Contrary to our sincere hopes for ourselves and others, we humans are not rational creatures.
At times, this can be an infuriating reality to encounter.
We’re surrounded by evidence that people don’t act rationally: You were the best person for the job, but they hired the dropkick loser who interviewed after you. You loved them to bits, and you’re awesome, but they dumped you anyway. You know you’ll lose your job if you call in sick yet again, but you do it anyway. You had one paper left to finish your degree, but you just kind of forgot about it. Etcetera, etcetera, et-traumatic-cetera. Our real lives are messy, irrational places.
I don’t know where I got the idea that everybody (including me) is meant to act in a rational manner (although admittedly, it would be convenient, albeit boring). Nevertheless, the expectation seems to be there.
Whenever a person acts, as people do, based on irrational fear, love, greed, intolerance, attraction, selfishness, hope, or loneliness, I still manage to feel slightly surprised and confused (or totally enraged, every now and then). I bought into the general cultural expectation that people are (or really should be) rational, sensible, intelligent beings who make tidy, nice lives for themselves by acting in well-reasoned and thoughtful ways. You, too, have probably been infected with the (completely irrational) belief that human beings should be predictable, sensible, and logical creatures, ruled tidily by their left brains.
The truth is, we’re driven by emotions. Whether they’re right there on the surface, or hidden deep in the dark, secret recesses of our subconscious, these puppies are what control human behavior, for better or worse. Our rational brains may think they’re in charge, but our zig-zag lives tell the true story.
However, if we continue to believe that humans are rational creatures, not only will we be deeply disappointed in ourselves and others pretty much all the time, we also won’t be the best writers we can be.
To write well, we need to understand people — their neurotic motivations, needs, hopes, fears, and dreams — and speak to them as the emotional, irrational beings we all are. We need to be able to bring our whole selves to the page, not just a few logical ideas. Releasing the expectation of rationality can make us kinder, more tolerant, and more insightful (or, if you want to go this way, much better at manipulating others — see: most of the advertising industry).
Comprehending this big wide world of motivations and behaviors outside of rational left-brain thought is sometimes called “emotional intelligence.” Psychology Today defines emotional intelligence as “the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.”
However, emotional intelligence doesn’t just mean to know more about the emotions — that’s just more thinking. It means to actually feel more — more empathy for others, more insight into ourselves and our motivations, more connection with our bodies, and more intuitive ability to be clear, kind, non-reactive, and spontaneous. It means tapping into the natural intelligence that all animals have: A tree knows how to grow into a tree, a cat knows how to be a cat, and buried under all our great-and-not-so-great concepts, we know how to connect and communicate in profoundly intelligent ways. It means understanding ourselves and others through feeling.
Emotional intelligence isn’t something we learn — it’s actually something that’s already there, which we uncover by connecting with our bodies and developing the courage to feel more. It’s about connecting human to human, rather than brain to brain.
For many years, intelligence quotient (IQ — brain intelligence) was seen as the be-all and end-all of intelligence. However, this assumption could never deal with the messy reality of real people, and researchers were consistently confused by how those with average IQs outperform those with high IQs 70 percent of the time.
The answer to this puzzle is emotional intelligence, which is increasingly valued in workplaces as the key to productivity and happiness. Our ability to understand ourselves and others through feeling, and respond in kind, non-reactive, and wise ways, is now seen as the critical factor in both career success and overall life satisfaction. In fact, researcher Daniel Goleman has found a direct relationship between the emotional intelligence of a company’s staff and the company’s success.
Emotional intelligence is what allows us to connect with others.
Our intuitive insight into other people and ourselves is what makes it possible to really move people, rather than just inform them. It’s what makes us more than just fact-conduits or bundles of reactivity.
Sounds useful for us as writers, right? (And as humans, but let’s narrow this down a little.)
Let’s consider the practicalities of how emotional intelligence might be relevant to us in our word craft.
Because we’ve been sold this myth that people are rational, and that IQ is king, we tend to limit our definition of “intelligence” to merely left-brain thinking. As a result, we may feel we have to write rational, sensibly argued pieces, with an invisible, emotionless author, in order to be perceived as intelligent or legitimate. Basically, a left-brain hemisphere with a keyboard attached.
The problem is, although such rationality is really useful for problem-solving, making spaceships that fly straight, designing computer software, not eating rat poison, etc., it’s not actually the whole picture of our intelligence.
