Unserious

The Magic of Empathy with Ryan Modjeski

November 09, 2023 J.B. Skelton and Molly McMahon Season 1 Episode 2
Unserious
The Magic of Empathy with Ryan Modjeski
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

At the advent of a transformative time in technologic history, skills like empathy, compassion, collaboration, and curiosity are becoming more crucial than ever. In this episode, J.B. and Molly speak with magician-turned-technologist Ryan Modjeski, the driving force behind the top-grossing literacy app, Reading Rainbow's Skybrary, as well as UNICEF KidPower and most recently, Empatico. Ryan shares advice on building empathy and emotional skills at scale and the power those can have in creative problem solving. He also reveals some illusionist secrets that have surprising application to user experience and technology.

"The culture I try to build is one that is unafraid to try and the only real sin is making the same mistake over and over again." - Ryan Modjeski

00:01 Intro
01:24 Social-emotional learning and empathy
08:43 Hire, Fire, Boss!
12:55 Skills for a better tomorrow
15:49 Empathy at scale
22:11 Embracing diversity on teams
23:41 UX tricks from a former magician
31:00 Final thoughts

Keep up with Ryan at @rmodjeski on Twitter / X and learn more about Empatico at Empatico.org.

Mentioned in this episode:
- Dance, Dance, Dance by Haruki Murakami
- The Power of Moments by Dan & Chip Heath
- The War for Kindness by Jamil Zaki

Follow Unserious in your podcast app, at unserious.com, and on Instagram and Threads at @unserious.fun.

Speaker 1:

This is Unserious.

Speaker 2:

Empathy is a word that sounds soft and comforting, like an old wistful blanket from your childhood. But empathy is more than compassion. It's noticing your biases and being able to see from another's point of view. In this rapidly shifting world, with so many global high-stakes challenges, empathy isn't a nice to have. It's an imperative skill for our collective future, especially for the next generation. Building empathy at scale sounds unlikely, but our guest today is doing just that and, in the process, showing us technology used for good, building empathetic connections between children around the world, for fostering social-emotional learning and, close to my heart, increasing children's literacy. Ryan Majeski is the Executive Director of Empatico, a free platform that helps kids around the globe become more empathetic, compassionate and tolerant through meaningful connections. Ryan has been a technology for good advocate and a leader for over 25 years. He built the top-grossing literacy app, reading Rainbow, skybury, as well as UNICEF KidPower, a platform that has empowered kids to use their activity to help save the lives of over 100,000 severely malnourished children around the world. Ryan, hey, thank you for being with us today. Thanks for having me.

Speaker 1:

It's amazing to have you here. So when we talk about building life skills in children, I feel like the conversation, certainly here in the Valley, is around STEM, science, technology, engineering and math, but your work really focuses on topics like emotional skills, curiosity, compassion, empathy. How do these qualities help us build a better tomorrow?

Speaker 3:

I have this idea that in the near future, when the large language model is cropping up, the stuff that they're teaching in school today will be, in a large degree, handled for us. In the same way that a calculator helps us with math and science, grammarly is going to help us write our papers and write our emails. I can imagine a day that I'm never going to drive a car again. I can imagine a day where I never have to actually write an email again. The ability to do that becomes less important than being resilient, being a good collaborator by being a person with critical thinking skills or someone who makes choices that are ethical about how they want to build the future. You can say, in the same way that calculators have opened our minds up to doing higher order math, computers have opened our minds up to doing crazy modeling and physics so we can make buildings that could never have been built before. Ai and large language models should be right now. They're on their way, but they should be able to help jumpstart our creativity and take us to higher and better places than we as people have ever been able to go before. The question is, what do you choose to do with that? I would think if I were a teacher in school right now, I'd be most concerned with critical thinking skills. You can process all this like a firehose of information you're taking in and the ability to make ethical choices and collaborate in this future that we are barreling towards.

Speaker 1:

How did you get into this work?

