Empathy Heroes: 5 People Who Changed the World By Taking Compassion to the Extreme

Ever heard of “empathy marketing”? It’s the latest business buzzword. The idea is that if companies can look through their clients’ eyes and understand their desires, they will be better able to tailor their offerings and gain a competitive advantage.
To me, this is stepping into someone else’s shoes just to sell them another pair.
I believe that the best use of empathy is not in the commercial world but in the social one, where it allows us to challenge prejudices and create political change.


And if you look through history, there are some extraordinary figures who have harnessed this power by engaging in what I think of as “experiential empathy.” This is where you don’t just imagine someone else’s life (a practice technically known as “cognitive empathy”) but try to live it yourself, doing the things they do, living in the places where they live, and knowing the people they know.
You might also call an experience of this nature an “empathy immersion.” It’s like empathy as an extreme sport—one far more exciting and adventurous than ice climbing or sky diving.
So here is my top-five list of people who took empathy to the extreme, showing how it can transform the social and political landscape. If you like these characters, you’ll find more on each of them in my new book  Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It.
1. St. Francis of Assisi: Learning from beggars
In the year 1206, Giovanni Bernadone, the 23-year-old son of a wealthy merchant, went on a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He could not help noticing the contrast between the opulence and lavishness within—the brilliant mosaics, the spiral columns—and the poverty of the beggars sitting outside. He persuaded one of them to exchange clothes with him and spent the rest of the day in rags begging for alms. It was one of the first great empathy experiments in human history.
This episode was a turning point in the young man’s life. He soon founded a religious order whose brothers worked for the poor and the lepers, and who gave up their worldly goods to live in poverty like those they served.
Giovanni Bernadone, known to us now as St. Francis of Assisi, is remembered for declaring, “Grant me the treasure of sublime poverty: permit the distinctive sign of our order to be that it does not possess anything of its own beneath the sun, for the glory of your name, and that it have no other patrimony than begging.”
2. Beatrice Webb: From comfort to the sweatshop
In the early 20th century it became popular for writers and would-be social reformers—among them Jack London and George Orwell—to spend time living down and out on the streets of East London to experience the realities of poverty among the homeless, beggars, and unemployed. The forgotten figure who started this tradition was the socialist thinker Beatrice Webb.
Webb was born in 1858 into a family of well-off businessmen and politicians. But in 1887, as part of her research into urban poverty, she stepped out of her comfortable bourgeois life and dressed up in a bedraggled skirt and buttonless boots to work in an East London textile factory. The account of her adventure,Pages From a Work-Girl’s Diary, caused a sensation. It was unheard of for a member of respectable society, especially a woman, to have firsthand experience of life among the destitute.
“My own investigations into the chronic poverty of our great cities opened my eyes to the workers’ side of the story,” she wrote in her autobiography. Her empathy immersion inspired her to campaign for improved factory conditions and to support the  cooperative and trade union movements. She later became a leading figure in the socialist Fabian Society and co-founded the London School of Economics.

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