Yesterday’s blog about a found love note was full of intrigue. The obviously young man competing for the love of his wife with the rest of life brought back reminders of being a young man and in love. I was one of the most competitive personalities you could ever meet, racing at a fairly high level in track and cross country, yet I did not know or think one might have to compete in love.
As a result, it was shocking to realize at some point that despite being smitten beyond imagination with a woman I met in my very early 20s, she was hedging her bets all along, playing the field in her own inimitable manner. Looking back I could see by mentions in my running log that she was sending warning shots across my bow.
It was a harsh lesson in reality. My naivete was my own exploitation. Frankly, I’m not sure I’ve totally changed. Recently in an email exchange with a close friend, I expressed concerns over my own level of emotional intelligence. He provided some interesting counsel that I’ll share a little further down in this blog.
If you’re not up on the priority of emotional intelligence in the world, know that there’s a lot of emphasis on emotional intelligence in the workplace and beyond. Dr. Travis Bradberry authored a book on the subject that is worth checking out.
Whether we like it or not, life is a competition in the ability to control our own emotions and discern the emotions of others. Here is how the website AboutEducation describes emotional intelligence: “Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to the ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions. Some researchers suggest that emotional intelligence can be learned and strengthened, while others claim it is an inborn characteristic.”
As competitive athletes, all of us need to recognize the relative merits of our emotional strengths and weaknesses. Every competitive effort is a measure of your ability to harness and apply your emotions and focus. Great coaches are able to counsel and guide this psychological process, encouraging where helpful and testing where necessary to bring out the best in any athlete or group of athletes.
Need for approval
Some of us are sensitive creatures. We live and die by how we perceive us, or how we think they do. As a young man with a powerful need for approval, the root of which stemmed from a brusque and competitive upbringing, the need for approval would manifest in awkward ways. People rapidly identify a needy personality. Generally it’s perceived as a sign of weakness. It’s true in love, business and friendship. Any perceived sign of weakness can be interpreted as a competitive disadvantage.
That’s why the world’s great religions seek to protect and even empower the weak. The sins of power are among the greatest known in the world. It seems unimaginable to some that the wealthiest citizens of a nation would see fit to further exploit the poor, yet it happens. Predatory lending as manifested by high-interest, sub-prime loans are just one example of this phenomenon. One learns through harsh experience not to expect the powerful to be your friend. Their version of emotional intelligence may be very different from your own. Some of them are simply sociopaths. It’s true among politicians too.
More than once I’ve been in a position “behind the scenes” in employment scenarios where executives in the company are considering how to fire a person that I knew quite well. The stunning lack of compassion or understanding witnessed in those decisions is quite instructive to the human soul. Often the executives had no real insight on the actual merits of the individual’s performance. All it took was some sign of weakness at a time when the company was undergoing change and that person was gone.
Again, none of this should have surprised me in life. As an athlete, I had little mercy on my competitors in any sport. In baseball I took pride in striking out batters as a pitcher. In basketball, I coolly sank last-minute shots to finish off a persistent foe. In running, there was no better feeling than leaving the entire field behind when I could, and often did. To make matters clear, I also developed a low opinion of their efforts as a result. That’s how real competitors often operate.
And still, when it came to love, it seemed like life should be somehow different. Are we really trying to kill each other with this thing called love? Are our lovers really our competitors? Is that how it is supposed to work?
My friends that have gotten divorced can certainly testify how easily love can turn to war. That can make you question the entire concept of love, or shy away from future attempts in love at all. Yet people do find love again, and become happier, well-adjusted people in the process.
In other words, it’s possible to win in the game of life even if you fail at work or love, become miserable, or lose your credit rating in the process. That last part is the ultimate sign that we’re all in competition whether we know it or not. A few years ago when I purchased our Subaru my credit rating was 960. The dealership sold me the vehicle even though I was out of work at the time, and I’ve never missed a payment.
Yet credit rating has taken some hits through a few unexpected medical bills and the vagaries of the insurance and bill-paying world in general. Now I’m working to bring it back up to its former stellar level. That takes time, patience and persistence. But it’s a competitive world. Your credit rating matters whether you like it or not.
