Photography by Carli René

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99U Speakers Agree: Empathy Is the Skill of the Future

Photography by Carli René
99U Speakers Agree: Empathy Is the Skill of the Future
Published March 27, 2019 by The 99U Team

When we set the theme for our 2019 conference — The Creative Future — we imagined a future where creative skills are more pervasive and prized, and how that might reshape the world around us. As we prepare for the event in May, we’re asking our speakers to share a skill they think is important for all creatives to navigate what’s to come.


When we asked our speakers and workshop hosts to share a skill they thought was futureproof, they surprised us with how many responded with a passionate call for empathy. We’ve rounded up why they value the drive to understand the thoughts and needs of others and why it will be so important in whatever future lies ahead.

Tina Essmaker, creative coach and cofounder of The Great Discontent

Empathy has been the foundation of my work, regardless of my role. When I was a social worker, empathy was the starting point for meeting my clients where they were. In my current work as a coach for creatives, empathy is vital to building trust and rapport.

Our work is better when we understand who we’re making it for—which empathy helps us do—and we work better together when we’re open to many perspectives and experiences outside of our own.

It’s a skill we can get better at with practice. Start with a genuine desire to understand someone else’s experience, and put aside your desire to be right. Be curious and open. Give people a safe space to talk about their experiences. Ask questions with the aim to understand and learn more. Then truly listen.

Jake Barton, principal and founder, Local Projects

I try to mix empathy and imagination. Empathy, so that I can project myself into my audience’s perspective, and imagination to project what would create awe and wonder within their experience. These two superpowers together will always be central to all creative fields because you’ll always have people whose minds or hearts you are trying to reach. Empathy and imagination are the key to reaching them.

David Schwarz, founding partner, HUSH

They say you’ll never get anywhere if you don’t know where you’re going. We may not know exactly where we’ll be in ten years, but if you can imagine what it might feel like, you’ll likely get there a lot faster. I think people call this visualization.

Our futures feel increasingly complicated. We live story to story, moment to moment, swipe to swipe. It’s hard to keep focused. The ability to visualize things can act as a powerful psychological preparation tool.

I think this skill might have a relationship to empathy. As with any skill, practice is simply the only way to get better. It’s all about the preparation of your mind to make it familiar with a scene that hasn’t yet happened. You are putting the puzzle together in your mind, before you even open the box.

Alain Sylvain, founder & CEO, Sylvain Labs

It can sound clichè, but being empathetic is so fundamental to being human. Everyone is looking for ‘the next’. The next idea. The next innovation. The next promotion. The next client.

Empathy is important today, but it will be non-negotiable in the future. Millennials and future generations don’t see the same divisions when it comes to work and life. Life doesn’t stop at your office lobby and work doesn’t stop at your kitchen table. That’s why salaries and traditional benefits no longer attract or retain the best talent. In the end, we’re all people and we all want the same things, so be empathetic, listen to the people around you and to encourage them to be genuine. Encourage their side hustles. Encourage their entire life—not just the 9-5.

At Sylvain Labs, we make it a point to encourage side hustles. For example, we had a strategist that was a chef in a prior life. He was obsessed with hot sauce so we tried to commercialize a line of hot sauce. It failed terribly, but it brought our team closer together. And the hot sauce was fire.


Hear from creatives shaping the future at the 11th Annual 99U Conference, May 8-10, 2019 in New York City.


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