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The Danger of Confusing Empathy or Sympathy with Compassion

The Danger of Confusing Empathy or Sympathy with Compassion

We’re hearing more about the positive traits of empathy and compassion. Emotional intelligence is becoming more important than other intelligences (like IQ) at school at work and in life.  In past generations these two words might both have fallen into the category of sympathy but empathy, sympathy, and compassion are not words that can be used interchangeably and one of these three is more powerful than the other two.
Empathy refers to feeling what another person is feeling. Sympathy means you understand what the other person is feeling even without feeling it yourself. Compassion means your feelings have prompted you to take action to relieve the suffering of another person.
Scientists have shown that mirror neurons, a part of the brain whose specific job is to have us mirror what’s happening with someone else, play a big role in both empathy and compassion. When you see someone smile these neurons prompt you to smile back. When you witness someone in pain it can cause you the same type of pain too. Having empathy is your ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes. Sympathy happens when you may not on a visceral level experience the sadness or pain that someone else is feeling but on the cognitive level you understand the feelings of another. I’m not sad when my friend’s old dog passes away but I can understand that my friend feels sadness.  Both empathy and sympathy are more about the person experiencing them than they are about the person who sparked the empathy or sympathy.
Compassion on the other hand comes from a Latin word that means “to suffer with”. When you are compassionate you are able to be aware of another’s suffering you have sympathetic concern to the level that you have been emotionally moved by their suffering then you wish to relieve that suffering and you act somehow in a way that is helpful.
Mathieu Richard, a  french Buddhist monk says “compassion is unconditional love applied to the suffering of others”. His belief is that compassion has a powerful ability to heal; both to the one giving and to the receiver.
An important distinction between empathy and compassion is the effect on your personal well-being. Empathy and sympathy are both self-oriented. They say “I’m hurt too” and have you join the suffering or acknowledge that you see the suffering. Interestingly, research is showing that narcissists may have deficit in their mirror neuron receptors. Not only are they unable to mirror the emotional experience of another but they exhibit frustration when someone doesn’t mirror their emotional state. This is been referred to as a narcissistic rage. Of course very few people are diagnosably narcissistic but it seems empathy and sympathy are more about the individual wanting to be seen as a kind and understanding person than they are about  actually being kind and understanding. Empathy and sympathy alone are not enough. Empathy pulls you down where compassion lifts you.
Experiencing empathetic burnout or empathy fatigue is common among people who spend their lives caring for others such as nurses or first responders.  In the United States, a study has shown that 60% of the medical profession suffers or has suffered from burnout, and that a third has been affected to the point of having to suspend their activities temporarily.By the prolonged experience of feeling what others feel they actually burn out and become more anxious, depressed and stressed out.  Compassion on the other hand doesn’t burn you out it, lifts you up.
Research shows that compassion and empathy take place in different parts of the brain and that by turning your empathy into compassion you can fight empathetic distress. The key difference lies in what you do after feeling the feelings evoked by mirror neurons. If you act, you lift yourself and others. If you get stuck in the emotion without positive action, you pull yourself down. The Greater Good Science Center has a quiz to measure how empathetic you are. I suggest you take it to see how much you are recognizing the emotions of others. The second and more important part is turning that empathy into compassion through useful action. See the bottom of the article for tips on how to do this.
Set up a free account to save your quiz scores and track your progress over time.

Change Your Empathy and Sympathy into Compassion

1. Notice the feelings

2. Ask yourself how you can help. This doesn’t mean changing everything. What small step could you take to make the situation better?

3. Take action while staying in touch with your emotional barometer. If you are too emotionally overwhelmed start with a loving kindness meditation. This type of meditation is proven to increase well-being while decreasing empathetic fatigue.


If you’ve moved from empathy to compassion, I’d love to hear how you did it and what the results were. By sharing your story you inspire others to make positive change.

Don’t Mess With Happiness- What Happens When the World’s Top Positive Education Experts Meet in Texas?

Don’t Mess With Happiness- What Happens When the World’s Top Positive Education Experts Meet in Texas?

