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3 EI Lessons From Pixar’s Soul

By Renée Adams

January 8, 2021

empathy, Pixar, Self-awareness, Soul

Beware: This article contains spoilers

Soul is Disney/Pixar’s newest movie about a jazz teacher named Joe whose separated soul is trying to find its way back into his comatose body. Continuing Pixar’s trend of tackling heavy subjects head-on, Soul might be their most ambitious concept to date. Soul dives into conversations about death, anxiety, failure, obsession, purpose, “the meaning of life,” and much more. It’s a movie that can be used as a kid-friendly introduction to Emotional Intelligence (EI) competencies. Here are 3 EI lessons from Soul that can be teaching moments for you and/or your family.

1: There is a fine line between passion and obsession and self-awareness is needed to balance them

People with high EI are often passionate about what they do. But Soul suggests that this same passion can easily turn into obsession. This can be true, especially if one isn’t competent with the EI skill of self-awareness. This lesson is most prevalent in the section of Soul that takes place in the space between the physical and spiritual. We see people who are “in the zone” like Joe was when he was playing piano with Dorothea, but beneath them are the “lost souls.”

Moonwind tells Joe and 22 that “lost souls aren’t that different from those in the zone… When that joy becomes an obsession, one gets disconnected from life.” This is one of the central lessons from Soul. When we look at Joe, we see that in the first half of the movie, his joy for music and jazz has actually become an obsession. We can infer that he was a lost soul before he fell into the open manhole. His obsession with becoming a famous jazz musician had consumed every aspect of his life. He couldn’t have real conversations with his mother or barber because he was obsessed with his dream and he nearly died because he was so distracted by it.

Having the self-awareness to know when your passion has become an obsession is indicative of someone with high EI. When Joe gets lost in the music in front of his class, we see how inspiring his example is for them. Joe’s passion is fueled by his own experience with jazz where the musician he heard was “… in it and he took the rest of us with him.”

We also meet Joe’s former student, Curley, who has become a successful jazz drummer and credits Joe’s teachings as the ignition for his own spark. This shows that Joe had in many ways lost sight of the fruits of his joy; inspiring others and helping them find their sparks. Let’s take this lesson into our own lives by asking ourselves, which of our passions are we in control of and which ones are we letting control us? EI is the key to gaining the self-awareness to make these assessments truly meaningful.  

2: Goal-setting is great, but not without adaptability

Joe believes that anything less than the rigid dream he’s set for himself makes him a failure. When Joe sees his entire life story laid out before him, he is disappointed. He believes he’s wasted his opportunity at life, to the point of feeling his life is meaningless because he isn’t a famous jazz musician. EI can equip us with the endurance and resilience necessary to realize our goals by prioritizing adaptability rather than rigidity, thus avoidance of setting ourselves up for failure. While it’s great to set lofty goals and pursue them with determination, when adaptability and perspective are lacking, there can be heavy self-criticism when those goals aren’t met, just as Joe criticizes himself harshly and unfairly.

Ironically, Joe actually provides a great example of following through on a dream and making it come true. He literally escapes death in order to live his dream. And after playing a great show and completing his ultimate goal in life, he feels strangely. In fact, he doesn’t feel great about it at all.

This is one of the key lessons from Soul and it’s a realization that Joe has after his show and conversation with Dorothea. He had set his entire lifetime’s worth of expectations on one specific goal and after achieving it, he felt disappointed by it. He realizes that by pursuing one goal so doggedly, he was missing out on the rest of what life has to offer. In order to see this, he had to leave his own body to get a third-person perspective on his life.

Being literally outside one’s body is a great metaphor for self-awareness and while we can’t all leave our bodies, we can all be curious enough to ask the people around us their thoughts and opinions more often. It’s easy to get stuck in your own thoughts and worries, which is why we need outside perspectives coupled with self-reflection to truly get through to ourselves. 

Through the new perspective 22 gifts him, Joe is able to appreciate the things he’d been too busy to notice beforehand. He sees how 22 marvels life’s more ambiguous and surprising little pleasures like bagels, the air from a subway grate, and helicopter seeds. When Joe sits down at the piano after his big show to find the detritus 22 left in his pockets, he’s inspired to find new inspiration for the “little things in life.” Let’s think about the goals we’ve set for ourselves. Are we missing out on anything by pursuing them? Is there a way we can reconcile those things and make space in order to be adaptable and fully appreciate them both?

3: Relationship management equips us with the ability to effectively communicate and open up emotionally

Before losing his soul, Joe lacked empathy, listening skills, and a willingness to share his emotions: all skills that can be improved with EI. In the opening scene with his mother, it’s obvious that he’s had the same conversation with her a thousand times and nothing changed until he opened up. Only once 22 told Joe’s mother about his fear of being a failure and about his emotional state, she was able to relate to how Joe truly feels. She, in turn, shares her fear that Joe, like his father, will not find financial security pursuing his dream of being a jazz musician. This leads to an honest, productive conversation that completely changes their relationship.

We also see Joe’s lack of EI skills when we meet his barber. We learn that the only thing they ever talk about is jazz because Joe is so self-absorbed. This changes when 22 is in his body and asks the barber about his life story. The barber is excited that Joe finally shows an interest in him as a person. Their relationship also becomes closer and more personal.

The takeaway from these scenes is that to really connect with people, we need to listen and empathize with them while effectively sharing our own feelings. Let’s think about the people in our lives whom we see often but haven’t interacted with in a meaningful way. When an opportunity is before us and it’s appropriate, let’s take an interest in others by asking them where they grew up, what they do for a living, what their interests are and let’s open up about ourselves as well. As the barber says when 22 asks why they never talked about his life before, “You never asked, but I’m glad you did this time.”

Soul is an incredible movie that has a lot to teach us about empathy, goal setting, self-criticism, and many more EI-centric topics. As far as putting some of these lessons into action, why not start with a discussion of the movie? Have a conversation with your family after the movie about how it made each of you feel, what takeaways you all got from it, and what your favorite scenes/characters were. A movie like Soul has a lot of obvious takeaways, but it also leaves much of its “message” ambiguous. You can instill your own family’s values into a discussion of the movie and use it as an example when discussing difficult topics in the future. 

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