To tell the truth, I don’t think an assignment has never left me so puzzled before: think about what your passion is and go out there and be empathetic – sounds straightforward, but had me clueless for almost an entire week. The problem was not that I didn’t know what I’m passionate about, the problem was that I knew: the one issue very close to my heart is bi-polar disorder and depression in general. You’ve probably seen me walking around with a black wristband or even a To Write Love On Her Arms t-shirt. Quite a few people who I care very deeply for have been or are struggling with this terrible affliction, and I have seen what it can do to people.
I’ve always been good at listening to other people – I am, after all, a writer, and there is nothing more interesting and inspiring than the stories people have to tell. I have met the most interesting people on overcrowded trains, in the waiting lounges at airports and standing in queues. I met a retired lecturer from the University of Texas at Schiphol Amsterdam, I met John Barrowman’s stunt double standing in line in Borders, and I met a GP on the train from Cardiff to Didcot Parkway who was about to start specialising in depression. What fascinated him so much about this illness was the fact that, no matter how great your life actually is, whether you have enough to eat and drink, and whether you have a job – none of it has any importance. You can’t enjoy your wife and kids that you might have, you can’t enjoy the food because you don’t feel hungry, and you can’t do your job because you don’t care about it.
The problem with this passion is that it is next to impossible to find people to be empathetic with. What those people need is someone who sticks by them, a therapist to help them through that awful time and possibly medication to regain their mental strength. Even more so, you can’t identify those people in the street, should you encounter them. And you sure as hell couldn’t walk up to them as a stranger and ask them about it. There is no entrepreneurial way of thinking about this, and if there was, it certainly wouldn’t be moral.
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the only way out of it was to immerse myself in the crowd with an open mind and see where it would lead me. So, I spent an afternoon in Kingston town centre, walking around, observing people, asking people why they were there. Some were there to do their shopping, some just wanted to go for a walk, others came into town to have a coffee or food – although the two business men I ran into by Kingston bridge were still undecided whether to have a coffee or a late lunch.
After a while, I sat down on the market place by the fountains, and watched the children jumping around in between them. While it is hard to create cognitive empathy because you can’t ask the children to explain why they were doing it, and the parents didn’t seem to be sure about why their children particularly liked the experience, they just knew they did, it was easier to have emotional empathy. The sense of play is inate to all of us, it’s a way to learn about our body, to discover how far we can go, and to learn how to control our physical actions. The immediate reward system makes sure that we keep doing it. Some people grow out of it, because “adults don’t play”, but those people are missing out. The physical empathy then was easy to create, but social boundaries needed to be overcome. But breaking those imaginary rules of behaviour, it was easy to see why the children loved the fountains: it is a strange and thus out of the ordinary feeling to have jets of water squirting against your hand, and to never be quite sure where the next jet will be coming from.
People lose their sense of play along the way, but they carry all those memories around with them about what they used to be. This realisation has nudged me in a direction that could turn into a business idea down the line. Some of the ideas require more specific market research to see how viable they would really be, others need to become less abstract. But either way, this simple experience has my neurons firing, and, who knows, maybe in class tomorrow I’ll hear somebody else’s thoughts that work well with mine, or get me thinking even more.
Finally, I recommend watching Michael Pritchard’s talk on his Lifesaver filter which turns the dirtiest water into clean, drinkable water. Because he too looked at the water and it got him thinking, he identified a need and solved it with a very simple yet highly effective product.