitrary our own customs are. I often notice these quirks in restaurants. In Korean mid-tier to low end restaurants, for example, I love how a pitcher of water is often kept near the front and you can go and re-fill your water cup as much as you want. In Turkey, the restaurant quirk was the moist toilette: each restaurants has their own branded toilettes and you get one with almost every bill.

From a tourism perspective, there’s so much to see and do in Istanbul.

To start, it’s pretty easy to get there. Turkish Airlines now serves a non-stop from San Francisco (in addition to LA, Boston, Washington, Houston, Chicago, and New York) and introduced passengers to Turkey from the moment we took off. For example, the flight attendants spoke minimal English — just like most people in Turkey! — and moist toilettes were included in every meal.

Upon arrival, there are a few blockbuster tourist attractions that everyone does on their first jet-lagged day: head to the Sultanahmet district and visit the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The history behind the Hagia Sophia is singular; it’s striking to see both Christian and Islamic iconography in the same building, as it served as both a church and a mosque at different points in history before recently being converted into a museum. The Blue Mosque was massive and beautiful. Every time I step in one of these buildings I behold the power of religion: religious passion has compelled so many thousands of people in so many parts of the world to labor for so many years on end in order to build enormous, architecturally stunning monuments to their gods.

Side note: One can’t help but notice the sexism when you enter a mosque: women must put on headscarves and they are not to pray in the main praying area, which in the case of Blue Mosque holds 3,000 (!) people. Instead they must organize themselves in a small, off-to-the-side “women’s area.” When you examine the sexist story of creation and the present-day customs/rules of many religions (Christianity, Judaism, and most others I’m aware of) it’s not hard to understand the origins of sexism today.

There are plenty of cool things to do in Istanbul that aren’t at the front of the guidebook. Two highlights.

First, a hamam — a Turkish bath. The hamam near the Hagia Sophia is the most famous, most expensive, and oldest (created in 1556!) in Istanbul and for my money was very much worth it. In the men’s side of the building, I was led to a locker room where I changed into nothing but a Turkish towel. From there I walked through the beautiful marble building into a bath area where I was told to use a deep, gold colored dish, dunk the dish into a bin of hot water, and pour it over me. It was all quite elegant in fact, and with steam escaping from the marble under and enveloping me, I felt immediately relaxed. After 10 mins, my therapist showed up to conduct the scrub and massage. He said, “This is best hamam and I am a very good server. I will take good care of you.” With speed and forcefulness, he poured more water over me and then wrapped a loofah-like mitt around his hand and began scrubbing me all over. My back, my arm, my hand, my legs, my chest, my forehead. It was a massive skin exfoliation exercise. Then, he led me to a marble table and instructed me to lie on my stomach. From there, he poured lots of soapy water all over. Big soap suds expanded in size and rose up over my body, kind of like a bubble bath carpet rolling out over my back. He took his loofah mitt and scrubbed more skin. The hamam was physically  intense. The scrub was thorough and at different intervals the therapist slapped me to indicate the close of one segment of the scrub. Although utterly relaxing and an amazing culture experience (in contrast to my Beijing massage some years ago), it’s not for the physically unfit and or for those men made easily uncomfortable.

Turkish breakfast

Second, a food tour. I don’t know why I haven’t done a food tour before in all my travels. It was a highlight of Istanbul and an amazing way to get to know the city geographically, culturally, and even economically. Five of us and an expert tour guide from Taste of Two Continents went to 12 restaurants and street vendors and tasted traditional Turkish food, winding our way through back alleys and less trafficked areas of the Asian side of the city. It wasn’t high end foodie food — it was the food Turks actually eat at home and at restaurants. For breakfast, we bought a simit and a number of different local spreads. The guide explained that traditionally such an expansive spread of breakfast options was prepared by the woman of the house. As women have been integrated into the workforce, they don’t have the time to prepare such a breakfast, and so the “classic” Turkish breakfast is going the wayside of quicker on-the-go options. One example of appreciating economics and demography through food. While Turkish coffee is famous, it’s tea that actually dominates. The average Turk drinks four cups of tea a day (Chinese black tea) and you’ll see people drinking it at all hours of the day. For desserts, the baklava is as delicious as advertised. Their special blend of ice cream requires a fork and knife to eat. But it’s Tres Leches, Latin America style, which wins as the most popular dessert in Turkey right now for some reason.

Cappadocia. We took this photo. Such a different landscape.After five nights in Istanbul, we headed to Cappadocia, the second most popular tourist destination in Turkey. About a 75 minute flight from Istanbul, it’s famous for a moon-like landscape, with huge rock formations jutting out of the ground that look like tall chimneys with “fairy” tops. Below the ground are vast underground cities, complete with rooms and tunnel networks that could hold up to 20,000 Christians who escaped underground they were persecuted by Muslim conquerers. We got unlucky with the weather and so weren’t able to hot air balloon — the most popular activity there — but hiking around the area, above and below ground, was still cool.

Bottom Line: Turkey is a great place to be a tourist — Istanbul is an awesome city. And increasingly, it’s an opportunity-rich place for technology entrepreneurship.