Imagine what can happen when you bring together 1200 stakeholders in the positive education field including academics, educators, students, parents, lawyers, policy-makers, and psychologists all with the common purpose of making a quantum leap in the ways positive education impacts academics and well-being globally.

The World Positive Education Accelerator is an IPEN event that just might change the world! With so many mike-drops it was difficult to choose but here are my top 10 aha moments from this four day appreciative inquiry summit.

1. “We are expecting our children to change the world and we aren’t giving them the skills to do it.” Champlain University President Don Laackman discussed how a radically pragmatic approach is needed in rethinking  how we educate.  To make our world a place, where children and learners of all ages can thrive, he suggested that connecting professional success with life’s purpose was one of the keys.

2. “We need to change our deficit oriented way of looking at the mental health of students.” In her keynote Lea Waters suggested  parents and educators need help to see and build strengths in children. When this happens it protects children against depression and anxiety, it increases self-confidence and life satisfaction, it buffers stress and anxiety, and it enhances self-efficacy. She included a reminder that it is our responsibility to educate not just children but also their parents about the strength-based approach.

3. “!t’s happiness stupid!” was Sir Anthony Seldon‘s  reminder to us to distinguish happiness from pleasure. Selden discussed the fourth education revolution pointing out that under the factory model of school we are not interested in who children are. that we are stronger together when we embrace the unknown, when we say goodbye to our binary ways of thinking, and when we get out of our own ways,

4. “Well-being is skill-based and learnable” according to Alejandro Adler. Investing in teacher well-being creates classrooms with a system of well-being which translates to advanced academic well-being, more pro-social behavior, and better health. His reminder that this begins with the educator was a key point.

5. “Optimism is the belief that our actions matteraccording to Amy Blankson who spoke on the intersection of education and technology. Blankson implored us to become balanced technology users learning to love technology and live with it not to escape from it. Recognizing that the average smartphone user checks 150 times a day is the first step, the is second putting the phone away. She shared that the mere presence of a phone is a happiness zapper. The power of a potential dopamine hit keeps us addicted and distracted while our brain is partially focused on the task at hand and partially waiting for additional content that is released every time we see notifications on our phone. This reward system is highly addictive we need to delete the temptations minimize notifications .
She reminded us with a great visual but our concerns are not new they are just different her for rules embrace a growth mindset about technology minimize distracting technology teach self-awareness set healthy boundaries to gather invisible boundaries until kids can self regulate

6. ” I believe wealth is not meant to create more wealth. Wealth is meant to create well-being.” Martin Seligman asked us to think about what are we going to do with human prosperity? Together Seligman and David Cooperrider envisioned new opportunities and possibilities for accelerating positive education.

7. “The best person in the class to up the connection of curiosity is the student” according to Angela Duckworth who has launched a character lab at UPenn designed to help use psychological sciences to help people thrive. She uses the heart, mind, will. method of seeing strengths.

  • heart to give to and receive from others
  • mind to think imagining create
  • will to achieve your goals through optimism growth mindset and grit

Her lab hopes to answer the question is character born or earned? Using the science of goal-setting to help increase your results, Duckworth suggests her WOOP model in creating a path to a goal:

  1. wish for something
  2. identify and imagine outcomes
  3. identify and imagine obstacles
  4. form a plan

8. “Progress not perfection”  says David Cooperrider who compared planning to a jazz improvisation.  Cooperrider said the world of leadership design is about legacy; it’s not just crazy creative it’s also detailed execution.  To avoid constraints or see opportunities and to get more creative using the core question “how might we…?” to begin a conversation designed to creatively solve the problems of the world. He also sees a need to remove the barriers that keep students from moving forward and staying curious and joyful.

9. “The heliotropic principle reminds us that we move towards things that give us life” we need to activate the motivation of our children said Jacklyn Wong. Speaking from her personal experience of using positive education to transform Singapore as a city. “It’s the essence not the architecture that’s the difference between a house and a home. ” Wong is one of the keys to changing the way an organization uses positive psychology to give leaders, teams and individuals the tools-the house, but they need to make it a home themselves.

