Past Issues of Good at Work

Not My Thing

Not My Thing

Why I stopped believing in bad taste.

note: This will be the last edition of Good at Work, but not the end of my weekly newsletters. Beginning next week, I’ll be launching a new name and updated format, along with other exciting news.

As a teenager, I very consistently made fun of people who like country music. For a long stretch, I also had disdain for people who preferred Windows computers. Getting teased for these things was part of being friends with me.

Fast forward to today, and I still don’t listen to country music—though I now quite like bluegrass—and I still don’t use a Windows computer. What’s changed is how I think of the people who do.

Of the many ways we divide ourselves as people, I think the most petty and pointless way is in how we judge each other’s taste. The instinct for it still creeps into my brain, but I try to spot it for what it is—enjoyment in looking down on others.

I’ve learned that people see far more than I do in their favorite music, hobby, tool, or distraction. When someone puts their time, attention, and identity into something, it’s because they see beauty or meaning there. Their appreciation of it, if I asked them to explain, would be fuller and deeper than I give them credit for.

It’s not that there’s no such thing as good taste. There is, but it’s not measured by how someone’s preferences match my own. Instead, I find it in creativity and judgment that lead to improvement. People who make things easier to use, understand, or enjoy have a skill I envy (and try to emulate). They have good taste.

I do still struggle to respect expensive tastes, the kind that involve more money than many people see in their lifetimes. I also think interests that celebrate cruelty are wrong. But these are moral questions, not preferences, and my time on these is better spent looking inward.

What’s on your “bad taste” list? Could a little curiosity lead you to more respect and understanding? There may be new beauty and meaning there, hiding in the people before you.

(If you want some practice, go listen to the Enthusiast podcast It had a short run, but opens your eyes to passions of all kinds.)

Seeing Good at Work

Here’s a well designed solution with amazing impact. The wrong conditions, like air quality or temperature, can have massive consequences for health in much of the world. And what’s worse, these conditions can go undetected until it’s too late.

NexLeaf Analytics builds inexpensive, connected sensors to measure environmental conditions for improved health. Their sensors track the temperature of vaccine storage, air quality from cookstoves, and the functionality of critical medical equipment. The technology provides real-time warnings and reports so that people can make immediate changes as needed. Their data analytics also reveal improved practices to help keep people healthy. NexLeaf’s work has been impactful enough to draw financial support from Google and Qualcomm.

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Keep an eye out for next week’s announcements!

Empathy Is Messy

Empathy Is Messy

Rethinking the trait we all want more of

Some questions to consider:

  • Have you ever helped someone in crisis, but felt perfectly calm and collected while doing it?
  • On the other hand, have you ever felt so sad for someone else that you felt completely overwhelmed?
  • Do you ever feel guilty for not caring enough about all the suffering in the world?

For spring break this year, I tackled the book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom, a moral psychologist at Yale. It’s an engaging and enlightening book, one that I highly recommend as a way to broaden your thinking about how to help others. (As I write this, the Kindle version is available free to Prime members.)

Bloom’s central argument is that empathy—which he basically defines as feeling the emotions that others feel—is a messy, misguided tool for making the world a better place. While it has some benefit in helping us to appreciate the perspectives of others, it also comes with a great deal of drawbacks that we overlook.

One such failing is empathic overload. Some people feel the suffering of others especially keenly, and it’s often to their detriment. Some men but especially women, for example, engage in unmitigated communion, an unhealthy focus on the needs of others to the exclusion of self. Research shows that unmitigated communion leads to poor mental and physical health. Another problem with too much empathy: nurses who measure highly in affective empathy are more likely to experience compassion fatigue, which makes them less effective in giving care.

Adding to the criticism, empathy biases us unjustly. Bloom describes a “spotlight effect” from empathy, which causes us to focus on the needs of one person and ignore others who are equally or even more needy. To illustrate, he points to a Daniel Batson study where participants were given an opportunity to move a girl with a medical condition higher on the waiting list for treatment. Those who felt more empathy for the girl were more likely to help her jump the line, even though the list was described as prioritizing those who needed treatment the most. Increased empathy, in this case, led to an unjust outcome.