Blurring the Professional and Personal Lines at Work

I recently had dinner with a CEO of a fast-growing startup. He told me that he wants his employees to have deep, emotional relationships with each other, which often means becoming great friends outside of work. He wants his employees going to each other’s weddings. He wants to blur the lines that normally separate “colleague” and “personal friend.”

This value manifests at his company in at least two ways. The first is simply the language he uses, saying things like, “I want you all to be great friends outside of work!” or “It’s awesome that Joe went to David’s wedding.” The second is by the team activities he schedules. For example, “Let’s grab beers at the bar after work” or “Let’s all do a hike on Sunday.”

I wrote recently about the values that distinctively shape a culture. They aren’t values you see on official company press releases like “integrity” or “excellence.” Rather, they’re ideas that have both pros and cons. For example, transparency up and down the org chart has upside and downside, so as a value and policy it uniquely shapes those companies that embrace it. Consensus-driven decision making is another example of a value that has upside and downside.

This particular example — promoting social activities that blur the lines at work so that there isn’t as as strong a distinction between “friends” and “colleagues” — is another solid example of a cultural value with both pros and cons.

The pros to blurring the social lines among your employees are fairly obvious:

  • Stronger trust among the team. When you hang out in non-work settings, you tend to get to know other side of someone and this greater familiarity likely leads to greater trust when back at the office.
  • Improved communication. More time together, more time communicating. More communication is always a good thing.
  • Better employee engagement and retention if employees feel like some of their best friends are at work. For someone who has great friends at work, it’s more than a job and it’s more than the company mission. It’s about the deep relationships he or she is forming. Presumably, this translates into superior engagement on the job and higher overall happiness.

The cons to blurring the lines are more subtle:

  • Sexism and tricky gender dynamics. It’s exceedingly hard for women and men to be close personal friends in general due to sexual tension. This is a fact of life: see this famous clip from When Harry Met Sally. So there’s necessarily awkwardness in a work culture that promotes employees chumming it up in personal settings. Popular after work activities like “let’s all grab beers at a bar” can create awkwardness for female employees if they’re in the distinct minority. Sadly, some male leaders, recognizing potential awkwardness of co-ed out-of-office socializing, make it easy for themselves: they invite only other guys to the bar to watch the game. This greases a two-tier culture: the men are buddy-buddy, hanging out after work and on the weekends, and the women, with no company-organized outings to facilitate off-hours bonding, don’t forge the same tight bonds. By the way, the CEO whose blur the lines philosophy inspired this post has roughly 50 employees, 85% of whom are men.
  • Many employees prefer boundaries. Some people don’t want to grab beers with colleagues after work. Some people don’t want to hike with co-workers on the weekend, especially folks with families. Sure, it’s not a big deal for people to decline the weekend hiking invitation, but just receiving those invitations and feeling pressure to go on them can provoke guilt and light weight irritation. A culture where everyone is expected to be friends outside of work might repel prospective high-talent employees who want more work/life separation. Given the kinds of people who work at startups, entrepreneurs tend to promote a line blurring culture in the early days, but this is harder to maintain as a company scales and needs to draw on a more diverse and older portion of the professional population.

Personally, I blur the lines between professional and personal in many of relationships, which is to say some of my best personal friends I met originally in a professional context or are people with whom I still work professionally. But making this instinct a part of a corporate culture raises different considerations.

Bottom Line: Within a company, there are obvious benefits and less-understood risks to suggesting employees become close personal friends outside of work an explicit part of the culture. Male CEOs in male-dominated companies should be especially aware of the downsides, as should startup CEOs who need to attract an increasingly diverse professional population as they grow.

What Possessors of Maxims and Scriptures Can Teach Us

The first three paragraphs of William T. Vollmann’s ode to the Gnostic scriptures drew me in, both for the quality of the writing and the substance of the ideas.

Have you ever wondered whether this world is wrong for you? A death, a lover’s unabashed indifference, the sufferings of innocents and the absence of definitive answers — don’t these imply some hollowness or deficiency? For my part, the wrongness struck when I was 4 years old. I was at my grandmother’s house, and I saw a cat torture a baby bird.

Hoping to understand the purpose of our situation, I visit possessors of maxims and scriptures. Most of them are kind to me. I love the ritualistic gorgeousness of Catholic cathedrals, the matter-of-fact sincerity with which strangers pray together at roadsides throughout the Muslim world, the studied bravery and compassion in the texts of medieval Jewish responsa, the jovial humility of the Buddhist precept that enlightenment is no reward and lack of enlightenment no loss, the nobility of atheists who do whatever good they do without expectation of celestial candy — not to mention pantheists’ glorifications of everything from elephants to oceans. All these other ways that I have glimpsed from my own lonely road allure me; I come to each as a guest, then continue on to I know not where.