10. “To prepare young people for a changing world, we need to support them in their self-discovery and awareness and increase their empathy.” President of Universidad Tecmilenio, Hector Escamilla spoke passionately about 29 campuses across Mexico who redesigned their process to start from purpose. When education is connected to what matters to a student they go farther faster.

Equation2Thrive #What’s Your Equation?

Equation2Thrive #What’s Your Equation?

The 2018 World Positive Education Accelerator combined the science of positive education & David Cooperrider‘s appreciative inquiry methods with a goal of making a quantum leap in the ways positive education impacts academics and well-being around the world.

Positive Education uses individual strengths and personal motivation to promote learning. 

There’s a ton of research on what it takes to live a happy and meaningful life. There was a strong agreement from all the experts in attendance including Martin Seligman,  Lea Waters and Angela Duckworth that we can do more to promote wellness.

The AI model is a method of design that looks like this:

Through this process, 1200 stakeholders including academics, educators, students, and parents participated in a highly creative process dreaming of a new future.

What positive psychology experts agree on is that when we take away all mental illness and all mental distress we still don’t have mental wellness.

We are not flourishing or thriving.

The Equation2thrive movement was one of many actions born from this process.

Our goal was bringing awareness to every individual’s personal ability to recognize and actualize their individual equation to thrive.

My personal belief is in an overarching equation that can be used every single day by every single person. It looks something like this:

The social media movement encourages individuals to reflect on their equation. It can be different every day. Sometimes you need relaxation + refection while at other times you need conversation + activity. The great thing is that there is no wrong answer.

In summary, I will leave you with the statement our team designed as well as a simple call to action.

Equation2thrive is a global movement leveraging the multiplier of positive education, spotlighting an individual’s unique potential to live a connected and meaningful life. From influencers to classrooms, carpool conversations and boardrooms all the way to the United Nations, we want everyone to know your equation matters We leave you with a simple question #what’s your equation

Please reflect, make a short video like the one below and post it on your social feeds #equation2thrive #whatsyourequation

Can Binge-Watching Make You Happier?

Can Binge-Watching Make You Happier?

According to Psychology Today, we are wired to binge-watch television. Humans are social beings and we connect emotionally with the stories and the plights of others on the screen. There’s even a new field called neurocinematics which is the study of how television and film interact with the brain. Neurocinematics research is finding that people binge to take a break from their regular lives by zoning out and being engrossed in a world that isn’t their own and that watching helps to a avoid fatigue in hectic, digitally-driven lives.

Ryan Niemiec is the founder of VIA Character Strengths, a positive psychology framework using the work first described by Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson that identifies 24 universal strengths or virtues that impact well-being. Niemiec published a book positive psychology at the movies where he provides a deeply science-backed explanation of how the language of films allow us to experience the strengths and virtues that are universal across the population so we can have a meaningful experience while thinking about the virtues that we value most. Ultimately this can lift us or put us in an upward spiral towards more positive emotion. He calls this “cinematic elevation- the experience of positive emotion when watching a character displaying a character strength coupled with an intention to act for the good”.

In your life as a movie-goer or Netflix binger, this means there are actual physical and emotional benefits to screen time. In order to help you get the most out of your couch potato time, I encourage you to take the VIA survey and start watching through the lens of your strengths. My long-time favourite movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, aligns well with some of my top strengths including ZEST, CURIOSITY & CREATIVITY.  Which movies or movie characters do you love and how do they relate to your strengths? Here’s a list of the strengths, grouped by category, along with some of the top movie suggestions for each one. 

Category- Wisdom and Knowlege

The category wisdom and knowledge includes the strengths of perspective, love of learning, open-mindedness, curiosity, and creativity. Many consider this virtue category to be the core, the one that makes other virtues and strengths possible. Films that engender the wisdom and knowledge virtues often have the lead character directly or indirectly sharing insight and lifting others to higher levels of wisdom and knowledge, Archetypical characters that would fall into this category are Yoda, Gandolf, and Dumbledore.