Finally, empathy frequently leads us to aggression and violence. This same argument surfaces in Rutger Bregman’s excellent book Human Kind, which I wrote about in a previous newsletter issue. Empathy sends people to fight, even to war, because we feel so strongly for those we’re defending.

And compassion isn’t the same thing as empathy, by Bloom’s definition. (And I agree with him.) In fact, one study involving Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and neuroscientist whom I’ve also written about before, showed that the brain behaves differently when experiencing compassion than it does when experiencing empathy. It uses different neural components and generates less fatigue and distress. It feels true to me that love and empathy are different from each other. Bloom adroitly clarifies:

It’s not that empathy itself automatically leads to kindness. Rather, empathy has to connect to kindness that already exists. Empathy makes good people better, then, because kind people don’t like suffering, and empathy makes this suffering salient.

I’m still processing the arguments against empathy, and I’m less willing than Bloom to say we’d be better off without it. But I agree that a world run by emotional mirroring is a bad idea. Our emotions are important but fickle guides to decision-making. I’m convinced that helping people effectively requires all of our faculties. Just imagining how others feel doesn’t tell me what to do next, even if it can at least get me started.

Seeing Good at Work

Mental health issues continue to carry stigma or face neglect around the world. In Nepal, Koshish helps raise awareness for mental health throughout the country and offers programs to help people return to independent living despite their conditions.

These programs include peer groups, emergency support, and a national radio broadcast to educate even remote communities. I encourage you to review the dozens of success stories to see how their work helps.

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If you’re on Twitter, follow me there.

Business Is Mostly Cooperation

Business Is Mostly Cooperation

Competition is just part of the story

Aaron Miller

I’ve taught business ethics now for 14 years, and I’m surprised over and over by just how disproportionately business students value competition. To be sure, they’re not dummies. They know they’re headed into a competitive market that will demand value from them. But what they often fail to see is that their ability to cooperate will determine their success far more than their ability to compete.

If this sounds strange, consider your typical workday. Look at where the vast majority of your time and money are spent.

Every day you work at your job, you trust that your employer will pay you and they trust that you will do the work you’re hired to do. You and your coworkers rely on the same trust in each other, counting on each other to reach your goals. Fundamentally, these are cooperative activities, not competitive ones.

“That’s just teamwork,” you might reply. But cooperation extends well beyond teams. Retailers cooperate with manufacturers. Customers cooperate with sellers. If you track the time and money spent by companies, you quickly see that companies are essentially massive cooperative endeavors.

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Even innovation, which competition encourages, is a primarily cooperative endeavor. The myth of the lone inventor belies the reality of teams of co-innovators. And innovation isn’t constrained to teams within companies. Today, supply chains have dozens of participants that all contribute to new technologies becoming possible.

What does all this mean? It means that a free market rewards cooperation. The individuals and companies who succeed tend to excel in how they get along with others to pursue shared goals.

Competition mostly just creates incentives. Cooperation is what actually creates value.

Seeing Good at Work

Financial insecurity keeps women trapped in abusive relationships. FreeFromprovides domestic abuse survivors with training, legal resources, and small grants to help them establish financial independence. Their programs are comprehensive, ranging from individual solutions to advocating policy change. Their work was recently highlighted in the New York Times.

Their model scales by training service providers in their curriculum, so that more women can get the needed financial skills. Meanwhile, their grant program, Safety Fund, was just started last year and has already distributed micro-grants to over 1,100 survivors.

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My new podcast launches in just a couple of weeks! This first season is 12 episodes with people who will teach you all about having more impact and meaning in your work and life.

Speaking of cooperation, all the experts say that a coordinated launch—where people listen, rate, and subscribe all together—boosts a new podcast more than anything else. I hope I can count on you to help out. You’ll be hearing more from me soon.

