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The Secret Behind Richard Branson's Emotional Intelligence

Richard Branson felt like the dumbest kid in class.

When he looked at a blackboard, he just saw a jumble of words. Not understanding he had dyslexia, he felt school was hopeless and dropped out. It never dawned on him that he could be successful in life.

So he had to make do to survive. He tried and failed to sell Christmas trees. He tried and failed to sell pet birds.

One day, he launched a magazine (Student), which wasn’t a wild success either — but neither was it a complete failure. His work actually netted him an avid mailing list and community, which fueled his related and extremely successful mail-order record business, Virgin. Building on these resources, and after countless other ventures, he’s now a billionaire and philanthropist.

What does Richard say was most important to him? Journaling. “It may sound ridiculous, but my most important is to always carry a little notebook in your back pocket.”

He’s a firm advocate of reflecting and writing — and uncovered that his dyslexia was actually a source of immense creativity.

In a reflective letter, Richard urged his younger self to “find things that interest you... passion is what will keep you going when things get tough — and life is always full of challenges.”

Two things are clear from Richard’s story.

First, academic pedigree, while extremely helpful, isn’t a requirement for a meaningful life. If you can get great grades and useful training, do it. But if you don’t have those opportunities, Richard’s story makes clear your family or personal history is not destiny. (Separately, it also shows that we need better institutions to help all the folks like Richard who didn’t make it — Richard is an exception, not the rule).

Second, it shows the power of emotional intelligence. Richard is a rockstar there. He acknowledges his inner turmoil, reshapes them, and continues to grow — using a variety of tools to get there. (Separately, I acknowledge Richard isn’t perfect. Next to his impressive philanthropic initiatives, he’s been convicted of and jailed for tax evasion in his early days, and shelters billions in offshore trusts.)

In this post, I’ll share five tools from his story to improve our resilience and motivation, building off a recent workshop with Rock The Boat and Jess Song.

1) Understand why you should care about your core values.

As Richard identified, cultivating interest and passion helped him keep going, despite his failures. This “core value” was a fundamental belief that drove his behavior. It’s general enough to serve as a compass. But it’s not too specific that it becomes useless after minor life changes.

You often know what we want to avoid — eg, we hate paperwork or mean bosses. But when you’re driven just by what you want to avoid, you may end up unfocused, naively pursuing shiny objects that come and go because they seemed cool at the time.

Without understanding what our core values are, you’re set up to feel general angst and dissatisfaction. You’re not able to name what we need and want.

Furthermore, when you cultivate our core values across the years, it fuels grit and other resources to solve problems.

For Richard, his deep desire to create a “positive effect on people” perhaps drove his efforts to excel at sales, create a mailing list, or deeply understand the emotional needs of students. These were all resources he creatively used to drive his successes today.

2) Identify negative emotions to create space for compassion

Journaling is a powerful tool to understand emotions. Richard declares it as his “most important [thing].”

The first rule of journaling: note facts. Don’t interpret, tell stories, or judge. When you practice observing, you train yourself to divorce emotion from the situation.

In her recent journaling workshop with Rock The Boat, Jessica Song calls this “observation without narration.”

Richard’s letter provides a great example of this. He observes some facts: “I know you have problems with reading, writing, and spelling.” Then he challenges a negative narrative he probably told himself constantly: “This does not mean you are lazy or dumb.”

When you notice versus judge, you realize that facts can be interpreted in many ways. This opens up the space for compassion towards yourself and others.

Richard cites examples to spur him to think about his situation differently. One tool: seeing the silver lining: “You just think in a more creative way and struggle to find the relevance in school.” Dyslexia helps him become more creative and strategic, uncovering what’s actually relevant.

He also identifies disconfirming evidence to his narrative, which Richard demonstrates here: “You might not realise it, but there are many, many other people out there that struggle at school in similar ways to you and many of them have gone on to invent or create wonderful things.” He acknowledges that people can lead meaningful lives even if they aren’t straight-A students.

If you’re like most, ruminating on negative emotional narratives may crowd out alternatives. Notice and challenge these. As I discuss in the next lesson, you then clear spaces to reflect on what drives you.