Brain scientists now recognize that the mind is far more than just what’s inside our head. Professor Dan Siegel of UCLA School of Medicine (dude wrote Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human) defines mind as, “the emergent self-organizing process, both embodied and relational.” To rephrase in normal-person language, mind includes not just thoughts, but all our experiences, feelings, and interactions. It is an embodied and relational intelligence. Siegel emphasizes that “the mind is not just brain activity.”
What this means is writing that appeals only to our rational minds, written from our rational minds, is going to be kind of useful sometimes, but ultimately pretty darn boring.
Overly rational writing just doesn’t touch the depth of possibilities that we live as embodied, emotional beings.
Let me give you an example. I used to work for a youth climate change organization that was pulling together a big nationwide speaking tour. We were given a bunch of money to host top scientists and famous speakers at each location, and publicize the event widely. I was in charge of media, design, and publicity. We brainstormed as a team, and decided that to create action, we needed to “move” people — touch their emotions. We needed to cut through the numbers and speak human to human.
Vision in place, we made a beautiful series of posters featuring young people talking about their raw hopes and fears for life in a warming world. It struck me, while interviewing people, how eager they were to present their opinions and knowledge, and how it took a while chatting until they relaxed enough to share some more vulnerable, real, and heartfelt feelings — in other words, themselves.
But once they did (and not everyone could, by the way), boy, was it engaging! It was copywriting gold, because it was unique and real.
We ran a massive poster series that was hugely successful, and I turned up to the first evening full of excitement for a whole new approach to communicating science: a radical blend of facts and real emotions. We were going to risk being labelled as “silly,” “hysterical,” “girly,” “irrational,” and all the other gendered insults people use to discriminate against emotional intelligence and pretend to be reasonable robots.
The first speaker stepped up to the podium, clicked his slideshow remote … and the screen filled with graphs, which he then explained for an hour. My heart sank.
The vision hadn’t come through. The desire to appear rational/legitimate had won out, and as that evening and every other one unfolded, I saw that all the speakers were singing from the same songbook: the one that hopes people are rational creatures who act based on facts. It’s a sweet delusion.
As a result, they didn’t share anything of themselves, they didn’t move the crowd, and they didn’t make use of what Mark Antony, in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, calls “The power of speech / To stir men’s blood.” And everyone, bar a few enthusiasts, was incredibly bored.
I questioned my reaction. I cried. Was I just another over-emotional female, as I was informed? Was it true that there was no place for emotion and the personal in public discussions and professional campaigns? Did you really have to pretend not to exist to properly communicate?
My intuitions told me otherwise, and the extremely low conversion to action confirmed that I was right. The rest of the audience hadn’t been moved, either.
That’s the crunch.
Any kind of communication that pretends not to come from a real, feeling, irrational human is going to be boring. And when people are bored (or even half-heartedly entertained), they don’t respond.
As writers, we need to feel, we need to legitimize feeling, we need to be out and proud about being complex, irrational beings, and we need to connect with others on the basis that they aren’t just brains with keyboards, either.
This is how we connect with actual people, in ways that are persuasive, compelling, real, and transformational. Connection happens through emotion, because we are emotional beings.
Most of us won’t be glued to the pages of the dictionary, tears falling on the page as we read with riveted attention what the origins of the word “plebiscite” are. (I do love to read the dictionary, but that’s another story.) We don’t usually write fan mail to the author of the instructional brochure guiding us through how to assemble our new filing cabinet (Thank you so much for the raw, real, down-to-earth way you shared filing cabinet assembly techniques. It really spoke to me and unlocked parts of me that I hadn’t had any words for. Thank you, thank you, thank you). Most of us don’t queue outside the bookstore waiting for the latest governmental report on workplace safety management.
A defense of emotion doesn’t mean a preference for endless navel-gazing blog posts about our exes over intelligent political analysis and insightful advice: “Feeling” doesn’t have to automatically stem from narcissism. (Did you hear that, blogosphere?)
I think rather of accoladed writers like Rebecca Solnit, who uses her great compassionate response to current affairs and culture to craft fiercely intelligent, well-informed, articulate, and moving writing. Her response to the recent news about Harvey Weinstein is an excellent case in point. This is the mind working as the servant of an actual, empathetic, real human who feels stuff. She isn’t an invisible hack, her humanity quietly withering behind a façade of impartiality.
The brain must work as a servant to the whole person that you are. You have to expose yourself. Otherwise, you’re not really a writer. You’re just a person filling the world with more faux-rational words.
