Category Archives: Empathy

Rational compassion is a competitive advantage


Paul Bloom recently wrote a book called Against Empathy.

The thesis of the book is: rational compassion > empathy.

In other words: empathy (caring how someone feels at the moment) is poor guide for moral decision making when compared to rational compassion (which is more utilitarian in nature).

The difference is easiest to see when it comes to parenting: an overly empathetic parent might respond to a child’s failure by giving the child a cookie (thereby immediately decreasing the child’s suffering), while a parent utilizing rational compassion might help the child process her emotions (thereby reducing the probability of future instances of suffering).

While the idea is rather intuitive, we’re so hardwired for empathy that practicing rational compassion, especially at work, is very difficult.

Because it’s so hard to practice, and because most people are not good at it, the consistent use of rational compassion can be a competitive advantage for doing good in both the for-profit and non-profit sector.

List of Areas Where Rational Compassion > Empathy at the Work Place

Executing strategies that cause short-term harm for long-term gain: Tough decisions (such as school closures) cause short-term pain to others but can provide significant long-term outcomes. Being guided by rational compassion can help you get through this pain.

Pivoting and cannibalizing: Similarly, at times an organization needs to destroy existing program lines and harm existing beneficiaries of their work in order to pivot to a more productive model which will eventually add move value to more people (think Netflix going from mailbox to streaming). Empathy for existing employees and customers can blind one from the rationally compassionate act of eventually serving more people better.

Performance feedback: Rational compassion will lead you to give very direct and practical feedback so a colleague can improve her performance and achieve her and the organization’s goals. Having empathy for underperformance will lead to the avoidance of direct conversations, which in the short term causes more pain.

Firing people: Too much empathy for an individual who needs to be let go can cause immense harm to the people you are trying to serve. Especially in philanthropic work, firing a relatively privileged person in order to better serve people in extreme need is the rationally compassionate thing to do.

Accepting flaws of ambitious people: Sometimes ambitious people have a lot of flaws, which can lead you to empathize with all the people they are negatively impacting. However, these flawed people can also change the world for the better. Analyzing their actions through a rational compassion lens will help you understand if it’s worth supporting or partnering with people who are flawed but who can help the world become amazingly better. It will also help you avoid working deeply with nice people who are not effective.

The Risk of Rational Compassion 

One of the hardest parts of rational compassion is that it often involves overriding the legitimate short-term needs of others.

In other words: you’re saying you know what’s better for someone than she does.

While this is less of a tension in managerial situations (it’s your job to make feedback, coaching, firing decisions) and for-profit work (the customer will ultimately hold you accountable), in philanthropy (where it’s your job to help others) this can be a deadly sin.

It’s a blurry line between rational compassion and technocratic hubris.

There’s no easy way around this, though research and accountability can help.

In education, test scores, attainment, and parent demand can provide medium term feedback loops to provide a check on incorrect rational compassionate assumptions.

But while there are risks with rational compassion, most of society is so tilted toward empathy (especially in the education sector!) that an increase in the practice of rational compassion would be a welcome turn.


The stories we tell and the truths we hide: fairness, mobility, and inequality

Nature just published an article by Paul Bloom, Christina Starmans, and Mark Sheshkin.

Their argument: people care more about fairness than inequality, and policy makers and pundits too often ignore the difference between these two concepts.

In their own words:

Our own argument against a focus on inequality is a psychological one… people don’t care about reducing inequality per se. Rather, people have an aversion toward unfairness, and under certain special circumstances this leads them to reject unequal distributions. In other conditions, including those involving real-world distributions of wealth, it leads them to favour unequal distributions. In the current economic environment in the United States and other wealthy nations, concerns about fairness happen to lead to a preference for reducing the current level of inequality. However, in various other societies across the world and across history (for example, when faced with the communist ideals of the former USSR), concerns about fairness lead to anger about too much equality. To understand these opposite drives, one needs to focus not on whether the system results in a relatively equal or unequal distribution of wealth, but whether it is viewed as fair.

The authors might be right that humans care more about fairness than inequality, but I think people’s reasons for caring about fairness are wrong.

Here’s my current thinking on fairness – the related concept of mobility – and inequality:

Fairness is a fantasy.