3) Identify positive emotions to uncover core values

In addition to noticing negative emotions, journaling is also a space to cultivate and savor positive emotions, such as gratitude, excitement, and hope. By identifying these over time (almost as if you’re developing a dataset about yourself), key themes emerge, generating hypotheses about nourishing life directions.

Once you have some hypotheses, try sharpening them to be specific and action-oriented. For instance, as Jess Song recommends, answer “What / Why / Who / How?”

For instance, in savoring prior moments, you may start with the general hypothesis “I feel happiest when I am working with a competent teammate to help people.”

After reflecting on the source of your happiness, you experiment with this sharper hypothesis: “I feel happiest when I tutor low-income youth adopt better study habits because I struggled deeply with this when I was younger. I want to work with a competent teammate that autonomously researches ideas, identifies solutions, and supports it with data.”

This starts with the general core value of helping people. Yet it helps you answer why (personal experience), who (low-income youth), and how (tutoring).

As for the teammate, you also challenge static characteristics like “competence.” Instead, you identify the actions that lead to competence (research ideas, etc) - it’s not just something you’re born with.

By focusing on actions, rather than static traits, you develop a “growth mindset,” inspiring forward movement, rather than a “fixed one” where change seems insurmountable.

Going back to Richard, he does this in spades.

A) He identifies a core value: “Find things that interest you and pursue them doggedly.”

B) And identifies actions that exemplify his core value of creativity. “Look around you and see where things aren’t as they should be and try and come up with huge, big solutions that can have a positive effect on people.”

To be sure, his core values could be way more specific. But this letter is a summary of many years of reflection. It nonetheless succinctly shows how journaling can open up new possibilities.

4) Align with your core values

Obviously, not everyone cares about your core values, or perhaps even thinks they’re stupid.

Maybe your boss really values prestige and power, while you value relationships and compassion. When you try to connect, your ideas are shut down. This can make your daily life emotionally challenging.

While journaling provides a powerful tool for you to process negative emotions, you can’t stop there. You can start translating them into action.

Consider this strategy: filter potential work and social opportunities based on them. For instance, say your core value is compassion. If a new project lead does not ask questions or challenges your ideas without understanding them, perhaps think twice about joining that project.

Richard makes a similar insight. He advises his younger self: “It’s ok not to be good at some things; as long as you find good people you can trust and surround yourself with them.”

When you understand where you want to go, you become comfortable with closing off options — perhaps even acknowledging your weaknesses. Just make sure to surround yourself with good people.

5) Advocate for your core values

Understanding your core values, Jess Song argues, also equips you to advocate for them more effectively.

Let’s say a colleague has a habit of talking over you in an argument. It might be easy to tell them “you’re being highly unprofessional and not letting me talk.”

Instead, consider this statement: “I value empathy. I feel most safe in environments where we take time to understand then respond to each other’s ideas.”

Jess recognizes these words might seem stupid. But inviting your colleague to try small, key actions (respond, then listen) gives them an easy opportunity to meet your core value (empathy) — while supporting their autonomy. The other person can then demonstrate competence, morality, and lovability — three key identities Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen identify in “Difficult Conversations.”

In contrast, blaming activities (“you’re not letting me talk”) might trigger the negative emotions of fear, guilt, and/or shame that arise when you threaten these three identities. When this happens, people enter “flight or fight” mode and rarely make rational decisions.

Of course, such communication is much easier said than done. But it highlights the need for a journaling practice (even 5 minutes a day) to identify negative emotions, which may otherwise absorb into your subconscious as taken-for-granted. This also prepares you with the language to advocate for your core values, instead of blurting hurtful words during emotionally-charged situations.

Richard Branson doesn’t talk about the above to the same level of detail. But, he says something that certainly aligns. “Keep smiling, attitude is everything. You can accomplish anything you set your mind to – don’t ever believe anyone who tells you otherwise.”

For him, attitude is key (“keep smiling”). There will be hard days and no one is perfect. But don’t let other people bring you down.

Let’s challenge each other to recognize opportunities to be compassionate.

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