Frida (2002)

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Dead Poets Society (1989)

Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)

Maniac (2001)

Awakenings (1990)

Meet the Robinsons (2007) G

Big Hero 6 (2014) G


Amelie (2001)

The Secret Garden (1993)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) G

10 Items or Less (2006)

Sideways (2004)

Jurassic Park (1994)

The Machinist (2004)

Mongolian Ping Pong (2005)

James and the Giant Peach (1996)

Up (2009)


My Dinner with Andre (1981)

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Samsara (2011)

Lucy (2014)

Life as a House (2001)

Inception (2010)


The Sixth Sense (1999)

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Big Fish (2003)

Gone Girl (2014)

Inside Out (2015)

Love of Learning

Akeelah and the Bee (2006)

Billy Elliott (2000)

Dead Poets Society (1989)

The Karate Kid (1984)

Finding Forrester (2001)


Category- Courage

The category of courage includes virtues that are emotional strengths. This includes bravery, persistence, integrity, and vitality. There have been attempts by psychologists to develop scales to measure courage and others believe courage to be a way to define meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. Scientifically very little is known about genetics and neuroscience of courage. There is also a distinction, sometimes made, between personal courage and general courage. General courage involves actions that impact everyone and personal courage is individualized.

Apollo 13 (1995)

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

Moana (2016) G

The Kite Runner (2007)

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Rudy (1993)

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

WALL-E (2008) G


The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Finding Nemo (2003) G

Babe (1995) G

Homeward Bound (1993)

Fame (1980)

127 Hours (2010)


Forrest Gump (1994)

Shark Tale (2004) G

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) G

Pinnochio (1940)

Shattered Glass (2003)

Memento (2000)

Before I Go to Sleep (2014)


Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Life Is Beautiful (1997)

Mary Poppins (1964) G

Peter Pan (2003) G

Legally Blonde (2001)

Singing in the Rain (1952)

Big Fish (2003)

Category- Humanity

Virtues that fall under humanity includes love, kindness, and social intelligence. The humanity strengths are all involved in relationship building and reaching out to befriend others. Niemiec noted a trend in today’s world toward movies that emphasize the character strengths and virtues under the heading of humanity.

Ghost (1990)

The Notebook (2004)

On Golden Pond (1981)

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

The Princess Bride (1987)

Trainwreck (2015)

Friends With Benefits (2011)


As Good as it Gets (1997)

Schindler’s List (1993)

The Blind Side (2009)

Wonder (2012)

Victoria and Abdul (2017)


Category- Justice

The next category is the virtue of justice which contains citizenship, leadership, and fairness. This domain is the about interaction between an individual and the society around them. Of the six domains of virtues, justice and humanity, according to Peterson and Seligman, are the most universal. In cinema Justice films are often produced by indie film companies and seen at international film festivals- they aren’t the big box office winners and yet there are some fabulous gems in this category.


The Bad News Bears (1976)

Cool Runnings (1993)

A League of Their Own (1992)

Radio (2003)

Remember the Titans (2003)

Coach Carter (2005)

Pitch Perfect (2012)


Dead Man Walking (1995)

Ghandi (1982)

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

Philidelphia (1993)


Evita (1997)

The Lion King (1994) G

Black Panther (2018)

Saving Private Ryan (1992)

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Milk (2009)


Category- Temperance

The temperance domain is made up of four character strengths; modesty, prudence, mercy, and self-regulation. According to Niemiec, temperance is the category least portrayed in cinema and it’s one of the hardest to identify. It’s interesting to note that our movie heroes rarely show restraint in drinking, drug use, eating, behaving aggressively and having sex.