I don’t believe that fairness is achievable. We don’t choose our genes, our environment, and we might not even have free will – so how is anything really fair?

Obama’s “you didn’t build this” line remains one of the most philosophically honest statements that a president has uttered since I’ve been following politics.

And an even more honest statement would have been: “you didn’t build you.”

I suppose you could redefine a “fair” society as one where people are able to live out the full potential of their genes and environment, but this hardly captures the totality of what people think about when they say they desire fairness.

In a perfectly fair world there would be little mobility. 

People often use mobility as a measure of fairness. The more rags to riches stories there are, the fairer a society must be. I think this is backwards. In a perfectly fair society, there would little mobility, as genes and environment would drive so much of outcomes. We’d be stagnantly sorted save for random shocks or to the extent that technological change affected what genes and environments were valuable.

The desirability of mobility is predicated on the idea that people justly move up or down a society’s rungs based on their own volition – and this is a fantasy.


People should care about inequality!

I’m open to the idea that people don’t care about inequality as much as liberal pundits think they do. But I think people are foolish not to care! When the inputs (genes and environment) are randomly sprinkled across humanity, inequality of outcomes should be a concern for us all, because, in the truest sense of the word, these outcomes are unfair.

Our are fantasies of use?

Perhaps. People desiring fairness as an outcome – and using mobility as a proxy for fairness – may help avoid things like free loading, distrust, and government tyranny. These myths might also increase hard work and entrepreneurship. I grant that these myths have survived many rounds of social evolution, and in this sense should warrant some respect.

But believing these myths comes at a great cost in that we falsely blame people for their bad outcomes and tolerate insanely brutal amounts of inequality to maintain the artifice.

It might just be better to live in a world where we say: “we know the world is terribly unfair and it’s no one’s fault so we are willing to push marginal tax rates and transfers as high as possible until we near the part of the curve where disincentives to work are  greatly hampering economic growth and screwing us all.”

Or perhaps society would function poorly in the face of us all admitting this reality.

I don’t really know.

Either way, our myths of fairness and mobility blind us to the reality the world is unjustly unequal.

5 ways Facebook could help make us better

Before getting to the recommendations, some framing thoughts:

  1. It is impossible to tell how Facebook affected the election. There is too much causal density in who people vote for to point to one cause and say: that’s the thing that mattered.
  2. I think there’s a major danger in saying: “people voted for Trump because of fake news” instead of acknowledging that people voted for Trump because of a combination of cultural and policy beliefs.
  3. Liberals have plenty of fake news of their own. I’ve spent the past 5 years dealing with a constant stream of unscientific articles about New Orleans education reform in papers such as the New York Times.
  4. The research on how people form and solidify opinions is messy, and I think social media gives a chance to run a lot of new experiments rather than assume we know how opinion formation occurs.
  5. I think censorship is almost always the wrong answer, and the line between editorial scrubbing and censorship is very blurry when it comes to a communication platform like Facebook.
  6. Since the advent of advertising driven media, every medium has had to figure out how to balance revenue and legitimacy. Modern fake news has been a problem since the creation of the penny newspaper.
  7. In considering Facebook, I think the first solution set should be to try and figure out how to harness the power of social media rather than curtail it.
  8. Ultimately, it’s not Facebook’s job to make us better; it’s our job.

Recommendation #1: An Opt-In Intellectual Diversity Function

Facebook should create an opt-in intellectual diversity function that harnesses its algorithm to populate a user’s feed with diverse intellectual opinions. This could be done throughout the newsfeed, or opposing viewpoints could be tagged to specific articles.

Overtime, Facebook could track what types of opposing articles are clicked and viewed – and tweak its algorithm to place the most effective type of opposing arguments for each type of person or issue.

Recommendation #2: An Opt-In Share My Story Function

From what I understand, personal posts garner much more engagement than article sharing. And my hunch is they are more effective in making people explore other opinions.

Facebook should create a share my story function that allows a user to give Facebook permission to share a personal story with strangers who have opted-in to the intellectual diversity feature.

Facebook could then share powerful personal stories that provide different viewpoints to its users, as well as track what types of stories resonate most with people of different intellectual viewpoints.