Baptized a Lutheran, I sometimes wander through the Bible, drawn in particular to those deep, strange stories that so many of us know after a fashion: the creation, the temptation in Eden, Christ’s execution and quiet return. As a reader and writer, I most love the tales that raise difficult questions: Why did an all-knowing God install Adam and Eve in a situation where they would surely disobey him? Why was eating fruit from the tree of knowledge a sin? Do I truly comprehend Christ’s enigmatic sacrifice? And why do cats torture birds?

Strengths and Weaknesses Are Connected

When people seek to define areas of potential improvement they often look to address weaknesses or build upon strengths. But thinking about strengths and weaknesses as independent attributes fails to recognize their inherent interdependence.

One day, while working with Reid Hoffman, I shared with him a self-evaluation of my work, my goals, and my strengths and weaknesses. When I discussed how to compensate for certain weaknesses, he told me, “Most strengths have corresponding weaknesses. If you try to manage or mitigate a given weakness, you might also eliminate the corresponding strength.” And if you try to expand upon a strength, you may also expand upon a weakness.

Reid shared a personal example about himself. He is not particularly well organized. But perhaps his day-to-day chaos partially enables his creativity. Creativity involves connecting disparate ideas. The man is a non-stop generator of ideas — perhaps the unstructured tempo of his life is a positive enabling force. How intensely organized you are and how creative you are may be two opposite sides of the same coin.

Another example from his life: His loyalty and generosity with friends is a strength. Friends are so important to him, and he to his friends, and the stellar results of his collaborations with friends are for all to see. But sometimes he gives too much and sometimes his friends take too much and it pulls him away from taking care ofhimself.

This two sided coin idea informs one of Reid’s classic strategy jujitsu moves: turn your weakness into a strength. For example, if you’re a startup and worry your lack of a track record is a liability to customers, instead of wishing it away, figure out how to turn your newness into a strength when marketing — perhaps it means you’re more agile or more personalized or more responsive.

On an individual level, if you worry that you’re not a good writer make a point to be great on camera and with video. You aren’t a fast thinker? Be known as deliberate, careful, detail-oriented. And so on. Here’s a good post on how to re-frame other limitations as potential strengths.

Bottom Line: Find the silver lining of strength in every weakness and remember that strengths and weaknesses tend to be connected — you cannot eliminate one without the other.

See my full essay 10,000 Hours with Reid Hoffman: Lessons on Business and Life for lessons and insights from Reid.

The Dangers of Empathy

Photograph: Samantha Stock

Paul Bloom makes a persuasive argument in the Boston Review about the dangers of empathy as a guide for making moral decisions. He begins definitionally: there is a difference between what is sometimes called “cognitive empathy,” the capacity to understand the thoughts and emotions of others, and “emotional empathy,” the capacity to feel what others feel. He’s referring to emotional empathy.

Everyone seems to think empathy is an unabashedly good thing. Bloom says no.

First, “Strong inclination toward empathy comes with [individual] costs.”

Individuals scoring high in unmitigated communion report asymmetrical relationships, where they support others but don’t get support themselves. They also are more prone to suffer depression and anxiety. Working from a different literature on “pathological altruism,” Barbara Oakley notes in Cold-Blooded Kindness (2011), “It’s surprising how many diseases and syndromes commonly seen in women seem to be related to women’s generally stronger empathy for and focus on others.”

Moreover, an individual who’s less empathetic may be a better professional in certain contexts. Bloom writes that in one-on-one interactions with doctors, we seek them to be cool, calm, and collected — not necessarily empathetic.

More broadly, empathy distorts wise policy making and philanthropy. Some think apathy makes us better altruists:

“the empathy-altruism hypothesis” is when you empathize with others, you are more likely to help them. In general, empathy serves to dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it is a force against selfishness and indifference.

It is easy to see, then, how empathy can be a moral good, and it has many champions. Obama talks frequently about empathy; witness his recent claim, after his first meeting with Pope Francis, that “it’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets.”

And yet:

Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data. As Mother Teresa put it, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Laboratory studies find that we really do care more about the one than about the mass, so long as we have personal information about the one.

In light of these features, our public decisions will be fairer and more moral once we put empathy aside. Our policies are improved when we appreciate that a hundred deaths are worse than one, even if we know the name of the one, and when we acknowledge that the life of someone in a faraway country is worth as much as the life a neighbor, even if our emotions pull us in a different direction. Without empathy, we are better able to grasp the importance of vaccinating children and responding to climate change. These acts impose costs on real people in the here and now for the sake of abstract future benefits, so tackling them may require overriding empathetic responses that favor the comfort and well being of individuals today. We can rethink humanitarian aid and the criminal justice system, choosing to draw on a reasoned, even counter-empathetic, analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences.

The best way to think about empathy, says Bloom, is how we think about anger: we don’t want none of it (anger protects us and can spur positive moral action) but we don’t want too much of it (we want anger to be subservient to our rational mind). He says: “If we were all constituted in this way, if we could all put anger in its place, ours would be a kinder and better world. That is how we should think about empathy too.”

There are various responses to the essay by people like Peter Singer, Sam Harris, and others, at the same link above.

(Hat tip: Tyler Cowen)