Speaker 3:

I've always been service oriented or mission oriented in my work. My journey to this role is a pretty funny one. I got into video games and making video games right out of school. My very first job was working on a beevus and butt head video game. Nice, thank you. It was like over the years, that first phase of my career, I would say. I read this book by Haruki Murakami. It was called Dance, dance, dance. The main character in that book wrote the articles in a travel magazine that were never meant to be read. It was just like you need articles, but it really is. For the pictures. He called this work shoveling cultural snow. I feel like what I was doing during those years making video games about CSI, new York or whatever was shoveling cultural snow. It didn't really have any cultural importance. There's some video games that do Last of Us very resonant Murder. She wrote the game. Yeah, you can. It's debatable. I'm not going to say this.

Speaker 1:

We will not speak ill of Angela Lansbury on this show.

Speaker 3:

So you know, I, at the same time I was also working on veterinarian medical simulators for tween girls. I was working on simulators for nursing students at the college level to like simulate interactivity between them and teach, you know, called teach personal skills and different things that you can't teach in a normal textbook. Yeah, and so that, in my mind, got me thinking about education and building for education and other ways you can use game like structures for in technology. And then the housing crisis hit in, like 2008, 2009. Our company locked up. We're all furloughed. So I instead spun up my own company called Honey Bee Labs, because I figured like if I'm going to go out and this is how I'm going to lose my job, I'm going to do it on my own terms and die, you know, on my own sword. And so I just started this thing and and that wound up getting me sort of acquired by reading rainbow and that's why I wound up leading their product team and I've just been sort of like sliding this gradient from for profit, cultural snow to like nonprofit change, the world type stuff. And the thing that blows me away when I joined UNICEF was like I looked at the rejection on Don who hired me. I said I cannot believe that my stupid skills can save the lives of 100,000 kids Like how does that even work? How did you find me? Thank you, you know how amazing.

Speaker 2:

I mean, how did he find you? What are the skills that they were looking for to help change the lives of children across the planet? At UNICEF.

Speaker 3:

You know I would say that my last few stops on my career path, people have hired me because they thought they needed creative help and really they need operational help. So I've done the same thing kind of over and over again not when I joined reading rainbow. They've gotten a whole bunch of investment. They were like featured in the WWDC, like the Lavarra's up on stage when they were launching the iPad. They're like reading rainbow is going to be in the iPad. That's how high profile it was. I showed up and they had like three or four months left to finish the thing and they couldn't figure out really how to start. You know, they thought they needed to figure out how to make books interactive and that part was easy. It was like industrializing the team. To make 300 interactive books in three months was the hard part. But it comes with proper organization, proper like set up behind the scenes to get you to the point that you can scale the work you're doing. You're building things with a factory mindset instead of a bespoke mindset, and then the retention stuff comes from just caring about what you're doing and analyzing your work and being very critical of your work. You know I was a magician for 20 years. Oh you were. Yeah, we can talk about that. But yeah, I was a magician for 20 years and when I was working on my show, the thing I did is I would create a set list. Yeah, I would go out and do my bits and I had like eight or 10 different tricks that I would do and then, like before they even paid me, I would go to the back, bring out my calendar, write down what worked, what didn't work. Like the kids hated me, like this, got a huge laugh, whatever it was, and I did that for a year. Wow, it was like that type of like critical reflection and that's the process you have to also bring to retention. Like who knows what's going to retain people? There's tricks, you know, there's trade, you know things you can do, but really like being that methodical about self criticism is the only way to get this number sent.

Speaker 2:

And we will be right back.

Speaker 1:

So are you familiar with the game Mary Shaggerkill? Sure, okay, good, good, good, sure. So we, we did a spin on this game called Higher Fire Boss. Okay, three names one to hire, one to fire and one to pick, as your new boss Got it. Okay, this is great. For the first one, we'll do a children's television hosts Fred Rogers, Paul Rubens or Bill Nye.

Speaker 3:

I would hire Paul Rubens. You could control him, he's amazing. Bill Nye, well, I would hire. I'm terrible because I would hire Rubens and Nye, but if I had to fire one, I guess I'd fire Rubens because he's problematic and I make Mr Rogers my boss, 100%.

Speaker 2:

Oh my gosh, I love that I had Bill Nye as the boss. He seems boss, like, like. He seems like he needs to be in charge. I don't know this is all assumptions. I feel like Fred Rogers would be in the work with you, like real, like you want to get in and get his hands in it. And I also fired Peewee Herman.

