Having rightly been accused of lacking emotional intelligence at times, I took a quiz at Lifescript.com to see how I fared. The results were spot on.
As an athlete for many years, I recognize the value of emotional intelligence in both training and competition. And like many athletes, there have been times when my shortfalls in emotional intelligence have harmed me, while in other ways I’ve succeeded due to personality traits that include leadership, risk-taking and passion.
On many occasions in my work life, I’ve been told that people admire the ability to keep a cool head under pressure. “You’re unflappable,” a co-worker once said. At one point a company of 800 people chose me to be the lead public relations contact in an emergency management plan. That was all fine and good until I pointed out the fact that I lived an hour away from the main office. Then they went, “Oh yeah. Maybe that wouldn’t work.”
In sales, there were many moments where keeping a cool head was important to pitch or close a deal. While marketing my own paintings for a poster project in collaboration with a semi-pro baseball team, I first sold a law firm looking for regional exposure. Then I pitched an auto dealership. Their sign was on the left field wall and thus appeared in the painting, but I was asking $3500 in sponsorship for the poster project. I made my pitch and shut up. There’s a rule in sales that says the first one who talks, loses. So I sat. And sat. And I waited. Minutes went by. Then the client asked, “Where would my logo go, here on the bottom?” And that was that. Keep cool. Get the sale.
There’s a certain amount of that “keep cool” vital in competition as well. Before the race, with competitors milling around, keeping a calm yet determined face is part of the psychology.
Swimmers often wind up sitting in the same room together before going out on the deck. That can be nerve-wracking. It takes confidence to win that quiet battle and go do your best.
Like all athletes, I have at times failed the emotional intelligence game in sports. Having confidence going into big events is key. If there’s a gap in your training or some other nagging fear grips you, the poison of doubt can creep in. And when faced with the challenge from competitors in that mindset, you either crack or resign yourself to a performance below that which you are capable. Been there. Done that.
By contrast, having the emotional intelligence to assess your true fitness and even to some degree deceive yourself through training, brings you into a state of relative fearlessness that can bring handsome rewards. That’s where the supposed control earned through emotional intelligence isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. Athletes simply need to be risk takers at times. That’s not necessarily an emotionally healthy state of being. Athletes also need to be passionate, at times to the point of obsession. Those aren’t necessarily emotionally healthy periods in life. As the wrestling coach in the John Irving book Hotel New Hampshire once said, “You’ve got to get obsessed, and stay obsessed.” Which is true, but that has nothing to do with emotional intelligence.
Because getting crazy dedicated can be a good way to achieve your goals. I don’t regret for one minute taking a year of two of my life to run as hard as I could and succeed. Not letting anyone stop you is a liberating feeling. Not letting your own fears stop you is just as important. But again, that’s not emotional intelligence at work.
See, the difference here on emotional intelligence in athletes is learning to identify opportunities versus refusing to accept challenges. If you’re scared to do or try something, then it might feel emotionally intelligent not to take that risk. Why take the chance of blowing everything you’ve earned?
But then again, if you never speak up in a meeting because you don’t want to offend someone, or never speak up at all, that isn’t emotional intelligence either. That’s just fear.
Justice Clarence Thomas has spent years as a Supreme Court Justice and for a decade or so never said a thing or asked a question. That silence has raised the issue whether he is even qualified to serve in that role. Justice requires inquiry, after all. By contrast, Justice Antonin Scalia was an activist in his role, often barking out opinions and writing dismissive missives through his dissents. He believed passionately in originalism, the idea that only an interpretation of the Constitution as it was first written would produce justice. Was he intelligent, emotionally intelligent, or just an anachronistic asshole? Hard to tell.
We see similar breadths of difference in how athletes go about their work. The austere and seemingly aloof Frank Shorter competed against his rival Bill Rodgers, a goofy “people’s champion,” for years in the marathon. Probably Frank was the more emotionally intelligent competitor. Yet people loved Rodgers because his lack of emotional intelligence made him seem like the rest of us. People love the underdog. That’s why the movie Eddie the Eagle is so popular.
So this thing we call “emotional intelligence” is not some cut and dried formula for personal success. In fact, we have to be careful how much we ascribe to this aspect of personal brand. The world needs people willing to speak out against injustice. The world’s greatest figures in history all did that. Some did so with great emotional intelligence. Ghandi comes to mind. Martin Luther King, Jr., with his call for peaceful protest. There was some of the greatest emotional intelligence ever expressed. And Nelson Mandela. In the face of class and racial persecutions, these people showed enormous emotional intelligence.
