“My first business failure was maybe just bad luck, but when I failed twice it really stung. I realized that there was something fundamentally wrong and I just had to figure out what it was in a hurry. I didn’t eat for two days. I just thought about it and thought about it. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. It was so obvious. I checked my astrological charts and realized that I had incorporated these businesses on inauspicious days. There’s no way they would have succeeded.”

Have you ever noticed the way quick reflexes depend on a combination of gross and fine motor skills? A toddler is about to knock over a vase. Your gross motor skills send you lurching across the room. By the time you reach the vase your fine motor skills are engaged. Your hand is precisely where it needs to be to stop the vase from crashing to the ground. If your fine motor skills hadn’t kicked in, your gross motor skills would have sent you flying right into the vase or worse, the toddler.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

There’s a parallel in emotional life worth noting and promoting. Emotions are skills, too, and in a way they also come in gross and fine varieties. Gross emotor skills provide the power surges that rivet our attention on some big problem. But to address the problem, fine emotor skills are better. Gross emotor skills focus us on what to fix. Fine emotor skills guide us on how to fix it. Using gross emotor skills to try to fix things often sends us crashing through to the
wrong solutions.

Emotions motivate our attention and problem solving abilities. They are our primary source of “the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and can’t change.” Positive emotions tell us, “this is working don’t change it.” Negative emotions tell us, “this isn’t working, try to fix it.” Once we fix it, our emotions signal satisfaction and we respond by turning our attention to other matters.

In general, the stronger the negative emotions, the more motivated we are to fix something. When we’re strongly dissatisfied, the desire for satisfaction becomes urgent. But that urgency can actually keep us from the fine-tuned work necessary to find the right way to fix things. Gross emotions can over-motivate.

Imagine the over-motivation this way: You’re playing tennis and fail to return the ball because you’re too far over in left-court. It makes you as angry as John McEnroe. You vow never to be fooled again, and gritting your teeth, you position yourself way over in right-court, where you miss another ball, this time because you were too far over in right-court. That makes you more furious. And you go stand way over in left-court again. The solution to these tennis woes is to do that deft little dance in center court. Waiting eagerly but not too eagerly. It’s fine to start out grossly motivated, but once motivated, the followthrough calls for fine emotor skills.

Within the past decade there have been three movements within psychology arguing that emotions are good guides. The emotional intelligence movement argues that emotions are at least as important as IQ in determining how well we do in life. Neurobiologist Antonio Demasio’s best seller ‘Descarte’s Error,’ and the movement it spawned argued that emotions are the very currency of rationality. Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, ‘Blink: The power of thinking without thinking,’ argues that our gut (emotional) responses are more accurate than we tend to realize.

These various celebrations of our emotions are one side of a perennial debate. The other side is represented by “get over it,” psychological movements. Cognitive therapy, for example emphasizes mind over matter solutions. Patients are taught that the best way to overcome distracting emotions is to “think new thoughts.” Dr. Laura, the AM Radio geophysicist-turned-therapist instructs her listeners to stop whining, and live by a moral code.

Both sides of the debate are half-right and the distinction between gross and fine emotor skills suggests an appropriate synthesis between the two schools of thought – one that doesn’t occur to either side of the debate when it becomes too emotional.

Emotions serve and get in the way. Specifically, emotions answer the question, “should I attend to and fix this?” Sometimes emotions answer Yes when the right answer is No. And sometimes they answer No when the right answer is Yes. The margin of error in our emotional system’s answer to that question is the source of much of the pain and cruel insensitivity in the world. The pain we experience when dealing with an incurable backache is a false alarm that the body can’t shut off – a wrong Yes answer to the question, “should I try to fix this?'”Conversely, cruel insensitivity is the same alarm failing to go off when it should, where we don’t attend to the hurt we are causing others, when we could fix it if we tried.

Since our attention is finite, concentrating our attention on one thing means not concentrating on others. Emotion therefore induces a kind of tunnel vision. The stronger the emotion, the narrower the focus.

One manifestation of this is the passionate advocate who has discovered a wrong in the world and concentrates on it to the exclusion of all other wrongs. Activists who are especially passionate (and na+»ve) often assume that their focus on a particular wrong makes them authorities on the world’s woes even as their passion causes them to ignore mountains of them. In their company we may feel torn, on the one hand admiring their focus and “fix it” attitude, and on the other hand, frustrated at the by their lack of perspective.

Without gross emotor skills we may not be sufficiently motivated to fix things. But without fine emotor skills we may not be able to do the delicate work necessary to fix things correctly. We need both gross and fine emotor skills, and we need them well coordinated.