Speaker 3:

I'll also say I'm this is kind of biased on this one because I worked for LeVar Burton at Redie Rainbow, who then is a student of Fred Rogers, and so I feel like by Osmosis, I am a second generation student of Fred Rogers. That's why I would make him my boss.

Speaker 1:

Yep, that's a wonderful place to be, yeah, to be part of, like the Fred Rogers universe in some way or another.

Speaker 3:

I might be the only one that believes that. I don't think anyone thinks that about me, but I think that.

Speaker 1:

I like to think that about you, thank you yeah. Yeah, okay, molly, do you want to go through the second one?

Speaker 2:

Oh sure. The second one is for hire fire boss is, on the magic side of things, david Blaine, david Copperfield or Harry Houdini.

Speaker 3:

I know too much about these people. I know, geez, can I, can you come to me? Last, I got to really think about this one. This is hard Okay.

Speaker 1:

Okay, I would. I don't trust David Blaine, so I would fire him. I'm hire Harry Houdini boss David Copperfield.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, I. So Houdini was a pretty cutthroat business person. Yep, he would sit and like people are trying to do escape acts at the same time as him and he would send his brothers around to beat those people up to scare him out of the business.

Speaker 2:

Oh wow, he's like he's like a. He's a thug he is a.

Speaker 3:

He's a mob boss, that's right, he's a magic mob boss. He would go, he would have his brothers, you know as students, go up and swap real locks for fake locks with his competitors, so they'd actually be locked up on stage, oh shit. And then he. And then, to control his competitors, he decided that he couldn't eliminate them, so he would own them and meet his brother into a character named Hardin, who's his number one rival. But really it was all them all along. So, oh man, I kind of like I'm scared of him.

Speaker 2:

I don't, I don't Fire.

Speaker 3:

That's the thing is either boss or fire. I don't know.

Speaker 2:

Yeah.

Speaker 3:

I think he's the boss. Copperfield, yeah, is very successful, so you got to hire him because he's going to take you places and blame. I wouldn't want to. That's a regrettable attrition. That's, that's what that is Okay. I'd let him flame out and leave me. I wouldn't let him go.

Speaker 2:

My favorite David Blaine moment was when he did a magic trick in front of Dion Sanders and Dion Sanders was like it was so in orbit, and then his final comment was I need a nap, and walked off screen. I was like, oh whoa, his mind was so blown, he needs to go take a rest. Beyond, dion, you design products for children, but I'm pretty sure you have adults on your team. So I'm curious what are the? What are the skills that you feel like are missing, or maybe that you're most excited about in the world of work today?

Speaker 3:

Yeah Well, I won't speak about my team today, because they'll probably listen to this too, and I actually I'm I'm so infatuated with them. I, you know, you dream of a team that is as trusting and cohesive and self-starting as the team I have.

Speaker 1:

I love that.

Speaker 3:

You know, the things I look for when I'm hiring are critical thinking skills. You know, it's that ability to to put something out and then disassociate enough from it to be like that worked, that didn't work. I'm bad at that. I need help. I need to be like whatever. The culture I try to build is one that is unafraid to try, and the only real sin is making them a same mistake over and over and over again, like learning and being able to learn and being able to think critically about how we get there. That's the only thing that bothers me or that I care about. The other thing that I think I love about my team and that I try to instill in teams is this embrace of change and this embrace and flexibility. If you're going to work as quickly and effectively as I'd like to, you have to be able to let go of stuff, change your mind.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, what I'm hearing from you is when you, when you think about culture setting inside of your organizations, you're you're thinking about critical thinking, adaptability, resilience, and you and I and this like learning how to do something better constantly. When you think about, like the work that you do around social, emotional learning and empathy, how does that work show up in the products that you are creating?

Speaker 3:

One of my critiques of a lot of nonprofit programming is a failure to, or a tendency to, match the activity you're asking someone to do with the outcome you want. Yep.

Speaker 2:

Absolutely.

