When Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was 25 years old and interviewing for a job, he failed to show his interviewer the trait he now says has been crucial to his success: empathy.
"Empathy is only developed through your life's experience. It's not something that's really endowed on you," Nadella said on a recent episode of WNYC "Freakonomics Radio" podcast. "[With] every passing mistake you make, you develop more of a sense of being able to see life through other people's eyes."
Empathy, he argued, can "make you a more effective parent, more effective colleague and a more effective partner."
Before starting his now 22-year-long tenure at Microsoft, Nadella was interviewing for a job and was asked, "What will you do if you see a baby on the street crying after having fallen down?"
In his mid-twenties at the time, Nadella tried to approach the question as an engineer.
"I answered thinking this is some trick question," Nadella said. "Maybe there is some algorithm that I'm missing and said, 'I'll call 911' only to have that manager get up and walk me out of the room saying, 'That's [an] absolute bullsh-t answer.'"
The manager then told Nadella, "if you see a baby falling down, you pick them up and hug them."
"And I was devastated because I remember thinking about it and I said, 'How could I not get that?'" Nadella said.
Just a few years later, at 29 years old, Nadella would receive yet another lesson on empathy: his first child Zain was born with severe brain damage and developed cerebral palsy.
Though Nadella focused on the questions "Why did this happen to us? What happened to me?" after Zain was born, he eventually realized that nothing had actually happened to him.
"Really something has happened to my son," Nadella said he told himself. "It's time for me to step up and see life through his eyes and do what I should do as a parent and as a father."
Empathy is crucial not only to personal success but also in business, says the Microsoft CEO.
"Most people think empathy is just something that you reserve for your life and your family and your friends, but the reality is that it's an existential priority of a business," Nadella told Bloomberg in 2017. "I think empathy is core to innovation and life's experience."
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