You can’t make yourself feel happy or sad, nor can you send away whatever feelings do have, however hard you try. So waiting to do something until you feel “in the mood,” or basing your choice of actions on how you feel at the time, is to hand over control of your life to the varying state of your stomach, the effect of the weather, or the dizzying gyrations of your love life. Forget about your emotions. They’re no sensible basis for living well or pursuing a successful career.
Emotions are like the weather
In much writing on life, careers and personal growth, there’s an unspoken assumption that how you feel is what matters most. There are books and coaching approaches devoted to persuading people to focus on what’s going on inside their heads. Our society and media are obsessed with sentiments and emotions, giving them far too much importance. Maybe it’s because they seem more “democratic” and egalitarian. After all, anyone can feel, rich or poor: no amount of wealth increases your ability to register emotion. And emotions are pretty much evenly spread amongst people, unlike intelligence, which typically favors a small number—especially if they also have the motivation (and resources) to get a good education.
It’s not unusual for people to admit that they aren’t as bright as others (though they probably hope, secretly, that you will contradict them). But no one admits to being insensitive, unfeeling, or unemotional these days. We used to admire those who kept their cool in the face of tragedy or triumph. Now celebrities, politicians, and business moguls line up to bare their emotions for the camera and sob on some chat-show host’s shoulder. Are they really so sensitive? Or is it all publicity—manufactured evidence of a “human touch” to offset the general perception of them as grasping, egotistic, and devious?
Here’s my viewpoint: Too much emphasis on emotion leaves you more or less helpless to influence your life.
You have little or no control over your emotions. You feel how you feel, whether it’s appropriate or not at the time. No one can stop emotions arising in the mind; nor can they produce them on demand. Like thoughts, emotions just happen. (Try it. Will yourself to feel happy or sad. It won’t work. You can pretend all you wish, but no genuine emotion will come as a result.) There’s no point congratulating yourself on some positive feeling; nor is there any benefit to be gained by suffering guilt for feelings that seem inappropriate or negative. In either case, you might as well pat yourself on the back when the sun shines and beat yourself up when it rains.
The only important facet of our emotions is whether we choose to act on them.
I may love the work I do or hate it, feel excited at the start of every day or sick at the sight of the office desk, but as long as these feelings stay in my head, they’re are irrelevant to anyone else. Whether I feel pessimistic or optimistic, the world has no interest—until I act on my emotions. It’s the action that matters. And if I try to excuse my actions or justify them because of my emotional state—as so many attorneys do when defending their clients—that is also irrelevant. So I felt angry when I split my neighbor’s head with an ax. So what? The only thing that matters is that I committed murder. Probably thousands, even millions, of people feel like splitting someone’s head with an ax every day. So long as they restrain themselves, that’s just fine.
A great deal of ink is spilled on the topic of motivation—most of it to little purpose. That’s because no distinction is made between the two meanings of the word: having a reason for acting in a particular way, and feeling some desire to do it. Incentive schemes, for example, provide employees with a reason for working hard. But they are powerless to cause people the desire to get the cash. That part of motivation—the feeling part—is entirely subjective: someone who is short of funds will be far more interested that someone who feels quite flush, though the factual incentive is the same. As people become more prosperous, it takes greater and greater monetary incentives to have any effect at all. It’s too easy to look at the cash on offer and decide that having more time with the family, an easier life, or just an extra hour in bed is worth rather more.
In motivation, as in everything else, what matters is what you do. Since we are none of us compelled to act on our feelings, how we feel—positive or negative, ambitious or easy-going, avaricious or content—isn’t too important in itself. It doesn’t justify a bad action or lessen a good one, since we aren’t responsible for how we feel. Yet we are, all of us, totally responsible for our actions in this life, whether we like it or not. We can’t blame our parents for what we do, only for what they did in either setting us off on a good track or handing us a lousy background and crummy values. Even then, we don’t have to emulate them. It’s always down to us.
Spend time on what works
Don’t waste time and effort on navel-gazing and trying to control what is uncontrollable. It’s mostly a worthless substitute for sensible action. So long as people feel they’re doing something useful while they catalogue their emotions, they’ll remain stuck in introspection and blocked from the only useful thing to do: to take action to try to solve their problems in the real world. Don’t worry about how you feel. Work out what you need to do next and do it.
There are plenty of excellent reasons for getting on with life as best we can. By amassing sufficient reasons for proceeding in a particular way, you can give yourself both a path to follow and the motivation (in the sense of “a reason for acting in a particular way”) to follow it. And since reasons are based on thought, analysis, judgment, and reflection, time spent on all of those activities is time well spent. Your emotions have almost no part in this. It’s very nice if you also feel attracted to the way forward that you have chosen, but it should never be necessary for taking action. No one who has ever succeeded in this world did what they did only when they felt like it.
Right living is seeing what needs to be done and then doing it, regardless of how you feel about it at the time. Forget how you feel. Concentrate purely on what needs to be done. Unless you do, nothing else will change—not even how you feel about your life and career.
- Orchestral Maneuvers
- Active Acceptance
- Action…or Reaction?
- Reality’s Reminders
- Don’t Force It
- Constructive Living Basics
Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. His new book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life.
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