Speaker 3:

Like if this program was to empathy, no one would ever do it, yeah Right. If you're just like this is like six steps to empathy, like do these empathy pushups? No one's going to want to do it, the market doesn't want it, teachers don't want it, kids don't want it. If you're to say we just launched this new empathy truth or dare game just truth or dare with an empathy twist and the questions are like what's the last song you listened to and how did it make you feel? And the dares are like go tell someone how much they need to you and the students can play this in the classroom. You can play with your family, whatever you want to do, and you earn points. It's a game, but in that way, like the play is the important part and the outcome is the learnings. You're sort of like getting through osmosis as you do it.

Speaker 1:

I think this is a great way to. This is great point of transition into the and focus on empathy and how Empatico is actually encouraging children to build empathy. How do you do it?

Speaker 3:

Very well, I hope I don't know. When I was a computer or video game designer, one of the things that I always said was all I care about is hiring an empathetic person. That's a skill you can't teach. I can teach the rest, yeah. Once I started working in Empatico, I realized that empathy was teachable, and that was a really big sort of aha moment for me, and one of the things I was sort of frustrated with was that the goals of what empathy meant were like 20 years in the future you know, it's like more resilient people. Like you know, all these things are way in the future and I wanted to make something more measurable so I can say you know I love analytics, obviously. So what can you do on my platform? And how can I count it, how can I measure it? How can we show it as a skill you're building, rather than an idea or a, you know, the softer idea. And so we created this thing called the empathy framework. And you know, without boring everybody, the quick version is that the current thinking around empathy, which I learned from this book called War on Kindness, which I recommend everyone read, is that there's three types of empathy. There's behavioral empathy, cognitive empathy and emotional empathy, and they sort of interplay with each other and you can think about it as like understanding what other people feel, understanding what other people think and understanding how to help others. Right, that's the three different ways of thinking about it and we said like, well, actually there's another layer to that, there's another access to it, which is empathy with yourself, right, like mindfulness, self-awareness, self-care. And then there's empathy with, like your, your peer group or your family or your in-group, which is all about, you know, kindness, perspective taking, emotional recognition. And then, after all of that, there's empathy with the world, and that's all about diplomacy and inclusivity and collaboration and all these things. And we realized that our work is really focusing on that outer ring, that with the world, without developing all three layers of that. I think, in my opinion, you're in a weakened state, like you're much more resilient if you have empathy with yourself.

Speaker 2:

Yeah.

Speaker 3:

And if you try to have empathy with the whole world without having a strong sense of self, you really like putting yourself in a bad position, in my opinion, and the other way around, if you have no empathy with the outer world, but only empathy with yourself like we know, people like that too it's not a good place to be.

Speaker 1:

Back with more in just a moment.

Speaker 2:

When we at IDEO would talk about our design thinking process or human centered design, we always started with empathy first. So when you think, when you think about user research, putting yourself in someone else's shoes, how are, how do you see empathy making us better creators, better collaborators, particularly in the adult world?

Speaker 3:

Yeah, Well, I'll answer your question a little bit different. One sweet big IDEO fan, big fan of you, molly, and the work you've done, and of course you too, jb Not really, but the. We run a program called Codename with Empathy in conjunction with the Aspen Institute, the Stevens Initiative and Codeorg, where we connect classrooms in Egypt and the US, and also in Mexico and the US oh great. Yeah, it's really cool, so cool Further hour of code program and what we do is we teach empathy and we teach social learning skills in conjunction with computer science. So the first thing you do as part of this project is we have the kids show up thinking they're going to make a video game.

Speaker 2:

Yeah.

Speaker 3:

Don't tell them that's not how it's going to be. I hope they don't listen to this. What they wind up learning is a lot of this. What you're just talking about, molly, we we have them think about their community and think about what they could do to help their community and how they can use technology to better their community. I love it, yeah, and that's the type of design thinking that we need more of. But the people who want to take care of communities yeah they need a process and a place to be, and I think that's that's what we're trying to build, thinking around and build towards, so that when these kids enter the workplace they're not just like, oh, I'm going to make another video game. They can think, wow, I can use technology to improve, you know, the environment it can improve. You know, like, the migration issues, like the stuff the kids come up with were incredible.

