I have a hypothesis that emotional intelligence is a function of imagination. In other words, your ability to imagine the future is what drives your decisions today. If your imagined future looks like a big foggy nothing, you might as well enjoy today because tomorrow is unknowable. But if you can vividly imagine your future under different scenarios, you’ll make hard choices today that will, you hope, get you to the future you imagine and want.
You probably saw a news item in which people were shown digitally aged pictures of themselves and asked how much money they were going to save for retirement. The people who saw older versions of themselves saved more. The digitally aged photos were like a substitute for imagination. So we have one data point that is consistent with the hypothesis that imagination is the key to emotional intelligence.
I had intense stomach aches for all of my waking hours during my childhood. I didn’t know it at the time, but my body doesn’t digest dairy or meat well, and I tended to have both of those things with every meal. I spent some part of almost every day doubled up in a fetal position. As an adult, I discovered that adjusting my diet was enough to eliminate my stomach problems. But during my childhood I would withdraw into my imagination to divert my thoughts from the pain. I’ve always wondered if all of that intense imagining made a permanent difference in my brain.
I can imagine the future so vividly that I was planning my retirement before I was out of grade school. That’s literally true. Thanks to my clearly imagined future it seemed easy to modify what I was doing on any given day to make my dreams come true in the future. Today we call that sort of discipline emotional intelligence. At the time it felt like nothing more than a vivid imagination. Perhaps imagination and emotional intelligence are closely related.
This is an important idea because emotional intelligence is highly correlated with success, and I would be surprised if it wasn’t a primary cause. So I wonder if imagination, like most other mental processes, can be improved with practice. If so, it would seem we have a direct lever for improving a person’s emotional intelligence.
If you know some teens, ask them what they see for their future. Some kids will give you a detailed roadmap of their future career plans. I believe those kids imagine their future somewhat vividly and have started their planning early. Other teens seem to have no imagination of their own future and they act recklessly today because they don’t see a compelling reason to plan for the unknown.
If imagination is the foundation of emotional intelligence, and emotional intelligence is the biggest factor in success, shouldn’t we be training kids to better imagine their futures?
I would think that generic imagination skills alone would not be enough; one needs to imagine oneself in the future. Schools could create assignments in which kids are asked to write stories about their lives in the future. Or they could be asked to draw themselves as adults with their own kids, jobs, and homes. I have a hunch that sort of exercise would make a difference.
If you subscribe to the superstition of “will power” you might believe emotional intelligence is something that you either have or you don’t. Perhaps you think the people who succeed have more of this magic thing called will power because they make hard choices today to improve their lives tomorrow. But will power is an illusion. People simply choose the path that looks best at the moment. And the moment is partly influenced by your imagined future. If you sharpen your imagination of your future, your preferences today might change, and to observers it will seem as though you have will power and emotional intelligence.
Perhaps the link between imagination and emotional intelligence is another reason role models are so important. A role model is a proxy for your imagination. It’s easier to imagine having the life of someone you know than it is to imagine your own unknowable future.
I’ve written quite a bit about something called affirmations, which is a process in which you imagine your own preferred future at least once a day, usually by writing down your objectives multiple times. If the process of imagining your future helps you make hard choices today, it will seem to observers as if you have lots of emotional intelligence.
Does your common sense tell you that vividly imagining your preferred future improves your emotional intelligence today? I give that hypothesis an 80% chance of being right. What odds do you put on it?
I write a length about affirmations in a chapter of my new book, due out October 22nd, titled How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life.