And can I just say, this first season is going to be really great. 😁

The Dangers of Philanthropy

The Dangers of Philanthropy

Last week, we looked at the important role that philanthropy plays in a vibrant economy. It recycles wealth, creating new opportunity. But philanthropy’s economic power is only part of the story.

Massive philanthropy, after all, comes from massive wealth—and the power that comes with it frequently scares the public. Even back in Rockefeller’s days, the country aligned itself against his effort to create a foundation. That distrust of wealth continues today. Philanthropic villains still get regular coverage, like the Koch brothers by the left, and for the right, George Soros.

In his book, Just Giving, Stanford sociology professor Rob Reich makes a case that large-scale philanthropy poses a risk to democracy itself. Are the concerns justified? Perhaps.

There are two dangers we need to see more clearly.

Perpetual and Unaccountable

Andrew Carnegie famously noted in The Gospel of Wealth, “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced,” illustrating that wealth locked away is wealth put to waste. Yet today, most private foundations spend an average just above 5% of their total assets. Because their investment returns are consistently higher than their grant making, this spending level allows them to survive in perpetuity at the cost of accomplishing far less. Perhaps Carnegie might have called a foundation that never even dies similarly disgraceful.

How does foundation frugality affect democracy? As Reich points out, private foundations also lack a great deal of accountability. Certainly they must act within the boundaries set by the tax code, but they don’t have any other market mechanisms to ensure the beneficial use of their resources. Companies of equivalent size have customers to hold them to account. A private foundation has no customers, nor any stakeholders other than the ones they choose for themselves.

And like wealth generally in the US, foundation wealth is concentrating to a smaller number of foundations. So as foundations continue to aggregate wealth and the power that comes with it, they wield even greater power over issues of public policy, like education, crime, and the environment. A community with fewer resources than a large foundation might find itself with little recourse other than hoping for benevolence and wisdom from a board of directors.

Professionalized Decay

Another philanthropy expert and critic, Bill Schambra, has noted that professional philanthropy, the kind characterized by the largest foundations, comes with a poisoned promise: The public need only provide their support, and the professionals can do the rest.

The danger here is that democracy is rooted in people feeling empowered to solve their own problems. I’m tempted to quote at length from a compelling speech Schambra gave on the subject, but I will cut to the chase. After describing the messy, but essential nature of communities crafting solutions, Schambra says:

Furthermore, and more important, by employing experts to undertake the tasks of democratic government, we’ve relieved citizens of the need to engage with each other and to work out their differences in their own messy and amateurish ways.

That can only spell the end of democratic self-governance.

So the other democratic danger in big philanthropy is to our self-efficacy, which we lose by handing our problems over to the experts. Certainly we should involve them and listen to them, but we should be putting our own hands and minds to work on these problems, not just the ones offered—as helpful as they are—by Bill and Melinda Gates.

What can be done about these dangers? Schambra’s advice resonates here:

There is nothing quite like seeing citizens coming into the first realization of their own agency, and living into their ability to control their own lives.

American civil society has over the centuries been the arena within which everyday citizens come to realize their own democratic agency, no matter how marginal, neglected, or oppressed they may otherwise have been in this imperfect democracy of ours.

It is no one else’s job to solve the problems around us. We can turn to others for help, but it’s our own work to do.

Seeing Good at Work

Turning traditional philanthropy on its head, The Philanthropic Ventures Foundation empowers communities through innovative grants that are designed to be small, simple, and fast. The founder, Bill Somerville, pioneered this “grassroots philanthropy” (also the title of his book) by simply taking faxed, one-page applications from teachers looking to better serve their students.

If you want to learn more about their work, I encourage you to watch this fantastic TEDx talk by Somerville. It’s one of my favorites.

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That talk by Bill Somerville was delivered at TEDxBYU. This year’s event is entirely online, with incredible speakers filmed in remarkable locations. It runs tonight and tomorrow night, so be sure to get tickets right away. Find out more at:


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