Book Review #2: Kristen’s 5-Minute Book Review: Emotional Agility by Susan David

This is my book review of Emotional Agility by Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David.

Who I think would get the most out of Emotional Agility

A person who wants to share more of his/her thoughts with the world but feels like they’re “never fast, interesting, or outgoing enough,” recent college graduates, anyone who wants to make a change or achieve a long-term goal but doesn’t know where to start.

WhyEmotional Agility matters

The book matters because it shows us how to navigate an inescapable part of the human condition, uncertainty. David lays out her four-step path to take us from being controlled by our emotions to thriving with them. Reading her book was like reading an updated explanation of  Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

About Susan David

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David is now a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, but she is actually from South Africa. When David was 16, she lost her father and started writing about her emotions in journal assignments for an English class. This sparked her interest in the relationship between overcoming hardship and facing emotion.

Since then, David has studied emotions, happiness, and achievement as a psychologist. You can see her TEDtalk on her work here [link], which has over four million views. She is also an author, entrepreneur, and co-founder/co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital. 

Why is the book called Emotional Agility

“Emotional Agility” is a phrase coined by David and describes the process of responding to situations in alignment with your values. Using it allows you to be more effective in the way you move through daily life and achieve your long-term goals.

3 Big Takeaways fromEmotional Agility

1. You are not your thoughts. 

According to David, we say over 16,000 words per day in our heads and not all of them are helpful. We often “get hooked” or create beliefs from individual thoughts. For example, not receiving texts for a day could “hook” me into believing that I’m unpopular. In reality, however, I may–and do!–have many friends. They just didn’t happen to text me that day. 

David wants us to know that thoughts are not facts and that, with a little mindfulness, we can “step out” and examine them as though they were objects. As soon as we stop paying attention to and creating stories out of individual thoughts, we can zoom out and start looking for thought-patterns. From there, we can question these patterns on whether or not they and their resulting actions are value-aligned. Or, whether they’re the result of underlying beliefs and emotional baggage that no longer serve us but haven’t yet been let go.

2. We are wired to feel negative sometimes. 

I liked this idea because I think it’s key to accepting and embracing emotion. When I was little, I lost the Class President election to another girl. I was told it was because she smiled and was more outgoing than me. From then on, I wanted to box out my negativity! I had to be smiley and positive all the time. No excuses!

Negative emotions like sadness, frustration, and anger are natural and, David argues, even necessary. They help alert us to dangerous situations that require attentiveness and we shouldn’t try to shut them down like I used to believe. In fact, David argues that shutting them down makes us think about them more. 

3. Great change is a function of habits guided by values and long-term goals.

If you had asked me what I wanted to do for a living a year ago, I would have said, “Travel blogger.” I fantasized about selling all of my things and buying that one-way ticket so much! Thankfully, I realized that what I really wanted was to run away from figuring out what to do with my life. I stayed to face the problem instead of up-ending everything.

Great change, true change, takes time and intention. David’s Tiny Tweaks Principle encourages us to make little, everyday changes guided by our values and goals. Her Teeter-Totter Principle calls for us to challenge ourselves intentionally every time we make one of those small changes. This means doing things that we know we fear and are also aligned with our values and goals. David compares her growth process to sailing, where “a shift of a degree or two can dramatically change where you wind up across the bay.”

This book has many calls-to-action

David conveniently lists a handful of CTA’s starting on page 241. The printed version may have it on a different page, but you can flip to the end of the book to find it no matter what version you have. I’ll list a few here that you can hopefully relate to whether you’ve read the book or not:

  1. “Appoint yourself the agent of your own life and take ownership of your development, career, creative spirit, work, and connections.” 
  2. “Accept your full self—rubbed-off nose, shabby ears, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emotions, the whole package—with compassion, courage, and curiosity.”
  3. “Embrace an evolving identity and release narratives that no longer serve you.”
  4. “Let go of unrealistic dead people’s goals by accepting that being alive means sometimes getting hurt, failing, being stressed, and making mistakes.” 

Do I recommend reading the book?

I do, but I also think that people already familiar with mindfulness and the concepts behind Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can skip Chapters 2-4. 

I learned the most from Chapters 8 and 9 and found the Chapters 10 and 11 to be the most engaging. Chapters 8 and 9 go over the Tiny Tweaks and Teeter Totter Principles and introduce some studies that I’d never heard of before. Chapters 10 and 11 contain more personal stories from David’s own life that I actually found to be more compelling than the ones about her patients. 

I hope this was helpful!

You can let me know what I should add to 5-Minute Book reviews to make them more helpful in the comments or via email to!

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