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You are not too smart to listen

3 min read

A couple of years ago, Brendan Eich was ousted as CEO of Mozilla. It was a tough issue: he had contributed to the Proposition 8 campaign against marriage equality, but had done so as an individual. Mozilla contributors argued in both directions, but many felt that they couldn't feel safe working on a project or at a company where the person steering the ship didn't care about their rights.

Where I believe the debate came off the rails was his refusal to engage with the debate. Sure, his donation had been as a private individual, but as the CEO of a company with shareholders he had a responsibility to make a statement, and to reassure everyone that Mozilla had a culture that welcomed everybody. It's hard to know exactly what happened behind closed doors, but from the outside, it looked like he was choosing the "higher ground". This higher ground was actually the lowground: by staying quiet, he gave the impression of not caring about these contributors, whereas he needed to engage on an emotional level. He gave the impression of not listening.

A lot of startups operate this way: they'll hire high achievers, people who on paper are the brightest in the world, and then trust them to make the right decisions. That's fine, to some extent - but even the most empathic person in the world isn't prepared to understand the nuances of every situation.

At best, you have a hypothesis about how to react to a situation - but all hypotheses must be tested. And in every situation, there is someone more insightful than you. Any startup founder worth their salt will tell you that validating your assumptions is key. Any engineer will tell you that user testing is brutal for the exact same reason. These are things you have to do, because it's impossible to understand everybody.

But this isn't just about business. It happens all over geek culture:

Being smart means acknowledging that you might be wrong. For kids that grew up getting As throughout their academic career and being told they were gifted, that might be hard to take. It doesn't make it less true.

In a world where more and more people are connected, empathy is the most important life skill. It's not something you can intellectualize; no elaborate mind palace will help you understand other peoples' experiences and feelings. A white, male, upper middle class Stanford graduate can't automatically understand the experiences of people different to himself. You've got to ask people, and then change your stance accordingly.

The technology industry has been less about actual technology and more about networks for some time. Guess what: networks are made of people. The internet is people. We've already shown ourselves to be adept at building amazing devices and incredible software. Now we have to learn to be great listeners.