I am quite sure that the vast majority of you will have heard of the huge multinational pharmaceutical company called Johnson and Johnson; they research, make, market and sell a vast range of products all around the world, most famously perhaps their range of baby products. There are few households locally which will not have used, or at least heard of, Johnson and Johnson Baby wipes or Johnson and Johnson Baby powder and Baby shampoo: they are market leaders. Around 20 years ago, my wife used to manage a range of J&J products for their Asia Pacific region and I remember being quite shocked one evening when she told me that J&J had produced what was essentially a pregnant parent vulnerability chart. In trying to understand the medium through which they could market their products to women, they identified that (for instance) in the early stages of their pregnancy, women would listen to friends and read books; as birth drew nearer, the advice of midwives became more and more important; and post-birth, books again became predominant, as well as their parents, in the advice they received in how to look after their babies. This charting of a mother’s vulnerability influenced the means through which they targeted them with their products.
At a similar time, I was teaching an Ancient Greek Tragedy called the Bacchae to my Upper Sixth class. It tells a particularly gruesome and tragic tale of an ancient King of Thebes called Pentheus. Pentheus as a person and as a leader was straight as a die; he believed in the overriding importance of absolute discipline, of strict law, of perfect self-control and of civil obedience. One day, the god Dionysus, his distant cousin, turns up in Thebes. Dionysus was the god of merriment, of wine, of revelry. licentiousness and fun; in short, the polar opposite of everything Pentheus stood for. Pentheus, as King, refuses to recognise Dionysus as a god; and to cut a long story short, Dionysus (in revenge) wins over Pentheus’ citizens, and takes them out into the countryside for a huge party and revelling. Dionysus tricks Pentheus into watching them from a tree; and the party revellers, in a Dionysiac frenzy, spot him and rip him to pieces.
It is an extraordinary play and, though gruesome, I recommend you read it at some stage. It attempts to show what can happen to a human being who does not accept that humans have both a rational, civilised side to their nature AND an instinctive, carefree and semi-destructive side.
One of my students became so interested in the psychology of this ancient drama that he decided to go into marketing for a career. And this is where I come back to the Johnson and Johnson story; all marketing involves getting into the mind of the people to whom you are selling. You simply must put yourself into their shoes; to feel how they live; to grapple with their hopes and fears; to empathise with their daily lives. In short, you must view things from their perspective. Pentheus was punished for being too intransigent; he could not see things from another perspective. Johnson and Johnson have made their name by doing exactly that: putting themselves into the minds of others.
Seeking to understand others is absolutely vital to all of us on a daily basis. Firstly, it is vital for making friends. It is almost impossible to make friends, or to keep friends, without seeking to understand how other people’s minds work and to act accordingly. The single word which describes this effort in English is “empathy”. Literally, this comes from the Greek meaning “suffering with” – the comparative Latin root gives us the word “compassion”. Empathy and compassion; these are impossible without trying to put yourself into the minds of other people. It is also therefore impossible to be kind without this; one can try to be kind, but one can only really be effective if you seek to understand what the other person needs at any given time. And finally, though not least, nobody in this room will ever be able to set up a business without seeking to understand the mindset of its potential customers. It is impossible.
So, looking back, I was wrong to be horrified initially at what I thought was the cynicism of marketing; it was in fact a genuine lesson for life. I wonder how many times today you really seek to understand another person: how that person feels, how he or she thinks, what he or she is really going through. Everyone in here is different; many are very vastly different to you, whether in character, interests, background or attitude. Even those who are similar, or are already your friends, have very different stresses in their lives. Do you genuinely seek to understand others? Do you ask enough questions? Do you realise that you cannot have friends or influence people without understanding first? And do you realise the power that a community could have if all sought to properly understand each other. So these are some thoughts for today; start by showing an interest in someone who you do not really know; ask plenty of questions; listen carefully to the answers; and see if you can practice, and genuinely improve, your skills of empathy every single day. You will never ever regret it.