We cover emotional intelligence – how to assess, increase, and deploy it – a lot here on Inc.com. That makes sense. Both research and basic human decency suggest how we interact with others plays more of a role in achieving true success than nearly any other factor.
But all this advice can be overwhelming. How many tips, tricks, and inspirational quotes can one person remember, much less act on? Helpfully however, you don’t have to keep endless tidbits of wisdom straight. All you need to do, really, is remember one eight-word quote from Spotify CEO and self-made billionaire Daniel Ek.
Reminder: we’re all a mess.
Ek, a modest Swede from a working class background, is a fascinating character. A self-described average guy with “zero natural charisma” who claims not to be to be great at anything, he nonetheless built Spotify into a $50 billion public company. So it’s always worth paying attention when it gives an in-depth interview.
Which is why I perked up when author Tim Ferriss had him on his podcast recently. The whole conversation is worth a listen in full if you have the time, but my favorite part of the podcast came at the very end when Ferriss asks Ek a brilliant if unusual question: “if you had a billboard, metaphorically speaking, to get a message, a quote, a question, an image, anything out to billions of people, noncommercial, what might you put on that billboard?”
Ek offers an equally brilliant answer: “Be kind; everyone is on their own journey.” The message is neither long nor complicated, but that doesn’t stop it from being exactly what we need to hear, particularly in 2020 and particularly for those of us, Ek included, who lack ironclad self-confidence.
Of course it’s important in a pandemic to remind ourselves of the hidden suffering of others. But Ek reminds us that “successful” people are hiding complications and pain too. Ever modest he explains, “I constantly face people who I always find are smarter than me, deeper than me on various subjects and all of that stuff. But I think we’re all on journeys and we all have our own insecurities. We have all our own stuff that’s happening in our lives.”
Fear of inadequacy and sense of competition can lead to nastiness. To avoid that reaction, Ek reminds himself that the shiny exterior people present to the world is always only part of the story — everyone is on their own journey and you generally can’t see their struggles.
That reminder not only tamps down some of our most unpleasant impulses, it also boosts empathy, the central ingredient of exceptional emotional intelligence. “Just be mindful about that we’re all going through things has created a lot of empathy for me and created a lot of understanding for me as I meet coworkers, as I meet people out in society as well,” Ek says.
The secret to self-confidence is also the secret to empathy.
The brilliance of this simple quote isn’t the complexity of the message. We all know on some level that people’s lives are more complicated than they often appear and kindness is good. But we often forget.
Our tendency when confronted with other people is to compare our full messy selves, which we experience intimately, with fear-driven projections of their idealized lives. These comparisons, besides almost always being wildly inaccurate, make us feel bad about ourselves. They also close us off from true connection. You can’t make friends with someone’s Instagram self or understand their inner life from their carefully composed professional persona. Reminding ourselves of the messiness of others’ lives relieves us of the pressure of over simplified comparisons. Truly seeing this messiness fuels empathy.
So if you’re ever looking for advice on boosting your EQ just remember Ek’s deceptively simple billboard. If you remember that everyone out there is on their own journey, not only will you feel less weird, but other people will also instantly feel closer and more comprehensible.