Good-bye Adam Smith, Hello Emotional Intelligence by Annie McKee and Suzanne Rotondo
We have unprecedented power to touch one another today. Contagious emotions are fueled by social media—this means that like no other time in history our hopes, dreams, love, hatred, fear and compassion can spread around the world instantaneously. Things that happen far, far away touch us deeply and immediately. Think about your own life, what’s touched you lately?
Maybe you’re picturing the thousands of people who cried out for justice in Tahrir Square. Perhaps you’re remembering the Gulf of Mexico oil spill or, Muammar Gadaffi’s refusal to cede power. Maybe you’re thinking about what Osama bin Laden’s death means for you. You could also be thinking about what happened when the tsunami struck Japan: compassion burst forth from the hearts of millions. We are connected and it matters. We are one people.
But we sure don’t act like one people sometimes. Destructive emotions seem to drive us to hurt one another all the time: people fight and steal, betray and dominate. Some hold on to beliefs and values that put “us” above “them”.
And yet compassion and hope for a better world are part of our most basic and beautiful human nature. It’s time to ask ourselves why we don’t behave this way so much of the time.
Old Beliefs in a New World
Part of the reason we can fail to act on our emotional intelligence is that we are held hostage by theories that originated during the Age of Enlightenment more than three hundred years ago. Many ideas and values that emerged during the first Industrial Revolution elevated reason and logic far above other human capabilities. But is it reason alone that allows us to rise to every challenge, rally people around a cause and face the future with power, passion and a plan? It was certainly not reason alone that sparked the uprising in Egypt, the fight against apartheid, the American Revolution or the language guaranteeing us the right to the pursuit of happiness and freedom in the United States Constitution. When it comes to inspiring people and leading to a better future, it’s not reason alone that ignites the best in us—it is our own sense of noble purpose, our connections to others and an ability to read the moment and seize it—in short, it’s emotional intelligence.[i]
Another Enlightenment era belief puts “me” above “you” and “I” above “we.” Adam Smith is probably the best known philosopher of the era, and his positions on self interest, the free market economy and wealth accumulation are still the pillars upon which many of our institutions are built. Smith wrote
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, bur from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities of their advantages.[ii]
In fairness, Smith and many others believed that when people act in their own self interest, the larger community will ultimately be better off. There is likely some truth to this—the spread of capitalism is linked to a better quality of life, more access to education, clean running water, air travel that allow people to visit places they may never have been able to see in three lifetimes, and life-saving medical advances.
But do Enlightenment era beliefs deserve such a fundamental place in our societies today? Should we blindly assume that reason and self interest should be the primary drivers of decisions made at the highest levels of our institutions? It’s likely that if you ask anyone who lost a job or a home during the Great Recession, or the women of war-torn Congo, or political prisoners wasting away in Chinese and Iranian jails, or the people Bernie Madoff swindled, you’d hear a resounding chorus of people who believe that the Age of Reason and self-interest has a dark side and is hitting up against more and more severe limitations—left unchecked, our current value and beliefs around how we should behave could ultimately lead to our destruction.
And counter to so many of our cultural myths, it seems that it’s not self interest that motivates us first and most powerfully—it’s empathy. Our desire for connection, empathy and compassion are inherent in our very humanity because we are genetically programmed to care. Emotions affect how we think, how we behave, and how we connect with one another—it’s biological.[iii]
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