Emotions at work
I generally fall on the side of emotions being a contributor towards performance rather than an inhibitor of it. But that’s with a caveat. The emotions have to be part of the puzzle and sharpen the focus rather than being the whole of the puzzle and distracting from the focus.
There is no more charged moment of emotion than when someone sheds a tear. People shed tears of joy, tears of sorrow, tears for fears (sorry), tears for pain and even tears in empathy. In Euripedes’ play, The Trojan Women, he writes: “How good are the tears, how sweet the dirges, I would rather sing dirges than eat or drink.”
Clearly not all tears cry the same. In fact, there are three types of tears; basal tears, which keep the cornea of your eye lubricated, reflex tears, which wash out any foreign bodies or vapours in your eye, and psychic or emotional tears, those instigated by an emotional reaction. Biochemist William Frey discovered that while reflex tears are 98 per cent water, emotional tears contain stress hormones.
So tears have both a functional and emotional application. But it is when the emotional power of the moment is appropriately galvanised that they can contribute to improved performance.
Not that we may particularly appreciate all those “tearful” moments at the time. One of the most powerful moments of my life was the night my sister died from cancer. Carmel was 20 and I was 18. While there is nothing good about a 20-year-old dying of anything, something good came from that desperate time.
I remember her final moments as if they were yesterday, and I always will. With her last breath a tear rolled down her cheek. Sometimes a tear falls on the ground, forever forgotten, sometimes it nourishes a dream. Her single tear that night, in unison with our own rivers of tears, drove each member of my family in different ways. For many years I thought about it before every major challenge I faced or big match I played. My sister had a love of life and rich potential which was never realised. Here was I with an opportunity to live and to achieve. I owed it to her. I owed it to myself. Her death, while a waste, was not wasted.
It was a different type of tear that marked the independence of Singapore. At the press conference to formally announce the separation of Singapore from Malaysia on August 9, 1965, Lee Kwan Yew, the man credited with making Singapore the power it is today, cried as he lamented the reality of independence. An independence that at the time he neither desired nor saw as being the best thing for his nation. Lee’s tears were almost certainly not the reason for Singapore’s subsequent success, but they did have a galvanising effect on his people and are looked upon by many as a symbolic moment in the birth of their nation.
Sometimes tears don’t have an instant or obvious effect. My friend Paul’s earliest memory is from when he was six years old and his mother was crying because she couldn’t pay the rent. It wasn’t until he was about 10 that he better understood that she had been crying because they were poor and his mother despaired as she could barely afford to raise her children.
Reflecting as an adult, the memory of his mother’s tears drove his desire for independence. He was damn sure that he was not going to be financially reliant on anyone other than himself. His mantra became, “If this is a game that you win or lose I’m going to win it.”
Tears bear a very specific shape – a unique and beautiful shape that is instantly recognisable – so it’s almost poetic that the emotions generated from tears, when harnessed usefully, can shape our lives. They can give us self-insight or stimulate empathy for others. Whether you are a hulking male, a stoical mother or a vulnerable teenager, they are a valid emotion. Whether they were Carmel’s, mine or Lee Kwan Yew’s they can empower us to help define our future for the better.
What are the tears that have shaped your life, for the good and for the bad? I’d love to hear about them.