Bill and I both went to college and studied subjects that don’t have any obvious connection to the work we do now as movers and business owners. Bill was a European History major and I studied American Literature and nonfiction writing. (For the record, I was a better student, but Bill has a memory at least 1,000 times better than mine.) It’s true that neither a startling command of arcane facts about civil war generals nor being able to tell when a writer is employing a technique called free indirect discourse really helps you run a household moving business better. Bill used to say that his college degree set our business back four years — and I’m pretty sure he was only a quarter joking.
But lately I’ve been reconsidering the value of my education to my day-to-day work as a small business owner. As Bill and I have started to work more on the business rather than just in the business, I’ve noticed that a lot of the real heavy lifting of my job is centered on imagining what it’s like to be other people, whether those people are customers, employees, or partners.
What do I mean by that? Well for starters, if you make a living by providing a service (that is, by serving people) you have to think long and hard about how to make the people you’re serving happy. What are their needs? What are their worries and anxieties? What will please them? What will piss them off or make them feel taken advantage of or treated unfairly? If you’re going to have any real success taking good care of people, you have to imagine the actual lives and circumstances of the people you’re serving. You have to try to imagine what it’s like to be them.
And the same holds true for employees. How can you build a good workplace if you don’t have some idea what it’s like to actually be an employee? What pay, policies, and procedures will make their work lives more safe, more enjoyable, more orderly, more fair? Whenever we think about making changes that will affect our employees, I find myself doing the work of trying to imagine what it would be like for me to be one of my employees. What would it be like to experience this change from that side? And my partner, too. If I’m not making a regular attempt to think about what our shared work life (and life in general) looks like from Bill’s perspective, I’m much more likely to be a crappy partner.
For readers, one of the great pleasures of literature is the access it gives us to the minds and hearts of people caught up in circumstances very different from our own. I read “Sister Carrie” in college, and while I can’t remember much of the plot, I still carry with me a vivid, almost physical impression of a scene in which Carrie, hungry, cold, and desperate, stands outside a swanky downtown Chicago restaurant watching well-heeled patrons dining inside. Reading that scene gave me a powerful sense of what it might be like to be poor in a big city, to be shut out of a prosperity that surrounds you in the most excruciatingly lonely way.
Reading lots of books, and doing lots of thinking and writing about the ideas embedded in them, wasn’t exactly an education in how to imagine what it’s like to be other people. We never talked about reading literature as a way to improve our empathy or our moral imaginations. In fact, I remember no real discussion in class about why we were doing what we were doing, what we were up to in reading so many books and writing so much about them. But simply reading a novel is a long, sustained act of attending to the lives of others, a days or weeks-long investigation into what it might be like to be someone else. If you read lots of books, it seems to me that by default you get practice seeing the world from other perspectives. You build up muscles in your imagination that allow you to make a small and imperfect leap into other minds and hearts.
The journalist Phillip Gourevitch wrote, “This is what fascinates me most in existence: the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real.” Think of it: the best access we have to the very real inner lives of all those around us, from our children to our bosses to the people whose carts we bump into at the grocery store, is through our imaginations. It’s a strange predicament we’re in, trapped inside our own heads, having to imagine the subjective experiences of anyone and everyone else on the planet. It’s hard work, but if we want to be helpful to those around us, it may be our most important task. I’m glad I got some practice back in college.