You don’t have emotional intelligence, you were born with it, or you developed it. If you developed it you started sometime, like I did. If you don’t have it, you can start too.
Here’s my start. I don’t pretend I’m the world master of emotional intelligence, but I’ve come a long way and I know anyone else can. I hope sharing the story motivates others.
Before business school I had barely heard of the concept of emotional intelligence. Since I contrasted emotions with rationality, I considered them irrational and weird, not something to learn about or focus on. Since I connected emotions to feelings, music, art, and romantic comedies, I didn’t connect them to behavior. Nor for that matter did I connect behavior to leadership.
Then my leadership classes covered emotions and behavior a lot. I started to understand my teachers wanted me to see some relevance to leadership… maybe even to other parts of life.
One trend in one emotion
Then one emotion started catching my attention — anxiety. Why anxiety, I don’t know.
First I noticed its properties. I started to understand this odd but familiar emotion. I realized it wasn’t random, nor pointless. I won’t go into depth about it now, but as I got familiar with it — not just how it felt, but what caused it and what it caused — I started setting a foundation for understanding emotions in general.
Understanding my first emotion: What is anxiety?
Anxiety is different and more complex than the nearby emotion of fear. You rarely want any part of fear. By contrast, anxiety has elements you want. For example, as a guy I feel anxiety approaching a woman, say at a bar or party. I both want to meet her, anticipating chemistry, and don’t, fearing rejection. I would feel fear, not anxiety, approaching a grizzly bear because there’s no upside to it, just danger.
I came to see anxiety as a mix of anticipation of something I wanted and fear of something I didn’t.
What is anxiety like?
I noticed sometimes anxiety was intense. It would keep me from doing something, but also keep me from forgetting about it. Other times it was subtle and would motivate me without my realizing it. I noticed that I didn’t remember talking about anxiety growing up. I felt like anxiety implied weakness and was better swept under the rug.
Now I started seeing it as something worth understanding.
When I felt anxiety without consciously realizing it, I noticed it affected me but without my being able to do anything about it. I saw that as a problem. I want more control over what influences me, or at least awareness of those things.
A major anxiety epiphany
A major event vaulted me forward. I had joined the school sketch comedy play, called Follies — my first stage performance since third grade. I couldn’t get my lines right in rehearsals. Then one day I found myself backstage, my cue to enter approaching, five hundred friends and classmates in the audience. I couldn’t get out of my obligation to get on stage.
I realized I felt anxiety, not fear. I loved rehearsals and wanted to perform in front of the crowd. I might mess up but if I didn’t, I knew people loved acting and actors. I had the potential for the community to rally around me.
I felt the anxiety grow in intensity to acute, nearly debilitating, reaching nausea. Literally. I was close to throwing up before going on stage from the anxiety.
My cue came, I entered, I delivered my lines. The audience, not expecting great acting, laughed on cue. A lot. Did I mention I had written much of this particular sketch (here’s the script)? The combination of overcoming anxiety and hearing the laughter for lines I wrote made me feel ecstatic. Like walking on air. Not just on stage, but for hours after.
Few times in my life had I ever felt this good. I knew I had to go on stage again. I didn’t know when or how, but this feeling was too good not to follow up.
I realized that the things that brought me the greatest joy in life tended to enter my life as the greatest sources of anxiety. Stage, sports, academics, starting my first company, and so on.
And I noticed that the greater my anxiety before, the greater my joy after.
I realized intense anxiety came from intense fear combined with intense anticipation of an outcome I wanted and could create. If I could do decrease the fear, I could access all those great outcomes.
This notion suggested a strategy: Look for my greatest anxieties today and overcome them. Then, like my past overcome anxieties, I could expect to create yet more great joys. Some people call it conquering their fears.
What a great strategy: turn anxieties into joys.
I implemented my strategy and it worked. I started transforming increasingly big parts of my life and creating joy and emotional reward where once I felt anxiety.
Then emerged a bigger pattern and strategy.
I realized the far greater importance of emotions than I suspected. I realized they motivate behavior. If you don’t understand them and aren’t aware of them, they still motivate you, just out of your control. Lack of self-awareness and emotional intelligence make you out of control. Then things just happen to you. You’re like a rat in a maze.
My greater strategy emerged:
Learn about emotions and my emotional system, then use them to lead myself and others. Improve my life.
I realized I had been misguided most of my life in avoiding emotions. I came to see them as the most important element to understand to improve my life.
From then on, I focused on understanding emotions, my emotional system, the human emotional system, and my emotional state, eventually leading to my seminars, coaching, books, etc.
As a result, my relationships improved, as has my effectiveness in influencing others, as has my ability to enjoy life. I do more with less effort and I enjoy that effort more.
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