Think about something you practice every day. Maybe you love playing basketball and head to the gym after work to put up shots or want to become a writer so you set daily word counts.
The key is repetition.
However, one common problem I’ve noticed is that we often associate repetition with tangible or hard skills that correlate to our careers. Hard skills are skills you can gain through education, training, or certifications. They encompass things such as reading, writing, and math. Hard skills are measurable.
What we often neglect are soft skills.
A soft skill is more subjective and harder to quantify. You may have also heard the terms “people skills” or “interpersonal skills”. Essentially, soft skills characterize how we interact with others.
And the number one soft skill most people don’t work on is empathy.
The Importance of Empathy
I recently started reading High Achiever: The Incredible True Story of One Addict’s Double Life, by Tiffany Jenkins. The book chronicles Tiffany’s life as she struggles to cope with the mental and physical toll that drug addiction can have on a person. When faced with obstacles throughout the story, such as an altercation in jail, Tiffany reminds herself that she was once a cheerleading captain and class clown beloved by her peers.
Now, in her eyes, Tiffany considers herself to be a monster who ruined the lives of those she cared about.
While moments of this book are hard to read, especially when you feel that the protagonist finally has a grip on reality and then suddenly falls into a relapse, it has taught me a few important life lessons. The most eye-opening being that empathy is an essential skill that we too often forget to exercise.
Empathy takes practice.
We approach a lot of situations with a simplified mindset. Instead of trying to understand the reality of someone else’s position, we make quick judgments and fail to temporarily internalize a different perspective. We fail to empathize.
Just to clarify, empathy does not mean you have to agree with someone. There are many points in the book where Tiffany reveals some of the poor, drug-fueled decisions that could have gotten herself or someone else killed. In these instances, Tiffany has no one else to blame.
As Ryan Holiday wrote,
“People often confuse the concept of empathy with the concept of sympathy. As they relate to emotions, sympathy is to agree, to share and to approve of how someone else feels. Empathy is the art of acknowledging those feelings without having to take them on yourself.”
Being able to listen to her point of view and better understand why she decided to do something humanizes her story in a way that I never would have considered had I simply seen Tiffany’s mugshot on the news.
A Little Empathy Can Go A Long Way
The most jarring moments of High Achiever: The Incredible True Story of One Addict’s Double Life, come when Tiffany vividly recounts moments of her life that are relatable but derailed because of drugs: a family party gone wrong because she took a pill beforehand or the first day of a new job put in jeopardy when she finds a bottle of oxycodone. Luckily, the book gives you her internal thoughts as events unfold so you know what preceded each poor decision.
Tiffany Jenkins is now a keynote speaker, popular blogger, comedian, and author. She is also married with two children. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who will never give her an opportunity because of past mistakes. I’m not saying these actions are justified. And I’m not saying anyone that opposes her is wrong- she made some truly terrible decisions.
But we need to try and emphasize with others who we may not completely understand.
After reading this book, my mission is to take the time to practice empathy. It may not be as outwardly apparent as something like writing or reading skills, but a little empathy can go a long way.
This article first appeared on Medium.