Wham! My whole body was jolted out of a casual car ride down a dusty I-25 exit ramp in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I had been hit by an inattentive driver; pushed forward as glass lay shattered next to crumpled car parts. What I was hoping would be a short trip from a business meeting to the home I was to stay in that night now became hours of talking with the other driver, insurance companies, and tow trucks.
After weeks of wrangling with the insurance company, we settled on a plan and I reclaimed my car in order to repair it. But once it came back from the mechanic there was one daily reminder of what had happened. During the process, someone who handled my car had stuck an ID number on the inside of my windshield. When I took it off, there was a strip of adhesive that remained after the card was removed. That silly strip of adhesive came to represent all the fears, doubts and frustrations I faced since the accident. Every time I looked at it, I remembered what had happened. That small bit of plastic on my windshield absorbed the fears, frustrations and worries.
But rather than simply take some warm water and a rag to this little strip, it stayed there . . . day after day . . . for 2 years! I can’t fully explain why, and that is the point. Emotions get attached to all kinds of things in our lives and most of the time we barely notice. All I knew was that it became a symbol of what had happened in the accident.
Well, two days ago I was wiping down the inside of my car on a clear Colorado summer day. As I was detailing the inside, I looked up at the adhesive still holding my fear and frustration tightly in its place and I thought, “Why not see how hard it is to remove?” Within three minutes it was all off and the window shed any remembrance of the event two years ago.
That sticky substance had been a barrier to how I saw and treated my car for 2 years, and within 3 minutes it was dealt with. I was baffled . . . a bit ashamed and all I could do was shake my head. “I’m an entrepreneur working on daring and difficult projects that are addressing challenging problems in our world, and I get tripped up over a strip of adhesive?”
While it seems ludicrous and a bit silly, I tell this story because I think it is much more common than most of us care to admit. As innovators we take upon ourselves the challenge of tackling complex issues with creative new solutions. But sometimes in the middle of these challenging opportunities we get stuck. And what holds us back is not a multinational contract or a tricky technological challenge. It is our own fears and emotions that are tied to random and ordinary things.
Our emotions trick us into creating a barrier that keeps us from addressing the challenge in front of us. At this moment we don’t need more venture capital, new staff or fresh ideas. What we need is emotional intelligence. That intelligence that allows us to perceive our emotional state (and that of others) and negotiate with it as we go about our work.
Mastering emotional intelligence is key for solving big problems. James Hayton and Gabriella Cacciotti in their Harvard Business Review article on the fears that entrepreneurs face, describe it this way, “Emotional self-awareness is a skill that can be learned, and it involves becoming aware of the signs of emotions intruding upon consciousness through feelings and moods, anticipating their impact on thoughts, and using this awareness to limit their effects on decision and action. Practicing self-awareness can help curb the potent influences of negative emotions on goal setting and decision making.”
Like James’ and Gabriella’s article, we are seeing a flood of resources, infographics and quotes that focus on Emotional Intelligence on our social media feeds and in major publications. It is the hot new skill that everyone is figuring out how to master. But I want to draw your attention to a single phrase in the quote above; “self-awareness.”
You can be head-smart about emotional issues. You might master the psychological nuances of different relationships and understand all the latest lingo related to how emotions impact work, but if you are not self-aware, little good will come from all that knowledge.
Emotions are as personal as they are intangible. You can’t put them on the table literally and dissect them for greater understanding. Instead emotions are part of who you are as a person. They are the reason you smile one minute and grimace the next. They make you feel like you are on top of the world only to let you free fall into the abyss. You can’t master your emotions if you aren’t aware of how you are feeling and why.
As an entrepreneur, you might wake up one morning ready to conquer the world; nothing can keep you down. The next day you are dragging and wondering where your enthusiasm has gone. The reasons for these various emotions will be a complicated mix of circumstances, health, exercise, diet, and on and on. The only way to be self-aware with something this complicated is to always be alert and analyzing these factors and how they intersect.
But the average innovator who is running at breakneck speed through life doesn’t have time for that kind of reflection. Instead, we try to push through our emotions with sheer willpower or we medicate with substances or experiences that can give us emotional highs and hide the lows.
However, shortcutting our emotions seldom works. It simply delays the reckoning we will have one day when we are forced to stop and understand what we are feeling and why. Instead of allowing mismanagement of emotional self-awareness destroy your entrepreneurial efforts, I would like to suggest a different approach.
As busy people with full schedules you may not be able to stop daily and spend significant time addressing the emotional dynamics in your life. But you can take a hint. Just like the glue on my window was a hint of a hidden barrier that kept me from fully recovering from my accident, you get hints about significant emotional issues every day; most of which you choose to ignore.
Instead of ignoring them, why don’t you accept the hint and tackle what it is bringing to your attention. Next time you see something in your life that is emotionally binding you up and keeping you from moving forward, consider stopping and asking yourself these questions:
- What just made me stop and why did it trigger such an emotional response?
- What is behind the emotion I just felt? Is there a deeper issue that this emotion is highlighting that I need to understand if I am to move forward?
- How is this emotion forming a barrier that is keeping me from pursuing my dream?
- Who could I talk with about this emotional issue that can help me process it and see the real issue more clearly?
- Once I understand the emotion and what is behind it, am I brave enough to come up with a game plan and address it head on?
Being smart about our emotions allows us to see the invisible things that are tripping us up and keeping us from being able to pursue our dreams with excellence and clarity. The sooner we start paying attention and addressing them, the sooner the real issues will be in our rear-view mirror instead of stuck to the glass in front of us.