Recommendation #3: An Intellectual Diversity Rating

Facebook should provide the opportunity for each user to see a feed diversity rating score, that gives the user some (imperfect) estimation of the intellectual diversity of her feed.

Recommendation #4: Alternate View Feed Day

Facebook should have one day a year where users can opt-in to receiving a typical daily feed of a user who shares opposite political views.

So for a whole days a user would see the news / articles / etc. that a user from the opposite political spectrum would usually see.

Recommendation #5: Livestream Beer Summits

Occasionally, Facebook could livestream a summit of two people with different political viewpoints engaging in a discussion / visiting each other’s homes / going to a bar / etc.

It could provide a model for what we should all be doing more of: talking to each other.

In Sum

I don’t know if the above recommendations would work or not. Perhaps they would backfire and create more belief anchoring and division.

My major point is that instead of trying to censor social media we should run a bunch of experiments to try and figure out how it might make us better.

Lastly, like most posts, this post was born out of an exchange with friend: thanks to Mike Goldstein for inspiring this post by coming up with recommendations #1 and #5.

It’s Nothing Like Uber


I was recently talking with Kristi Kimball from the Schwab Foundation and our conversation turned to discussing analogies that are used to describe the charter school sector.

We both noted that Uber is sometimes tossed around, in that Uber is often competing with a highly regulated and politically powerful incumbent.


But now imagine that if instead of working with drivers who provided their own cars, Uber had to buy or lease taxis from the taxi companies that they were competing with, or they had to buy a new fleet of cars everytime they entered a market.

Now imagine if these cars were not cars but were school buildings that cost about $20 million a piece.

Now imagine if buying or building these cars schools buildings often required the permission of another government agency, so entering the market required the approval of two regulators, not just one.

Now imagine if instead of being a billion dollar for-profit company with access to capital,  Uber was a non-profit organization reaching out to a capital market that was just beginning to understand what their company does.

Now imagine if instead of having to hire people for a skill that most of us learn when we’re sixteen, Uber had to hire people who could do one of the hardest jobs in the world – a job so hard that if a teacher changes professions he or she inevitably looks back and says: that was the most difficult job I ever had.

Now imagine if, instead of hiring a recent business graduate as a general manager to lead their city operations, Uber had to hire people to do a job (lead a high-poverty school) that one business school professor described to me as the hardest leadership job in the country save for being in combat.

Now imagine if instead of being judged on whether or not the company could get someone from point A to point B for a decent price, Uber was judged on whether or not it could put a dent in centuries of historical poverty and racism and help all students complete an education that enriches their lives and puts them on track for a good job.

And now imagine that Uber’s ultimate aim was not simply to win, but to make everyone better – so much so that they spent significant resources on documenting their best practices, publicly sharing all they know, and providing direct training to their “competitors” – with the hope that everyone can get better and innovate as quickly as possible.

I wish it were like Uber. But it’s not.

It’s much, much harder.

And it’s much more important.

The teams of educators, in charter and district schools alike, who are achieving great things in partnership with communities deserve our highest praise and support – as do the students and leaders in these communities who are doing the hardest work of fighting for a better tomorrow.

These educators, students, and community leaders are tackling problems that most private sector companies can’t even begin to understand.

Meditating Away Education Reform

I am at my best when:

  1. I work out at least 45 min 6 days a week.
  2. I have 0-1 drinks five days a week and 2-3 drinks on at most two days a week.
  3. 90% of my calories come from whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and seafood.
  4. I meditate at least 10 minutes a day.

I do not believe in diets or 90 day exercise regimes or anything like that, so my effort is spent trying to tweak my life to make the above livable long-term habits.

I am improving but have a long way to go.

As for meditation, I started meditating in law school and even lived in McLeod Ganj for a few months, where I worked with the Tibetan Government In Exile.

But I find it very hard to meditate daily, especially when so much of my life is structured around quick and / or deep mental bursts.


Recently, a friend recommended the app Headspace, which I have started using.

So far, the meditation techniques are fairly basic (I’ve only done the first four), but, despite (or perhaps due to) their simplicity, I find the mental barrier to begin meditating is lower with the app.

I hope this continues and my practice improves.


A common meditation technique is to let your thoughts float by as if they were clouds; to treat thoughts as separate from consciousness; to understand them as passing sensations.

