An astronaut is probably the most difficult job to land on the planet. Of tens of thousands of applications, NASA selects roughly half a dozen each decade. The application process is rigorous and highly demanding. You have to be a total badass to qualify. You have to have deep expertise in science and engineering. You need at least 1,000 hours of piloting experience. You have to be physically fit and strong. And, most of all, you have to be a smart motherfucker.

Lisa Nowak was all of these things. She had a masters degree in aeronautical engineering and had studied postgraduate astrophysics at the U.S. Naval Academy. She flew air missions for the U.S. Navy in the Pacific for over five years. And in 1996, she was one of the fortunate few to be selected to become an astronaut.

Clearly, she was smart as hell. But in 2007, after discovering that her lover was seeing another woman, Lisa drove 15 hours straight, in a diaper, from Houston to Orlando, in order to confront her boyfriend’s new squeeze in an airport parking lot. Lisa packed zip ties, pepper spray, and large garbage bags and had some vague-but-not-really-thought-through plan to kidnap the woman. But before she could even get the woman out of her car, Lisa had an emotional breakdown, resulting in her quickly being arrested.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a concept researchers came up with in the 1980s and 90s to explain why intelligent people like Lisa often do really, really stupid things.1 The argument went that the same way your general intelligence (IQ) is a measurement of your ability to process information and come to sound decisions, your emotional intelligence (EQ) is your ability to process emotions—both others’ and your own—and come to sound decisions.

Some people have an incredibly high IQ but low EQ—think your nutty professor who can’t match his socks or doesn’t see the purpose in showering. Other people have incredibly high EQ but low IQ—think the street hustler who can’t even spell his own name but somehow talks you into giving him the shirt off your back.2

Emotional Intelligence Defined

Emotional intelligence consists of 5 key elements:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Motivation
  4. Empathy
  5. (Good) values

The way to become emotionally intelligent is basically to find or create these five elements in yourself, hence the five skills (more on that in a bit).

If this is all a little vague and abstract, and if you’ve never met a street hustler who convinced you to strip half naked on the streets (aren’t you lucky?), think of someone in your life who:

  • Seems calm yet in control in stressful situations
  • Takes responsibility for their actions instead of blaming every mishap on others
  • Expresses—rather than offloads—their emotions
  • Listens to you and makes you feel heard
  • Genuinely cares about the world and tries in their own way to make it a better place

That is an emotionally intelligent person. And if you’re not there yet, you can become one too.

The thing with emotional intelligence is, it permeates every aspect of your life. Being emotionally intelligent is associated with academic3 and professional4,5,6 success, financial stability,7,8 fulfilling relationships,9 life satisfaction,10 as well as better physical and mental health.11,12

Every endeavor in life requires you to make decisions. And if you let your emotions consistently ruin your decisions, you likely won’t get very far. Hell, even one emotional mess-up—cue Lisa and her 15-hour kidnapping crusade—can wreck your entire career. So get your shit together. Developing emotional intelligence comes down to not being a fucknut like Lisa was.

Here are five ways to start doing it.

Practice Self-Awareness

Like with most things emotional, you can’t get better at them until you know what the fuck they are. When you lack self-awareness, trying to manage your emotions is like sitting in a tiny boat without a sail on top of the sea of your own emotions, completely at the whim of the currents of whatever is happening moment by moment. You have no idea where you’re going or how to get there. And all you can do is scream and yell for help.

Emotional intelligence - girl under water

Self-awareness involves understanding yourself and your behavior on three levels: 1) what you’re doing, 2) how you feel about it, and 3) the hardest part, figuring out what you don’t know about yourself.

Knowing What You’re Doing

You would think this would be pretty simple and straightforward, but the truth is that in the 21st century, most of us don’t even know what the fuck we’re doing half the time. We’re on auto-pilot—check email, text BFF, check Instagram, watch YouTube, check email, text BFF, etc., etc.

Removing distractions from your life—like, you know, turning off your damn phone every now and then and engaging with the world around you is a nice first step to self-awareness. Finding spaces of silence and solitude, while potentially scary, are necessary for our mental health.

Other forms of distraction include work, TV, drugs/alcohol, video games, cross-stitching, arguing with people on the internet, etc. Schedule time in your day to get away from them. Do your morning commute with no music or podcast. Just think about your life. Think about how you’re feeling. Set aside 10 minutes in the morning to meditate. Delete social media off your phone for a week. You’ll often be surprised by what happens to you.

We use these distractions to avoid a lot of uncomfortable emotions, and so removing distractions and focusing on how you feel without them can reveal some kind of scary shit sometimes. But removing distractions is critical because it gets us to the next level.

Knowing What You’re Feeling

At first, once you actually pay attention to how you feel, it might freak you out. You might come to realize you’re often actually pretty sad or that you’re kind of an angry asshole to a lot of people in your life. You might realize that there’s a lot of anxiety going on, and that whole “phone addiction” thing is really just a way to constantly numb and distract yourself from that anxiety. It’s important at this point to not judge the emotions that arise.