Friends and enemies
The important principle to understand here is that life is not always your friend. Even your friends are not always your friends. Any middle school kid can tell you that. Competition for friendship and popularity is vicious. Trust and acceptance can turn on a dime. Your friends are as likely to manipulate you as your enemies.
As a result I always counseled my own children: “It’s not always your enemies you have to watch, it’s your friends too. It’s always a power struggle.” That’s not cynical thinking. That’s practical advice.
Sometimes we compete in spheres where we do not really belong. Somewhere during my sophomore year in college a biology instructor pulled me aside and said, “Listen, you’re not really cut out for a biology major. If you give me those six frog illustrations for use in future classes, and do a good job of stuffing that Virginia Rail skin because you’re good at that, I’ll give you a B in this course. But you need to find a different major. I’ve already talked to the art department. They’re ready for you to join them.”
And that’s what I did, along with an almost double major in English. It has provided me with many joys in life, including doing this blog, which is for pleasure, not necessarily for money. It’s gotten me work in writing however, and that’s a good thing.
Still, I’ll freely admit my own emotional intelligence is still lacking in some ways. I don’t always take my own advice about being tough or smart in business. I still trust that everyone has the same kind values… when nine times out of ten it’s really all about the money. I get that. Business is business. As Jackson Browne once wrote:
And what follows is a highly personal piece of advice offered by a friend about my place in the world. This is one of the most trusted friends I have, a person with whom I can share absolutely anything going on in life and not be judged. Well, I may be judged, but it is for my own betterment.
“What you perceive as your lack of EQ is actually a lack of cynicism to the point of innocence even. You have an open, liberal, inquisitive, sensitive soul. As such, the lens through which you view others and interpret their actions doesn’t often take into account that many people operate at a very base level and are selfish, arrogant, rude, ignorant, insensitive. You intellectually know this, but your heart always gives the benefit of the doubt to others. Like I say, you ąre a teacher, artist, and probably a pastor, too. The type of person who sees the best in others, brings out their best, forgives their flaws. As such, you have a purer form of EQ than most people.”
Those seem like rather complimentary values, yet the fact of the matter is they are not always a competitive advantage in this world. In fact these qualities have cost me dearly when it comes to the very competitive world in which we live. Not everyone in business cares if you are a liberal, inquisitive, sensitive soul. In fact they tend to hate those qualities in others. Hate. They consider those qualities to be an obstacle in business. And, they are probably right.
Benefit of the doubt
In some arenas of life, one really should learn not to give the benefit of the doubt to others, or even forgive if you expect to thrive in business. And yet the people that I’ve forgiven, the folks that acknowledged their own wrongdoing have often turned into lifelong friends.
I used to say that you don’t really have the trust of a customer until you’ve solved a problem for them. Sometimes it is your own mistake, or the mistake of the company you represent that you need to fix, but in any case solving that problem and walking a client or customer through that process is critical to long-term trust. It has always been my philosophy that honesty, earnestness and a bit of sensitivity is actually an attribute in those situations. It was worked wonderfully on many occasions both in sales and marketing. But I’ll admit that my bosses have not always understood the approach. Many preferred the hard-line methodology to client relations. Kick ass. Take names. Don’t give an inch. And most of all, never admit that you were wrong.
Trusting our competitors to make us better
That might be a good way to look at life and competition in general, but I’ve grown to prefer a balance.
It really is true that our competitors are ultimately our best friends. That may not mean we grow to like each other, or even trust that person so much as you learn to respect them. Yet our competitors are the ones that drive us to do better. You can turn to that person passing you during competition and thank them for showing you that it’s possible to go a little faster, a little longer and a little better. Because like it or not, all of life really is a competition. You gotta learn to love it or fall behind in the process.
That does not mean we cannot lay down our arms and help others. Because the real joy in life beyond our own aggrandizement is helping others succeed. When you’ve learned that lesson, life is a true joy indeed. Suddenly it’s safe to love. And you gotta love that too.