No matter what kind of effects you’re aiming for through your writing, you need to move people. Every good advertiser and marketer knows this. Rational information alone doesn’t touch people at the depth they need to be touched if you want to induce action (as we found in the speaking tour example above). Connection alone creates movement, action, and change. So how do we practice emotional intelligence, in order to connect, human to human?
Firstly, don’t despair if you’re a very left-brain, conceptual kind of person. I put myself into this box for many years, assuming that because I was geeky and smart, I wasn’t (and would never be) good at “people” and feeling. However, whether you’re smart or dumb has no correlation with your emotional intelligence. You can be walled off in a complex conceptual world or a rather simplistic one — it makes no difference. I had to drop my ideas about myself and admit that I wasn’t “fixed” and finished. The brain is just a tool that is wielded by the emotions — and in most of us, those go unexamined, because we’re trying so hard to be rational people.
However, and secondly, emotional intelligence is not another skill to learn. That’s because it’s not knowledge. We can’t learn it because it’s innate to us. It’s already there, underneath all our learned ideas, fears, and irrational reactions to things. We can, however, access more of our emotional intelligence, simply by becoming aware of these ideas, fears, and reactions, and having the courage to let them go.
Everyone can kindle and reveal their emotional intelligence, no matter where they’re starting from. It’s not a fixed quality that we either have or don’t. To understand and speak to the irrational, messy reality in others, you just need to get in touch with the irrational, messy reality in yourself. It’s already there, creating all those feelings, thoughts, and chaotic scenarios we beat ourselves up about.
As John Steinbeck wrote in a 1938 journal entry, “Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.”
How do we do this? That’s no small question. In fact, it is the question. How do we act less like robots, and more like human beings? I can’t answer this for you, I’m afraid. There’s no easy bullet-pointed list that can magically break us free from the narrow confines of hyper-rationality.
But perhaps I can offer a few things that help me. Curiosity. Approaching myself like an anthropologist, wanting to understand rather than judge. Having the courage to feel. Bodywork that moves awareness into the body, like somatic meditation, yoga, and body-based therapy. Slowing down. Like really, slooooowing down. Hanging out with emotionally mature people. Taking a good hard look at addictions (we all have addictions: food, technology, thinking, alcohol, relationships, etc.) and considering how they’re used to avoid feeling. Taking life seriously, but not taking myself too seriously. Listening to the small, still voice that tells me the inconvenient changes I need to make in my life (that’s the emotional intelligence speaking, by the way). Putting down ideas on how life should be and taking a better look at how it actually is. Abandoning the myth of the “ideal person.” Being vulnerable. Sharing things that’ve been kept hidden in the shameful shadows, and thereby making someone else’s life less lonely. Trying not to lie to myself. And finally, giving up the (irrational!) expectation that people and their actions should be logical and predictable.
So, we’re not rational beings. Sadly.
But it’s not really sad. It’s news to rejoice about, because it means we can bring our whole selves to our work. We don’t need to learn everything, be the best expert in the world, or have three degrees before we can be a legitimate writer.
Good writing requires some knowledge, but knowledge is useful only when it’s a tool held in a living, breathing hand.
Who is wielding your tools? Is it a frightened person, trying to prove themselves? Is it an apologetic person, hesitant to commit to an opinion? Is it a numb person, not really sure what the hell is going on with them? Is it an angry person, trying to argue readers into submission?
We’re all emotional beings. We’ve all had a hundred thousand tiny tragedies and wonders in our lives. Feel those. Write them. Live as a real, messy person. Share yourself with yourself in all your glorious irrationality, and then share it with the rest of us.
It doesn’t matter whether you write blog posts on dogs or advice to new homeowners or literary fiction. Regardless, we can all help push back against the cult of narrow rationality we’re being terrorized by.
I’m being forced to let go of my expectations that humans should be rational creatures, and it’s making me a kinder person, a more emotionally intelligent person, a happier person, and a better writer.
Feeling more isn’t always easy, or tidy, but it is where all of life’s richness, creativity, and vitality are hanging out.
Rosalind Atkinson works as a freelance writer and editor. A great fan of an elegant sentence or a tasty word, she has authored academic pieces on William Blake, and articles for Greenpeace, elephant journal, Overland, and the Vessel Magazine, among others. She escaped academia with a Masters in English Literature, and has done time as a blogwriter, a research assistant, a baker, a costume illustrator for film, and a (kinda seasick) sailor around the Pacific and Subantarctic. She lives in a converted cowshed in the lush far north of New Zealand, where she writes, saves for an old-school printing press, and marvels at how clever and awesome nature is.