You’ll be tempted to say something like, “Ick! Anxiety! What the fuck is wrong with me!” But that just makes it worse. Whatever emotion is there has a good reason to be there, even if you don’t remember what that reason is. So don’t be too hard on yourself.

Knowing Your Own Emotional Bullshit

Once you see all the icky, uncomfortable stuff you’re feeling, you’ll begin to get a sense of where your own little crazy resides.

For instance, I get really touchy about being interrupted. I get irrationally angry when I’m trying to speak and the person I’m speaking to is distracted. I take it personally. And while sometimes it is just them being rude, sometimes shit happens and I end up looking like a total dickface because I can’t stand going two seconds without every word I speak being respected. That’s some of my emotional bullshit. And it’s only by being aware of it that I can ever react against it.

Now, just being self-aware is not sufficient in and of itself. One must be able to manage their emotions too.

Channel Your Emotions Well

People who believe that emotions are the be-all-end-all of life often seek ways to “control” their emotions. You can’t. You can only react to them.

Emotions are merely the signals that tell us to pay attention to something. We can then decide whether or not that “something” is important and choose the best course of action in addressing it—or not.13

Anger can be a destructive emotion if you misdirect it and hurt others or yourself in the process. But it can be a good emotion if you use it to correct injustices and/or protect yourself or others.

Joy can be a wonderful emotion when shared with people you love when something good happens. But it can be a horrifying emotion if it’s derived from hurting others.

Such is the act of managing your emotions: recognizing what you’re feeling, deciding whether or not that’s an appropriate emotion for the situation, and acting accordingly.

The whole point of this is to be able to channel your emotions into what psychologists call “goal-directed behavior”14—or what I prefer to call “getting your shit together.”

Learn to Motivate Yourself

Have you ever lost yourself completely in an activity? Like, you start doing something and get immersed in it and when you snap out of the quasi-hypnotic state you’ve somehow induced in yourself, you realize three hours have passed but it felt like fifteen minutes?15

This happens to me when I write sometimes. I lose my sense of time and I get this cascade of subtly-layered feelings when I’m fleshing out ideas in my head and putting them into words. It’s like a feeling of fascination mixed with slightly frustrated intrigue mixed with little bursts of dopamine when I feel like I just came up with a great line or funny poop joke or somehow got my point across without cursing.

I love this feeling, and when I achieve it, it motivates me to keep writing.

Notice something important here, though: I don’t wait for that feeling to arise before I start writing.

I start writing and then that feeling starts to build, which motivates me to keep writing, and the feeling builds a little more, and on and on.

This is what I call the “Do Something Principle” and it’s probably one of the simplest yet most magical “hacks” I’ve ever come across. The Do Something Principle states that taking action is not just the effect of motivation, but also the cause of it.

Emotional intelligence - motivation

Most people try to look for inspiration first so they can take some momentous action and change everything about themselves and their situation. They try to pump themselves up with whatever flavor of mental masturbation is in style that week so they can finally take action. But by next week, they’ve run out of steam and they’re back at it again, jerking off to another “method” of motivation.

But I like to turn this on its head completely. When I need to be motivated, I just do something that’s even remotely related to what I want to accomplish and then, action begets motivation begets action, etc.

When I don’t feel like writing, I tell myself I’ll just work on the outline for now. Once I do that, it often makes me think of something interesting I hadn’t thought of yet that I want to include and so I write that down and maybe flesh it out a little.

Before I know it, I’m halfway through a draft and I haven’t even put on pants yet.

(NOTE: This is just because I never wear pants.)

The point is that in order to use your emotions effectively to get your shit together, you have to do something.

If you don’t feel like anything motivates you, do something. Draw a doodle, find a free online coding class, talk to a stranger, learn a musical instrument, learn something about a really hard subject, volunteer in your community, go salsa dancing, build a bookshelf, write a poem. Pay attention to how you feel before, during, and after whatever it is you’re doing and use those emotions to guide your future behavior.

And know that it’s not always “good” feelings that will motivate you, too. Sometimes I’m frustrated and really fucking annoyed that I can’t quite say exactly what I want to say. Sometimes I’m anxious that what I’m writing won’t resonate with people. But for whatever reason, these feelings often only make me want to write more. I love the challenge of wrestling with something that’s just a little bit out of my reach.

Recognize Emotions in Others to Create Healthier Relationships

Everything we’ve covered so far deals with handling and directing emotions within yourself. But the whole point of developing emotional intelligence should ultimately be to foster healthier relationships in your life.

And healthy relationships—romantic relationships, familial relationships, friendships, whatever—begin with recognition and respect of one another’s emotional needs.

You do this by connecting and empathizing with others.16 By both listening to others and sharing yourself honestly with others—that is, through vulnerability.

Emotional intelligence - healthy relationships

To empathize with someone doesn’t necessarily mean to completely understand them, but rather to accept them as they are, even when you don’t understand them. You learn to value their existence and treat them as their own end rather than a means for something else. You acknowledge their pain as your pain—as our collective pain.

Relationships are where emotional rubber hits the proverbial pavement. They get us out of our heads and into the world around us. They make us realize we’re a part of something much larger and much more complex than just ourselves.

And relationships are, ultimately, the way we define our values.