Yet they did not shut up. Their voices were not silenced by fear. They were unpopular even to the point of incarceration and death.
When you see a person cross the line in a triathlon, especially an Ironman, it is natural to admire their effort. It is also natural to question their sanity a bit. Some of us are willing to explore that world in order to know ourselves better. We’re willing to fight as well the temptation to quit when it makes all the sense in the world to do so.
We’re also willing to take that brand of determination and apply it to the world at large. You can be called a lot of things for doing so. A certain fellow named Jesus was branded a blasphemer for challenging the authorities of his day. They had their rules and they wanted to enforce them. They conservatively wanted to preserve order in the society they controlled. They did not want change. Yet they were pinnacles of what most people (present and past) would likely brand emotional intelligence.
Yet they were, in the end, quite wrong about the world.
There have been many other prophets in history, people willing to call forceful alliances to account, and to confront those determined to dictate the emotional intelligence of a community, a country, or the world. The paragon of corrupted emotional intelligence in history was none other than Adolf Hitler. Fascism is defined as “a form of radical authoritarian nationalism that came to prominence in early 20th-century Europe.” It worked because it appealed to the emotional side of the national personality. It essentially manipulated emotional intelligence into a singular motive using nationalistic fervor to replace normal moral standards. It made people turn away from their conscience in favor of worshipping the idea that they were a superior race, or people. It made people willing to support rampant anti-Semitism, and to torture and kill anyone deemed inferior. The Hitler movement made people willing to ignore that gas chambers were a crime against all humanity.
There’s a movie out right now about Jesse Owens, the athlete whose performance in the 1936 Olympics defied all of Hitler’s claims to racial superiority. There’s a supreme lesson in that. Unfortunately, it could not prevent World War. But that athletic performance stood in defiance against Hitler, and came to symbolize all the millions of people who would resist and give their lives to fighting the emotionally forceful man whose hatred drove his ideology.
But let’s be honest about something. That brand of emotional corruptions still exists in this world. Instead of emotional intelligence, it takes emotional courage, and risk of reputation self to stand up to the pillars of oligarchy, emotional manipulation and worship of wealth that seek to control and vex this world.
I for one am willing to take that risk. I believe that’s what makes the Kingdom of God real here on earth. Too many Christians and the population at large refuse to recognize that connection. They’re more concerned with siding with leaders who seek to own and dictate the rules, as the Pharisees tried to do against Jesus, than they are with genuine moral and civil justice in this world.
We see it every day in people whose money is more important to them than the well-being of the world and its people. They bark: “Don’t use my tax dollars for the poor! All they want is handouts.” And from a strictly material perspective, this manner of thinking is understandable. People whose livelihoods are hard-earned often do not feel the call to extend mercy to others. They attribute their own success as a sign of equality for everyone, even when that equality, through prejudice or through expression of law, clearly does not exist.
The values of equality, liberty and opportunity are built into the United States Constitution. These are human values, however, not dictated by any particular faith. Nor does one need to have a particular faith to abide by them. That is the true emotional intelligence of the American proposition. It has a moral but not a strictly religious foundation. Too few Americans get that. Too many ascribe the emotional intelligence of the American proposition to Christianity, or to the free market, to capitalism or the NFL, for God’s Sake. They confuse their interests with their country.
The ultimate form of emotional intelligence and the foundation of the American proposition is to care, and to care about equality. In spite of yourself or your position in this world, you must continue to care about the welfare of others. Even those who are seemingly far different from you. Care. Even your enemies or competitors. Care. Often they turn out, upon full inspection or dissolution of differences, to be your ultimate allies.
In athletics, be coachable but ask to know the reasons why you’re being told to do something. If it doesn’t feel right, there may be a reason. Sometimes it takes emotional intelligence not to go along with the extremes of absorption the world can present. Always be willing to try, and take risks. But also be willing to question, and justify.
But most of all, don’t turn away. Care enough to engage.
Do yourself a favor today and visit a site called biblegateway.com. Enter the word “turned away” into the search category and see the many results you will get. Study them all, and you’ll come to realize that caring is the true call for all the human race.
But we’ll close today’s blog with a famous passage from Mark 10. It shows how difficult it can be to relinquish your supposed “emotional intelligence,” and all your material success and the position that goes with it, through the call to care. This lone passage explains almost everything wrong with America today. And it’s true whether you are religious or not.
The Rich and the Kingdom of God
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[d]”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”