Speaker 1:

It's incredibly powerful. When we were over it, when I was over at Facebook working on the ads team, we would hire thousands of engineers every year from across the industry. They came from Uber, they came from from graduate school, they came from amazing companies and they're all building advertising products for generally small businesses and sometimes agencies and brands as well, which are quite larger. None of these people that we had ever hired had ever owned a small business. They'd never. They'd never done all this stuff. So they, so they're like oh, we just need to build an effective product that does the thing that we say it's going to do, and it's like no, you, if you're a small business running a flower shop on a corner in London, how is that different than running a food stall in Bangkok versus running on running media and placing media on a trade desk in New York? They're all using the same interface and they all have very different experiences with it, and it's really important that the engineers who are building actually understand who that customer is and and what drives them crazy about our product. Yeah, what they love about it.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, well, and what I love about an organization is embracing the neurodiversity between all of us. Right Like I heard some like it was I'm going to say this wrong, but it's a very like divisive statement that you know, organizations consist of C students hiring A students to manage B students. Right Like and to be like that's one that's kind of rude.

Speaker 1:

I love that I do. I'm still going to use it someday.

Speaker 3:

But what I actually think about it is that it's not that one group is better or leading the other. I actually that's the part I think is divisive, but what I said. But if you can embrace that diversity in the way we think and who we are and I think working remotely actually opens up the aperture of who we can work with, both in terms of geography but also neurodiversity then we actually can build better teams and stronger products together. Like that, collaboration creates the biggest innovations, I think. Then either one trying to do it themselves. The thing I really believe about like ethical design and ethical product development and the reason why I like to be in the nonprofit space, is that you can be more mission oriented. I'm also a big fan of what's his name BJ Fogg yeah.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, small habits, everything that he teaches.

Speaker 3:

I was exposed to him like maybe six, seven years ago and I was like, oh, he just learned everything magicians know.

Speaker 2:

What do magicians know? I'm curious, I'm curious how to manipulate behavior.

Speaker 3:

I'll give you two examples of how magic can be used to influence or drive people the way you want them to go. One is this idea that I really believe in and call it's about the application and release of pressure. If I'm a magician, in a theater setting, let's say the dumbest thing you can do is invite the audience up on the stage with you and ask them to talk. Why would you ever do that? It sounds like you're inviting disaster. It is the whole point of a magic show. How do you manage that? How do you make sure it works out successfully?

Speaker 1:

You take this idea out of it Through magic.

Speaker 3:

Well, magic, but you're applying pressure and you're giving them a release valve. Coming up on stage is probably also one of the most nerve wracking thing a normal person would ever do. All they want to do is go back and sit down. Correct, that's right. You apply just slightly more pressure by maybe leaning over them, maybe speaking fast to really flood them. Then you can have them make a free choice. That's actually a predetermined choice and it feels free With the promise of as soon as you're done, you get to go sit back down. They'll do anything to get out of there. You can actually cause them to pick the most likely path or the easiest path to exiting, which is like, let's say, I want you to pick one of four things. You'll pick the third one, because that's what people normally do. If I can pressure you, you'll think less and you'll just do. You can use that if you want to drive conversions. The best way out of this horrible situation is to subscribe to my website. Again, a lot of magic is convincing people to make a free choice when really they're making a predetermined choice. One is to flip through the cards. You pick a card, any card, and you magically force them to take the one that is the ace of spades. That's easy. You can also lay three objects in front of someone and say pick one of these three. They pick it and you're like I actually knew that you hold up some predictions. It's like you were going to pick the middle thing. You have this matrix of solutions and there's different outs for each one. You're actually by withholding information about what you're doing. You can alter reality in real time to get to the result that you want. You can work all these things into UX and UI design, and also into management and leadership.

Speaker 2:

That alternate reality in real time might be a superpower of yours in setting up operations for creative teams to do their best work. I know that I would be on that team, being like it's just like magic. He's always two steps ahead. Wow, I'm already blown away by magic just generally. I would like to believe in it always.