Infuse Your Emotions With Values

When Daniel Goleman’s book came out in the 90s, “emotional intelligence” became the big buzzword in psychology. CEOs and managers read workbooks and went to retreats on emotional intelligence to motivate their workforces. Therapists tried to instill more emotional awareness in their clients to help them get a handle on their lives. Parents were admonished to cultivate emotional intelligence in their children with the aim of preparing them for a changing, emotionally-oriented world.17

A lot of this sort of thinking misses the point, however. And that is that emotional intelligence is meaningless without orienting your values.

You might have the most emotionally intelligent CEO on the planet, but if she’s using her skills to motivate her employees to sell products made by exploiting poor people or destroying the planet, how is being emotionally intelligent a virtue here?

A father might teach his son the tenets of emotional intelligence, but without also teaching him the values of honesty and respect, he could turn into a ruthless, lying little prick—but an emotionally intelligent one!

Conmen are highly emotionally intelligent. They understand emotions quite well, both in themselves and especially in others. But they end up using that information to manipulate people for their own personal gain. They value themselves above all else and at the expense of all others. And things get ugly when you value little outside of yourself.18

Lisa Nowak, for all of her brilliance and expertise, couldn’t handle her own emotions and valued the wrong things. Therefore, she let her emotions drive her off the proverbial cliff, going from outer space to incarcerated space.

Ultimately, we’re always choosing what we value, whether we know it or not. And our emotions will carry out those values through motivating our behavior in some way.

So in order to live the life you truly want to live, you have to first be clear about what you truly value because that’s where your emotional energy will be directed.

And knowing what you truly value—not just what you say you value—is probably the most emotionally intelligent skill you can develop.

Footnotes

  1. The framework for “emotional intelligence” was first presented in this seminal 1990 paper by the same name.
  2. Some psychologists say that EQ is more important than IQ, like Daniel Goleman in his seminal 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it Matters More than IQ. I take issue with this view because EQ is incredibly difficult to measure, unlike IQ, plus it’s far easier to change, which is why we’re all here. For more on the difficulties of measuring EQ, see: Maul, A. (2012). The Validity of the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) as a Measure of Emotional Intelligence. Emotion Review, 4, 394–402.
  3. Petrides, K. V., Frederickson, N., & Furnham, A. (2004). The role of trait emotional intelligence in academic performance and deviant behavior at school. Personality and Individual Differences, 36(2), 277–293.
  4. Romanelli, F., Cain, J., & Smith, K. M. (2006). Emotional Intelligence as a Predictor of Academic and/or Professional Success. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 70(3).
  5. McFarland, R. G., Rode, J. C., & Shervani, T. A. (2016). A contingency model of emotional intelligence in professional selling. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 44(1), 108–118.
  6. Carmeli, A. (2003). The relationship between emotional intelligence and work attitudes, behavior and outcomes: An examination among senior managers. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 18(8), 788–813.
  7. Bouzguenda, K. (2018). Emotional intelligence and financial decision making: Are we talking about a paradigmatic shift or a change in practices? Research in International Business and Finance, 44, 273–284.
  8. Engelberg, E., & Sjöberg, L. (2006). Money Attitudes and Emotional Intelligence. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36(8), 2027–2047.
  9. Schutte, N. S., Malouff, J. M., Bobik, C., Coston, T. D., Greeson, C., Jedlicka, C., Rhodes, E., & Wendorf, G. (2001). Emotional Intelligence and Interpersonal Relations. The Journal of Social Psychology, 141(4), 523–536.
  10. Palmer, B., Donaldson, C., & Stough, C. (2002). Emotional intelligence and life satisfaction. Personality and Individual Differences, 33(7), 1091–1100.
  11. Schutte, N. S., Malouff, J. M., Thorsteinsson, E. B., Bhullar, N., & Rooke, S. E. (2007). A meta-analytic investigation of the relationship between emotional intelligence and health. Personality and Individual Differences, 42(6), 921–933.
  12. Tsaousis, I., & Nikolaou, I. (2005). Exploring the relationship of emotional intelligence with physical and psychological health functioning. Stress and Health, 21(2), 77–86.
  13. Gendolla, G. H. E. (2000). On the Impact of Mood on Behavior: An Integrative Theory and a Review. Review of General Psychology, 4(4), 378–408.
  14. Bagozzi, R.P., Baumgartner, H., Pieters, R. & Zeelenberg, M. (2000). The role of emotions in goal-directed behavior. In S. Ratneshwar, D. G. Mick & C. Huffman (Eds.), The Why of Consumption (pp. 36–58). Routledge Publishing.
  15. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalhi coined the term “flow” to describe this state. He also wrote a book about it.
  16. The effect of empathy has been documented in both everyday and romantic relationships.
  17. Curiously, it’s almost always about kids’ future as adults and rarely about helping them to just be kids.
  18. I wrote another article about how Hitler was actually an incredibly motivated man who understood emotions better than the vast majority of people, but he obviously had terrible values. Of course, some people misconstrued that and called me a Nazi because… this is the internet. And when you think about it, the internet is basically just a reflection of our collective emotional unintelligence—or immaturity—at the moment. But I digress.