The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Green Mile (1999)

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Man on Fire (2004)

Crash (2004)

Cinderella (2015)


Ghandi (1982)

Mary and Max (2009)

The Music Man (1962)

Brian and the Boz (2014)

Roxanne (1987)

Clueless (1995)

Prudence & Self-Regulation

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Unbroken (2014)

A Man For All Seasons (1966)

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Category- Transcendence

The final domain is the virtue of transcendence. Transcendence is described as an individual moving beyond the ordinary range of human experience and understanding. I think of transcendence as living for the greater good. The strengths that fall under this virtue include appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality. Transcendence can elicit a number of positive emotions that are related to our happiness including joy, awe, and admiration. Films in this category may contain a spiritual message or a feeling of deeper connection with something bigger than oneself.
Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence

Frida (2002)

Pocahontas (1995) G

WALL-E (2008) G

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Race (2016)

March of the Penguins (2005) G

Into The Wild (2007)


Freaky Friday (2003)

Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)

It Could Happen to You (1994)

Trading Places (1983)

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Pay It Forward (2000)

The Blindside (2009)


Life Is Beautiful (1997)

Miracles From Heaven (2016)

Freedom Writers (2007)

Erin Brockovich (2000)

The Help (2011)


Austin Powers (1997)

Something About Mary (1998)

Anchorman (2004)

Meet the Parents (2000)

Zoolander (2001)

Ace Venture Pet Detective (1994)


Eat, Pray, Love (2010)

Wild (2014)

Samsara (2011)

Little Buddha (1993)

Amadeus (1984)

If you think of one not on this list, please send it our way and we’ll add it. Get your popcorn ready and happy binge-watching!









Letting Go of Limiting Beliefs- The Shortcut to Happiness

Letting Go of Limiting Beliefs- The Shortcut to Happiness

When you uncover a limiting belief or an unconscious bias you become more able to see past them. This means you can create more social connections which are a proven tool for increasing happiness. What are limiting beliefs and unconscious biases and what do they have to do with happiness anyways?

The Definitions

Limiting Belief 

A belief is an acceptance by the mind that something is true or real. Beliefs are the lens that you see the world through and they:

  1. tell you what you like or don’t like
  2. define for you what is possible or impossible
  3. anchor your judgments
  4. affect your relationships
  5. contract or expand your potential
  6. harness or hijack your passion
  7. lower or raise your level of happiness

Each of us lives within and operates out of a complex set of beliefs that define us and the world in which we live. Beliefs are our reality-making blueprint and limiting ones are the ones that keep us from doing, going, being or feeling something. They are not truths but when they are not questioned they can feel true.

Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias refers to bias that happens automatically, triggered by our brain’s judgments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment creating an unexamined belief about a particular category of people. We all have them and having them does not make you a hateful person; examining them allows you to remove your blinders and open your mind.

I always think of dominant and subordinate populations when I explore biases. Dominant groups of people are those who fit into the majority. An obvious example is straight white men. They are dominant to gay white men, men of colour, and women.

Subordinate  refers to a group that is a minority and who regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination. Depending on who you are with, you may be the dominant person OR the subordinate person in a relationship or conversation. This fluctuates from one relationship to another. When you are the dominant person, your job is always to listen with an open mind in order to examine your biases.


There are many ways to define happiness but one of my favourites comes from positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky who says happiness is ” the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” When you connect with those around you; friends, family members, and colleagues you both get the benefits of increased well-being. Positive social connection is a shortcut to happier living.

I’ve Uncovered It- Now What?

Discovering limiting beliefs and unconscious biases is only the first step. Once you have identified one, here are a few steps to take to help you let it go and change your pattern:

  1. Celebrate that you noticed a belief or bias- it’s the first step!
  2. Observe your pattern. You’ve noticed it, now become a student of when, where, why, and how it happens.
  3. Drop self-judgment. It won’t help you. We all have beliefs and biases. If you think you don’t, that’s one of yours!
  4. Replace your negative with something positive. In habit formation, you have to replace your old action/thought with a new supportive one.

Go out of your way to learn what you need to in order to open your mind. Children who go to a diverse pre-school are way less likely to hate people according to Sally Kohn, author of We Need to Fix Hate. If you notice your friends of choice are all just like you, perhaps it’s time to expand a bit.

Ask yourself:

  1. Are all my friends the same ethnicity as me?
  2. Are all my friends in the same line of work as me?
  3. Do my friends all send their children to the same school that mine attend?
  4. Do I have friends who are more/less wealthy than me?
  5. Do I have friends who are younger/older than me?
  6. Do I have friends from various religions?
  7. Do I have friends who vote differently than I do?

