I’ve been reading Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. It’s considered an essential work on the subject, and I’m getting a lot out of it. But after detailing the staggering hours children need to fit into honing a craft like sports or music (and he acknowledges you really do have to start in childhood because the competition is that fierce), he says:
What seems to set apart those at the very top of competitive pursuits from others of roughly equal ability is the degree to which, beginning early in life, they can pursue an arduous practice routine for years and years. And that doggedness depends on emotional traits — enthusiasm and persistence in the face of setbacks — above all else.
This forces me to doubt Goleman’s emotional intelligence. In fact, this is exactly the sort of Unexamined Privilege Episode that always leads me to doubt experts can deliver advice that applies to the planet I live on.
Music is a remarkably expensive talent. Not only are instruments costly (unless you’re a singer), but so are the lessons. And if you’re a child musical prodigy growing up far from a major urban center, you’re extremely unlikely to have access to music teachers of the caliber you need to become Julliard material — at any price. You can have it in you to practice 10 hours a day and bounce back from every rejection with renewed determination, but doing it all with that air violin and that music book for first graders you found at the library isn’t going to cut it.
What always sets everybody apart from everybody else is primarily opportunity. It’s true that the optimism, determination and mental resilience associated with a high emotional IQ help you discern unapparent opportunities someone else in your situation might have missed. But nobody gets every opportunity in their lifetime; a high emotional IQ doesn’t magically cause expensive musical instruments and a great teacher to fall into your lap at the right price. When equal opportunities exist for two people, then and only then can you logically infer that the more successful one is the more able one.
Does Goldman think rural poor children are never musical prodigies? Or does he think there are government satellites watching over us all to make sure talented kids from the wrong side of the tracks get the opportunities they need? Or maybe he just thinks poor people are all so unrefined that their kids could only be talented at sports.
Goleman’s unexamined privilege serves as a fine example of why so many people assume those at the top got there through sheer ability and persistence, and those below them simply didn’t try hard enough. By ignoring the cost factors, they enable themselves to maintain the comfortable belief that every playing field is perfectly level.
Note that I’m not even arguing we need to level the playing field. I’d be very happy if, for a first step, we would just acknowledge as a society that it’s not level, and ability, talent, and persistence aren’t always automatically rewarded proportionately.