“So, Michael, let’s discuss the preview day guest activities that you were leading. How do you think those went?” As I sat with Michael for his bi-weekly 1:1 student coaching session, I could see his mental wheels turning. He wasn’t happy. As a college student who had enrolled at a “working campus” college, Michael was the leader of his student work crew whose purpose was to provide top-notch hospitality for all campus guests.

“Well,” he mumbled, “I’m kind of disappointed. I thought it would go a lot better than it actually did.”

I asked for more concrete evidence. “Can you give me an example or two?”

Michael proceeded to give me three or four examples of how things just didn’t go the way he had envisioned when he and his team had been preparing for the guest event, and how he was surprised by that fact. I took the opportunity to press in a bit. “You know, Michael, the last time we debriefed an event you led, your analysis was very similar. You came away disappointed by the results that time as well, in addition to expressing surprise by a few things that happened that you didn’t anticipate.”

At that point, I simply paused to see how he would react.

Michael leaned back in his swivel chair, and, with a look of half shock and half relief, sighed as he simultaneously exclaimed, “That’s exactly right! I think this is a life pattern!

“Whoa…what do you mean?” I asked, somewhat caught off guard by his sudden burst of enthusiasm.

“I am constantly overly-positive about how things are going to go in the planning stage.” I urged him to elaborate. “Well, now that I think about it, I think I’m so attuned to exciting opportunities and how things will be better if they work out. I’m much less aware of my own limitations and how things could go wrong. Now that I’m talking it out, I see that this is true in my academic work as well.”

“How so?” I asked.

“I’m not asking enough “what if” questions. For example, what if the college library has insufficient sources on the super specific topic I’ve chosen to research for my end-of-semester project? If I haven’t crafted a plan B—and I never have a plan B—then I end up surprised that I can’t pursue the topic I’m so excited about, and then I go through the disappointment that comes as a result of not allowing any margin for less-than-perfect circumstances.”

“Seems to me like you’re a pretty optimistic guy in general,” I observed.

“That’s very true,” Michael agreed. “But I’m seeing the need to balance my overly-optimistic perspective with improved reality testing.”

“Michael, has anyone ever noticed this pattern in your life before now?”

He thought for a moment. Then, with another sudden burst of energy, exclaimed “Ah, yes! Now that I’m thinking about it, all through my high school years my dad would often observe out loud to me about how I was constantly trying to take on too much, that I was too ambitious for my own good. He would say things like ‘sometimes less is more,’ and stuff like that. I guess only now I’m beginning to understand what he meant.”

At this point, you as the reader may be thinking, “this dialogue is interesting enough, but what’s the point?” Simply this: my conversation with Michael is a real-world example of the kind of learning that ought to take place as part of a quality college experience. No, this isn’t an example of cognitive growth that begins in the classroom.

Rather, it is emotional intelligence growth that can happen only through key life and leadership activities and intentional coaching with someone who asks good questions about what you’re learning through those experiences.

But wait…emotional intelligence? What’s that?

Psychologist Daniel Goleman is arguably the world’s foremost guru on emotional intelligence theory and practice today.He defines emotional intelligence as “the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.” Emotional intelligence as an area of research and practice has grown tremendously since the 1990’s, and it has highly valuable applications for college students and their parents. Stress tolerance, flexibility, emotional self-awareness, impulse control, and empathy are other facets of emotional intelligence that are key to a successful college experience and in one’s early career. In fact, research has shown that emotional intelligence matters at least as much as cognitive intelligence when it comes to long-term career success and leadership opportunities. It is also super important for parents to take stock of their own emotional intelligence as they launch their kids into college, as the college transition itself has a way of bringing new expectations and family dynamics into play.

In Michael’s case, he was living a pattern of very high optimism and significantly lower reality testing. “Reality testing” simply means the degree to which someone can step back from a situation he or she is personally involved with and “test reality,” or see the situation for what it really is. For Michael, his life pattern was one where he was almost always assuming that his plans would work out just as he had envisioned, but then being forever surprised when they didn’t go so well. He couldn’t see the pattern for what it was until he leaned in to my questions in our coaching session—and really sought to understand himself better.

In upcoming posts, we will delve further into this concept of emotional intelligence. Specifically, I will show how it is a biblical concept when it is used well, and how Christ-followers can apply it practically in their lives. Additionally, I will pull back the curtain a bit on the Impact 360 Gap Year and share how we use a gold-standard emotional intelligence assessment as a part of our program’s coaching model for 18-20 year-olds.