Make it a priority to expand your social circle or if you are lucky enough to already have a rich and varied group of friends spend time reflecting on how your differences enrich your relationship.

We will always have judgements about others. We are wired, for safety, to notice differences. When you discover a difference celebrate the opportunity for expanded awareness. When differences cause friction, as they frequently do, look for common ground to build from.

I can look at someone I see as nothing like me and still find a sense of shared human experience. I do not support Trump but I can see that we are both parents and business owners and spouses. I don’t believe that guns should be widely available for purchase but I understand that I want my family to be safe just like the NRA supporters do. Focusing on where we are similar helps break down and fear or anger that drives our differences.

Do not believe in anything (simply) because you have heard it ; Do not believe in traditions, because they been handed down for many generations ; Do not believe in anything, because it is spoken and rumoured by many ; Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books ; But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

Buddha Jayant



The Time for Meaning is Now-Is Finding Purpose the Most Pressing Need of Our Time?

The Time for Meaning is Now-Is Finding Purpose the Most Pressing Need of Our Time?

Things have changed over the past few  generations. Conversation has turned from making a living to living a meaningful life. Consciousness experts like Deepak Chopra, Jean Houston, and Martha Beck have all noted that more than ever before people are waking up.

Waking up to a higher level of living where life’s greatest questions are:

Who am I?


Why am I here?

Despite this awakening, most people have occasional moments of wondering or even actively searching for their purpose yet the majority of us never spend specific time focused on discovering purpose.

For many, the search for purpose starts like this:

  • You recognize something is wrong but you can’t quite put a finger on it
  • You identify that you want more  (but don’t always know more of what?)
  • You crave making a difference and living a life of impact
  • You get hints about what that would be like, sparks of inspiration & recognition
  • You become paralyzed and don’t act out of fear

We were taught to make a living but not about making a life. People ask “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and we begin at a young age to equate purpose with a job. But purpose isn’t about how you pay the bills. It’s about passion.

It can seem that everyone is passionate about something and either yours is missing, hidden or you have piled it beneath a to-do list that might keep it buried for good.

Or perhaps you are surrounded by people who don’t dream, don’t follow their passion and who try to keep you from going after yours. this can lead you to a state positive psychologists call purpose anxiety.


Purpose anxiety happens when looking for your purpose actually increases anxiety. Research says up to age 23 looking for a purpose is fun but older than that it actually causes unhappiness and depression. This means many people looking for their purpose are looking from a negative place.

Carin Rockland, purpose researcher, gives this advice:

  1. Purpose is not a noun.
  2. Purpose is a verb
  3. Starts with the word to_____________. (as in to write, to teach, to inspire)
  4.  Goals, Meaning, Passion are not purpose. You will have many goals on the way to purpose but these goals are not the purpose. Meaning is the comprehension of the world around us. This is not the same. Meaning is greater context purpose is an active life aim. Passions change. Passion is a strong inclination toward something. Passion is a clue to purpose but isn’t the same as purpose.

Three aspects of purpose

  • BE
  • DO

Finding purpose

Some people are naturally lucky. They know what their purpose is from a young age. Social modeling can influence children or a trauma happens that sparks a realization. Spirituality plays a role for some. But what about those of us who don’t?

  1. Replace the word find with the word uncover. Let’s not imply that our purpose is lost.
  2. Have more positive emotions. They help us see connections that we might not otherwise see. You have to be in a positive mindset before you begin.
  3. Be curious.
  4. What are your strengths and when have you used them in a way that felt like you made a difference.
  5. Tell people about your joy. Sharing our joy increases joy. When you share a story about a happy or joyful experience it has far greater benefits than just remembering it or writing it down for ourselves.

Purpose can hit you over the head like a sledgehammer or it can land on your shoulder like a butterfly. My personal experience was like bringing a camera into focus. I had the picture right there in the frame but it took awhile to decide where the focus should be and what was in the background.

Do you have a purpose? I’d love to know how old you were when you discovered it and what it is.