Conversations in Management: Stephen Hawking

“The quality I would most like to magnify is empathy.”

Stephen Hawking.

Stephen_HawkingStephen Hawking has been called the most brilliant theoretical physicist since Einstein. And with good reason. He’s dedicated his professional life to the complex study of cosmology. His contributions to our understanding of general relativity, quantum gravity, black holes and space-time singularities (among other things) have reshaped how we think about the universe. That we think about his work at all can be explained by the publication of his bestselling 1988 book, A Brief History of Time. In that work, he made the arcane world of physics accessible to millions of general interest readers. Since then, he’s continued to push scientific boundaries while bringing the public along for the ride through books, film and video. Hawking’s restless search for answers to big questions has caused him to challenge not only established science, but his own work as well. In 2004 he reversed his thinking on black holes. Refreshingly he labeled the earlier theory as his “biggest blunder,” and promoted a controversial new theory. This is exactly what one would hope from a scientist who’s claimed, “My goal is simple. It is complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” Well, no one can accuse Hawking of skimping on a life goal and given his track record he just might figure out the Theory of Everything.

It’s obvious that Hawking is an extraordinary man so it’s worth paying attention when he tells us humanity is facing some serious threats. At the top of the list is aggression (among the other top three are artificial intelligence and space aliens). He believes, “It may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory or partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all.” The corrective? Empathy. As Hawking sees it, empathy, “brings us together in a peaceful, loving state.” He also thinks we’ll be enjoying this peaceful, loving state on other planets that we’ve colonized.

But there’s no need to wait. As a matter of fact, empathy is something we can start practicing today. It’s not nearly as hard as deciphering space-time singularities and we don’t need a genetic predisposition to pull it off. Empathy is simply a two part process. The first was perfectly captured by Barry Manilow in his 1978 Billboard Hot 100 hit, Can’t Smile Without You (apologies if this just planted a tune in your head for the rest of the day). You might recall the lyrics, “I feel sad when you’re sad, I feel glad when you’re glad….” This is the gut level emotional aspect of empathy. It’s the feelings you experience in response to what someone else is experiencing. Conveniently, the song also hints at the second part of empathy in the line, “If you only knew what I’m going through….” This is the “thinking part of empathy. It’s putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. It’s seeing things from their perspective. Put the two together and you can make a sincere empathetic response.

Those who study such things report that demonstrating empathy reduces self-interest, prejudice, racism and even bullying while promoting intimacy, relationship satisfaction and emotional well-being. Sounds like a good thing all the way around. So with Hawking giving us the vision and Manilow showing us the way, there’s no reason not to get started. Today.       —Ebert

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