Emotions worth spreading

I made it! Actually, WE made it! I’ve been honored to give the talk “The Power of Us” at TEDxBologna last Saturday, October 24. Everything went as expected: I wore a very cool mic, I had a clicker, my hands –surprisingly- did not sweat, and I thanked from the deepest of my heart my acting teacher. As well as my family, friends, and all the people who supported me along this journey. As expected, the hardest part was getting on that stage rather than being there. I didn’t cry, but I heard people blowing their nose. I felt the energy of those 500 people looking at me and listening to me, I heard their hearts beating at the rhythm of emotions.

I wanted to convey the feelings behind facts. I spoke about how it feels like building a company from scratch, about the trust that you need to make it. I talked about the courage it took me to take hard decisions in life or to go on a stage in front of hundreds of strangers and talk about my emotions and personal experiences. I spoke about discovering loneliness and the consequent fear of being alone that has always been my greatest fear since then. I talked about sorrow as well as about the generosity with which my grandfather held my hand through the excruciating path that we walked together to accept his death. The stories I told were not new ideas, on the contrary, they were common to many people. However, spreading those emotions, being there, together, in that very moment was what mattered.

When I decided to change my talk, as I mentioned in “The gift of a TED Talk” a couple of weeks ago, I did it for one simple reason: what I had before was a nice presentation full of tips and hints that I could give at any conference; what I needed was a TED Talk, “ideas worth spreading.” However, I wanted to spread more than ideas. In our fast world, most of the ideas can be found on the Internet, also the most recent and innovative ones. For instance, I could have talked about the company that I’m contributing to build, Opportunity Network, but you can get all the info on our website, so why giving you a commercial? A TED event should be a place where you learn something you couldn’t get anywhere else. That’s why I chose to spread emotions.

I had people coming to me later hugging me, or looking at me in the eyes saying “thank you, I don’t have any other word, but thank you.” People wrote to me later to tell me about episodes of their lives that were similar to mine and where their episodes lead them. This is the power of us: understanding that the energy that connects us through shared emotions can make us face bigger challenges, achieve better results, overcoming the hardest moments, together.

I also had one man complaining: he was disappointed because I didn’t teach any new content. So I asked him “what about emotions?” — and he said “on that you surely get ten out of ten.” I smiled at him and thanked him. I was very glad that he complained: this proved the fact that we need to focus on emotional education because people are not used to it.

Emotions are not taught at school. There is neither an “Emotion” class nor a “Thinking” class. I remember that sharing emotions at school was really discouraged. You could not cheer for a good mark or being disappointed for a bad one. You just had to accept whatever you’d take and wait until you were home to be happy or sad. I never cared too much about unwritten rules and I used to share my feelings very openly with my professors. Luckily my grades in real subjects always counterbalanced my “conduct grade” — constantly eight/ten for those who are familiar with the Italian system. School is not emotions-friendly.

More and more studies talk about the importance of EQ (Emotional Quotient) over IQ (Intelligence Quotient) for success and yet there is still not a structured approach to emotional education. Emotions have always been taken care of within the private sphere, mostly within the family-institution. Even men, who were discouraged to disclose their emotions within families because these were “a female thing,” were used to share emotions and feelings even more than women when they were in the army -and, alas, wars have been a constant component in the history of humanity until 1945 and until now for many non-Western countries. Other powerful institutions such as the Church or twentieth-century-like parties or unions taught to share common feelings or beliefs. Now that -quoting Woody Allen and the usual Nietzsche- “Marx and God are dead,” now that the Western world has lived in peace for the past 70 years, and adding the dramatic truth that families have been changing (nobody gets married anymore and, once people do, they most likely get divorced), sharing emotions has hardly been taken care of systematically.

I’ve been traveling recently and I watched on the plane the new Disney movie, Inside Out. I hate when people spoil movies so I won’t tell you much about it, apart that it’s explicitly focused on emotional education. Its message is tailored both to children and especially to parents-educators. It’s so different from the old Disney movies that we all watched growing up. They were all very similar and simple: when the protagonist was a girl, she had to be beautiful and generous so that a handsome prince would have married her; when the protagonist was a boy, he had to prove to be good-hearted and brave so that he would become prince (or king!) himself. I promise I won’t turn this piece into a feminist one, because the point here is simply that Walt Disney’s movies and the Grimm brothers’ tales mainly taught how to behave — like the Bible or a political manifesto. Emotions adorned the story, but were not the main focus. Guess, instead, who is the protagonist of Inside Out? Joy, who, together with her fellows Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger, fights to make the young Riley happy and helps her facing change in a positive way. Emotions. Thank you Pixar.

People are often scared of emotions. And even if they are not scared of emotions themselves, they are usually scared of sharing them and discovering those of other people. Now I live and work in New York City that, for somebody like me who doesn’t have her roots there, is extremely alienating. Alienating in the Latin sense of the term: that makes you a stranger. We use this as an excuse to avoid involvement, to not make an effort to understand the feelings of who is sitting or sleeping next to us. But what can we achieve with no togetherness?

Emotions are the key drivers of our behaviors and, therefore, for the improvement of organizations, society, and human relations in general. With our world changing fast and globally, alienation, the fear of emotions, and, ultimately, isolation and conflict will grow more and more rapidly. How do we stop this? How do we re-activate the power of us? Listening looks like a good first step. But sometimes people need a little push: dare asking them how they feel today. Then dare putting away your smartphone and listen to them. You might discover something new, maybe even about yourself.

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