This week, as I was meditating, education reform was on my mind, and as the app instructed, I let the thought of education reform float away.

It felt very good and, for an instant, fully dissociated me from the education reform tribe.

My guess is that this is an important habit to cultivate, that emotional separation is as important as intellectual separation when it comes to acting with empathy, reducing bias, and developing non zero-sum solutions.

Empathy and Education Reform


Matt Candler has a piece over at the 4.0 blog that is worth reading.

Matt’s Argument

1. New Orleans has made incredible academic gains over the past decade. It has gotten from “F” to “C” faster than perhaps any failing urban district in our country’s recent history.

2. Matt identifies the following as major drivers of the reforms: charters, human capital reforms, choice, and good government regulation and oversight.

3. However, he worries that some of the above was done in a non inclusive manner with regards to the greater New Orleans community, which has caused him to reflect on how he will work going forward.

4. Getting from “C” to “A” will require less hubris from reformers.

5. Getting from “C” to “A” will require more listening to parents and families, as well as more innovation from reformers.

The History of “C” to “A”

I think Matt largely captures how New Orleans achieved results: families were empowered through choice; educators were empowered to operate their own charter schools; and government thoughtfully regulated the system.

I also think, especially right after Katrina, reformers moved very fast to create the new system. While most people were rebuilding their lives, a new education model was also built.

That being said, it’s worth noting that, today, New Orleanians support the reforms. By a 2 to 1 margin, voters think the schools are getting better. And 82% of voters think the state should remain in control of most of the schools for at least two more years.

Getting From “C” to “A”

Matt’s strategies for  getting from “C” to “A” (listening to families and students, as well as spurring more innovation) seem like areas worthy of focus. One could imagine these strategies leading to a new set of solutions. I hope 4.0 ventures do exactly that.

I would, however, encourage all these folks to stay humble. To date, New Orleans entrepreneurs have yet to create any truly new educational models. Schools like Bricolage Academy (socio-econmocially diverse, emphasis on innovation), Arthur Ashe (blended), and Collegiate Academies (no excuses) are all iterations on schools that exist elsewhere. This is not to say that these schools aren’t doing amazing things, only to note that, to use Matt’s phrase, at their inception they were not really examples of schools “that do not exist yet.”

In short, Matt’s theory of change, while plausible, has not been proven.

Empathy and Education Reform

Another way to think about this is societal empathy vs. student empathy methods of reform. In using the word “empathy,” I’m not talking about whether one cares about kids or not, but rather whether empathy for the student’s social condition or the student’s academic experience was the driving force of the initial reform.

There’s an argument to be made that test based accountability, human capital reforms, and charter reforms have largely been social empathy modes of reforms. They have been driven by desires of social justice; by concerns over racial inequality; by frustration with large unresponsive bureaucracies. Of course, these reformers cared about the student experience in the general sense (it’s unsafe, unjust, a civil rights violation, etc.) but perhaps less so in the specific academic sense (it’s boring, not engaging, etc.)

I think this has been changing over time, especially in the high-performing charter community, but the origins of the reforms do feel to have more of a social justice history.

I think what Matt is calling for is reform based more on empathy for the student academic experience.

A couple thoughts on this:

1. The social justice empathy reforms were perhaps a necessary precondition to have the opportunity to tackle student experience empathy reforms.

2. I think there is a risk that empathy for the student experience can be used to justify school based practices that actually aren’t good for students (rejecting some of the best of the no excuses model).

3. I think empathy for the student experience can be used to justify systems level practices that aren’t actually good for students (never close a school).

4. I think empathy for the student experience will likely be a key driver for the next phase of reforms.

Or, to put it another way, true empathy is about the student, not about how you want to feel. Whether the next phase of student experience empathy driven reforms succeeds or not may very well hinge on this difference being truly understood.

Sometimes doing great things for students can make you feel good, sometimes it can make you feel terrible. How you feel should of course be considered as useful information, but it should not be weighted over what the student ultimately needs.

These are really tough issues. New Orleans is lucky to have so many great people thinking about them. As more of an observer than anything else (most of my time is spent outside of New Orleans), I am eager to see what the next decade holds.