Speaker 3:

I read this book called Power of Moments. It's a pretty digestible read and it really talks about how, when you're storytelling, when you're creating a performance which I believe that technology or the type of the products I create are in conversation with the end user it is a performance, it is a story, it is all of that. It's just nonlinear, non-traditional storytelling. When you're trying to create these moments, then you want to have peaks and valleys and is definitely this crescendo when you look at the books like Power of Moments and they really talk about how you can increase your retention, increase your customer support scores. There's all these ways that you can create magical moments at unusual times that really stick in someone's mind. You don't want to deliver the awe when their mind is fuzzed out by noise and other things. One of the best instances of misdirection is that you can use a large movement to cover a small movement. If you want to do a tricky thing with your hands that's very technical and doesn't actually look very good, you can wave your arms through the air like in an arc and your mind literally can only register the large movement and the small movement is absolutely invisible. It's like a defect in our minds. You want to inverse that if you want to make something meaningful, you don't want to add your awe-inspiring moment inside a big movement or inside, like your. If you have to fumble around and get your credit card and try to type in all your credit card, you don't want awe to happen. Then you want awe to happen the moment after, when you're rested. I do think there's a literal, technical application of awe that could and should be applied to products.

Speaker 2:

I love that and also just also thinking about, like, empathy is a driver. Empathy is important in creating meaningful and transformative moments, and those meaningful and transformative moments, our moments of awe, and I think that's, I think that's, and how much you know, I think in sort of the world we're in today, there isn't, there's less wonder because we have access to so much information and, and so I just think there's something really powerful and how you design and create that as a leader, within your, within your teams.

Speaker 3:

Well, and I think that people like yearn for larger meaning, and awe is part of that too. You know like, absolutely. I'm not religious, but a lot of people find the awesomeness of religion very attractive and I 100% agree and understand that. You know like, when those things happen organically, they're even more monumental. You know, whether or not manufactured by a magician like me, they could be even more special and more powerful. I love that.

Speaker 1:

Ryan, where can people go to learn more about you and about Empadigo?

Speaker 3:

Well, you can find me on Twitter or X or whatever you want to call it at our Majeski, which is hard to spell, but I'm sure you can put it somewhere, and you can also learn more about our work at Empadigo, at Empadigoorg.

Speaker 1:

Ryan, thank you so much for joining us on Unserious today and hope you have a great week.

Speaker 3:

Thank you both so much for having me. Jb, you know I don't think we mentioned this in the podcast. You and I go way, way back and it's just. You live in my mind, you know, all the time and I'm just so pleased to be reconnected with you and to meet you, molly. It's been a real pleasure. Thank you so much.

Speaker 2:

That was amazing. Jb Ryan really is a magician. What I took away from the conversation is a deeper understanding of empathy and why it's crucial, not only in social impact but for success in the world of work today. I'm thinking about empathy now from a lens of behavior, from a cognitive lens, from an emotional lens and, just like the importance of starting with yourself, being kind to yourself, change starts with yourself, and I'm pretty dazzled by Ryan's career and the way he thinks about leading teams. He's really at the edge when you look at like the conversations he's having about neurodiversity on teams to artificial intelligence and then thinking about the power of awe in creating moments that matter. It's pretty magical that you can create moments in a user journey at unexpected times that stick in someone's mind because the timing was right and so bringing that magician skill to really designing for an impactful experience. I loved it. Just spoke to my human-centered heart.

Speaker 1:

I love it. Yeah, I also found that discussion of magic in moments so resonant. It's how we create those experiences, that surprise and delight. I learned that magic working in retail and restaurants and when Ryan mentioned that, we go way, way back 20 years ago. Ryan and I worked at a wine shop in Washington DC and we get these grumpy Congress people in Hill staffers and think tankers every night and we send them out much happier with a bottle of wine. Obviously, ryan has taken that magic to much greater scale over than Pataco Totally. But zooming out a bit, my overall impressions are much more serious and we recorded this discussion a bit over a month ago before we saw war in the Middle East, and since then I think the importance of practicing empathy has come into searing focus and the importance of teaching children how to practice empathy is really critical to the peace and stability of our planet and our people. So how's that for an unserious thought?

Intro
Importance of social-emotional learning
Hire, Fire, Boss!
Skills for a better tomorrow
Power of empathy in design collaboration
Embracing diversity on teams
UX tricks from a former magician
Final thoughts