> Skip to content

Article  •  5 September 2019

 

Touchy subjects

In The School of Life Alain de Botton explores a skillset essential to our modern lives.

Drawing on his work in the hugely successful School of Life organisation, in The School of Life Alain de Botton presents a compendium of emotional intelligence. It’s a term bandied around extensively these days, but before we go any further it’s worth asking, what does ‘emotional intelligence’ even mean? Can it be taught? And why is it important?

‘[It] is distinctive just how selective we are about the topics we deem it possible to educate ourselves in,’ de Botton writes in the book’s introduction. ‘Our energies are overwhelmingly directed towards material, scientific and technical subjects – and away from psychological and emotional ones. Much anxiety surrounds the question of how good the next generation will be at maths; very little around their abilities at marriage or kindness. We devote inordinate hours to learning about tectonic plates and cloud formations, and relatively few fathoming shame and rage.’

The School of Life is what de Botton describes as a ‘modest attempt to try to save us a bit of time’, in transmitting the emotional wisdom we require to successfully navigate life. In the passage below, he introduces the concept of emotional intelligence, and touches on the weightiness of the ultimate ‘soft’ skill of the twenty-first century.

Emotional intelligence remains a peculiar-sounding term, because we are wedded to thinking of intelligence as a unitary capacity, rather than what it actually is: a catch-all word for what is in fact a range of skills directed at a number of different challenges. There is mathematical intelligence and culinary intelligence, intelligence around literature and intelligence towards animals. What is certain is that there is no such thing as an intelligent person per se – and probably no entirely dumb one either. We are all astonishingly capable of messing up our lives, whatever the prestige of our university degrees, and are never beyond making a sincere contribution, however unorthodox our qualifications.

When we speak of emotional intelligence, we are alluding – in a humanistic rather than scientific way – to whether someone understands key components of emotional functioning. We are referring to their ability to introspect and communicate, to read the moods of others, to relate with patience, charity and imagination to the less edifying moments of those around them. The emotionally intelligent person knows that love is a skill, not a feeling, and will require trust, vulnerability, generosity, humour, sexual understanding and selective resignation. The emotionally intelligent person awards themselves the time to determine what gives their working life meaning and has the confidence and tenacity to try to find an accommodation between their inner priorities and the demands of the world. The emotionally intelligent person knows how to hope and be grateful, while remaining steadfast before the essentially tragic structure of existence. The emotionally intelligent person knows that they will only ever be mentally healthy in a few areas and at certain moments, but is committed to fathoming their inadequacies and warning others of them in good time, with apology and charm.

Sustained shortfalls in emotional intelligence are, sadly, no minor matter. There are few catastrophes, in our own lives or in those of nations, that do not ultimately have their origins in emotional ignorance.

 


The School of Life The School of Life, Alain De Botton

The essential guide to surviving modern life - a crash course in emotional maturity from the bestselling author of The Consolations of Philosophy

Buy now
Buy now

More features

See all
Article
Ten commandments of tech

How to Raise Happy and Successful Children author Esther Wojcicki outlines how your kids can write their own rules around screen time.

Article
See, face, replace

From Fear Less, psychologist Pippa Grange offers a process for identifying your fears.

Article
Fake. It. ’Til. You. Make. It.

From The Space Between: 29 things we wish we could have told ourselves on the final day of university.

Article
Ordinary endurance

In Any Ordinary Day, Leigh Sales reflects on the toolkits we assemble to help us navigate life’s greatest challenges.

Article
Three tiny exercises

The world’s leading expert on habit formation shows you how to build a better life, by starting small.

Article
Year 12 support tips

From Surviving Year 12, three parenting tips to help you help your kids.

Article
Don’t look down

From The Resilience Project, four simple strategies to reclaim your attention and look up.

Article
Eternal advice for modern lives

Need a little help navigating the pitfalls of modern living? There are philosophers for that.

Article
Let’s go to bed

From Use It or Lose It, Paul McIntyre details the benefits of sleep.

Book clubs
Untamed book club notes

Take your book club on a journey of self-discovery, with Glennon Doyle’s famed Untamed.

Book clubs
21 Lessons for the 21st Century book club notes

Challenge your reading group to consider the biggest questions of our times.

Book clubs
Sapiens book club notes

Take your reading group on a journey of self-discovery.

Looking for more articles?

See all articles