Building up your emotional capital

Is there such a thing as emotional capital? Like, can you collect certain experiences as a war chest and use them wisely? Can one apply an investment portfolio approach to one’s life experiences? Some say you can. And I want to explore the subject with you. You can also read here, here, and here.

How do we define our emotional capital?

This is not something we can actually count… As an exercise, I suggest visualizing people in extreme positions in life that need what all of us need, only more so. These people will often be very talented and accomplished, which only increases the challenges they would take. Who are those people?

Survival experts, political prisoners, entrepreneurs, scientists, artists… People with a large set of skills will eventually challenge their emotional skills too. They need the emotional capital often more than the rest of us. So let us imagine different people in different situations, and try to project their needs on our own.

What would you take to a remote island?

If you could take one thing with you to a deserted island, what would that be? Survival experts say a knife. Then come a fishing net, a huge box of matches, a hammock. If they run wild they add a satellite phone, a bottle of bug spray, or sunblock.

But then something changes. People start talking about mental needs. A book. A family photo. A partner. Kids are more creative. For example, they talk about the first aid or survival guidebook.

These tools will help you survive. But if you really want to improve your chance take the right attitude. Learn the techniques you need. Understand the dangers and opportunities you face. Get some experience. Or ask for a really experienced partner with you on that island.  That will fix all of your issues.

The challenges that we face

To be honest, different places present different challenges. Even something like COVID 19 applied very heterogenous pressures. Some places worked as if nothing happened and people were dying. Other places stopped everything when there were very few sick people.

These are very different challenges everywhere. Some places have very specific people who look and think alike, with bad weather. People need to learn how to entertain themselves in utter boredom or loneliness. In Israel, we have missile attacks, terror actions, holy sites for at least four major religions, with representatives of all religions I know. But we have great weather and it is never boring and never lonely.

Do we need the same emotional capital to survive everywhere? Are our emotional tools as multifunctional as a swiss knife, or as specific as a huge box of matches?

Mental must-haves

Now, it is easy to think of exceptions. People in some sort of monastic tradition or in incarceration sitting in a cave and eating charity food without anything else. Notice that these needs may have a visualized satisfaction – not necessarily a real one.

There are things that are so critical we do not even think about them.

  1. Routine, routine, and routine. This builds our confidence and the way we perceive our existence. If we cannot have any reasonable routine, we start losing our mental grounding and physical shape.
  2. A strong life philosophy that cannot be broken. Maybe a religion, or a personal code, or a set of values and character strengths. You can lose money or position, but not your moral compass.
  3. Always have loved ones in your life whom you feel you can trust and confide in. Even on an island. The more isolated jobs and life positions often increase risk: pose larger challenges, and also often allow larger rewards. But even then, the isolation is only relative to the more socially engaged positions.
  4. You need a reason, a strong sense of urgency, a calling, a drive. Does not have to be something huge. Strong curiosity, compassion, need for justice or sense of honor may be more than enough.
  5. Activity. We need to do things. Movement is life. Does not have to be physical, but activity nevertheless.



Before everything else, I think I value perspectives. The ability to look at the situation differently and suggest creative solutions is trainable. It requires collecting friends – real or imaginary – and learning to apply their perspective to life. The more friends we have, the more perspectives we can apply.

Here are some common options:

  1. Parents, mentors, authority figures. These are the first people we meet, and possibly the most important people for life. Even when they die, we can easily imagine what they will do or say.
  2. Friends and acquaintances.  Basically everybody we actually know well enough to visualize their perspectives.
  3. Times and places. Simply reading historical literature and watching national geographic, or traveling and learning local culture, we acquire very different approaches. In my writing, I often think about a primitive hunter.
  4. Non-fiction characters. Like entrepreneurs, presidents, scientists, philosophers, authors. Real people whom we saw in books and on TV, but never physically met. We kind of know their perspectives and biographies… I often ask myself what would Einstein do.
  5. Visualized people. We can visualize religious figures, fiction heroes, ourselves in the future. This is a strange and distorted way to generate extreme perspectives. It can be very effective. For example, the devil’s advocate is a very real perspective.

