The Surprising Secret to Success for Jay-Z and Other Business Leaders
Originally published on December 6th, 2017.
Jay-Z wasn’t kidding when he said he’s a “business, man.” With a net worth of $810 million, the rapper-turned-mogul has expanded into sports, artist management, and streaming, among other ventures. But a secret of his hustle is one you might not expect: therapy.
The musician recently opened up in a candid interview with The New York Times, revealing that in addition to a new album that feels like a therapy session, he has been in traditional therapy. And it helped him mature as a thinker and a leader.
“I grew so much from the experience. But I think the most important thing I got is that everything is connected,” Jay-Z said in the interview. “Every emotion is connected and it comes from somewhere. And just being aware of it. Being aware of it in everyday life puts you at such a… You’re at such an advantage.”
He added that widening his perspective helped him understand where others are coming from, even when they’re being racist, for instance. “Instead of reacting to that with anger, I can provide a softer landing and maybe, ‘Aw, man, is you O.K.?’” he said.
What Jay-Z describes is empathy. There’s all kinds of evidence that a healthy sense of empathy, helped along with therapy, nurtures success in the workplace. Stress can be debilitating in a career. Research suggests that stress and mental health are responsible for more than half of all working days lost every year. A 1990 study of empathy training on medical students found that those who learned to have more compassion actually had lower stress levels when interacting with others in difficult situations.
The science is somewhat counterintuitive. People often think of empathy as feeling others’ pain. In fact, recent research suggests that emotional empathy—in other words, getting consumed by another person’s feelings—can take a psychological toll. But those who express compassionate empathy, which allows for more distance, have positive responses, where they approac others’ issues helpfully as problems to be solved. That’s essentially what Jay-Z is talking about when he says he “can provide a softer landing” for people unlike him after being in therapy.
Empathy is also key to being a successful leader, according to research. Compassionate leaders are more likely to engage their reports, while unfair bosses are more likely to see their employees head for the exits.
That’s what many prominent business leaders preach. Bill and Melinda Gates urged Stanford grads to practice empathy in order to solve the biggest crises facing the world today. Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella’s new book argues for “the power of taking everyday action driven by empathy.” Jeff Bezos argues that, even with all the intelligence possible at your disposal, you still need to connect to others in order to succeed. When explaining what made her talk show so massively popular, Oprah Winfrey explained, “I had to learn to feel with others, which is what it means to be compassionate… I feel with you. It means not only am I able to walk in your shoes, my heart beats with yours. I see myself in you.” She views her years as host of the show as “my greatest therapy.”
It’s no surprise, then, that therapy and its offshoots have become more valuable in typically cutthroat corporate spheres. In a report, the World Economic Forum predicts that emotional intelligence will be one of the top 10 job skills by 2020. Empathy training has emerged as the hottest new trend in leadership, with companies offering classes in hopes of getting better results.
They may be onto something. Titans in business and creative fields, from Jon Hamm and Gwyneth Paltrow to J.K. Rowling, have talked about how therapy helped them get through emotional struggles and come out stronger. (Rowling said she even had to go to therapy to deal with her overwhelming success.) Jay-Z is the latest on the list. And as he approaches a billion dollars, he’s looking better than ever.