One of the reasons we learn history, travel, and read fiction books is this ensemble of perspectives.


Instead of a deserted island, consider building your own startup. It feels very similar: isolated, and you have to be self-sufficient. What skills would you need?

  1. Learning. Always. Market, technology, psychology – you name it.
  2. Organization skills. You will need to manage yourself and others. If you are not conscientious, your life and your work will be a mess.
  3. Mental resilience and positive self-talk. Bad things will happen. You will get more negative outcomes than positive ones. You will need to bounce back with extra energy and move forward.
  4. Hands-on skills. You may use experts for special things, but everything else you need to do yourself.
  5. Communication, collaboration, and mentoring. It is very hard to do something without mentors, partners, and followers.
  6. Unique advantage. Usually something in your personality and experience.

Nothing here is hard, but there are damn many skills you will need. Failure in one of those skills will increase your risk beyond reasonable as you will constantly rely on your partner’s backup.

Professional experience

What experience do we need to function effectively? Now, let us visualize the position of a university professor. It is all about the experience.

  1. Professional experience in the area of expertise. That one is very specific.
  2. Investment. Choosing were to focus the efforts to get the best return on investment. Cut the areas that do not produce results, and invest in the promising venues. Be disciplined and patient. You will heavily rely on what used to work before.
  3. Street smarts. Professors try to get huge budgets and compete for the best students. They visit each other to generate a common paradigm and increase influence. And they constantly need to explain what they do to people with zero knowledge of that specific expertise. All of these is the constant presence of competing paradigms and nasty people with tenure and academic freedom to say very strange things.
  4. Motivational activities. Let’s face it, most students get depressed. Typically their depression is justified. Yet they cannot stay depressed to be effective. They need to be revitalized one way or another.
  5. Effective habits and protocols. There are many ways of doing things. Some may cause nasty results. For example, everyone in biology should know how to stay clean, otherwise strange things will grow in your Petri dishes. Physicists tend to simulate on computers all of their formulas and experiments. Engineers test everything in their own environment before trusting anyone. These things come with experience when other things fail.

Personal experience

We are human beings before everything else. This part should not be ignored. Let us visualize an artist as a career of what it means to be human.

  1. Emotions and sensations. In a wide range. Can be acquired and experienced anywhere.
  2. Age-related experience. Some things happen only at a certain age. It is hard to imagine a serious artist who did not have the first love.
  3. Patriotic. Knowing very well your own very small corner of the universe – often as small as a city district, and if possible loving it.
  4. Traveling. Collecting different landscapes in a different light. Visiting festivals. Experiencing local food, clothes, and rituals.
  5. Relationships. Parents, friends, peers, mentors, spouses, kids… Each kind of relationship is profoundly different, and it packs a strong emotional charge.
  6. Mythology. Be it an imaginary story, a religion, or a part of history. All sorts of narratives contribute.
  7. Hobbies. All the different activities provide us with entertainment and new ways of doing things.
  8. Mindfulness. Being here and now, with all the senses.
  9. Transcendence. Many people get glimpses of something beyond the current reality. This is something very personal. I do not teach it. Compassion is somewhere between mindfulness and transcendence.

An artist or a storyteller will be inspired simply by being human.

Cognitive flexibility

Possibly the only “soft” skill everybody needs, is the ability to adapt to changing environments and learn. We use some of our present skills and acquire new skills. Our ideas change, and we become better suited for the new challenges we must face.

Yet, this is probably the hardest emotional skill to master, since it relies so much on everything else and on personality. Some people are early adaptors, naturally flexible.  Others need to fight themselves to accept a change. With age and without practice the cognitive flexibility is reduced just like a physical one. So if nothing really changes, maybe introduce a change artificially into your life.

Robinson Crusoe with his dog

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