Become more calm and conscious with Kai Koch, co-founder of Ahead


Welcome to this edition of our Tools for Thought series, where we interview founders on a mission to help us better manage our thoughts, emotions, and knowledge. Kai Koch is the co-founder of Ahead, a mobile application designed to help people master their emotions in just five minutes a day.

Developed in partnership with psychologists, Ahead uses behavioral science to teach emotional habits, so you can become more calm and conscious. It features short lessons, a progress tracker, and a space for guided reflection. It’s a bit like an emotional pocket coach.

In this interview, we talked about the science-based benefits of emotional intelligence, the problem with traditional self-help content, the ripple effect of a high emotional quotient, the key difference between IQ and EQ, and much more. Enjoy the read!

Ahead app screenshots

Hi Kai, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Emotional intelligence has only recently been put on the map. What does it mean exactly to be emotionally intelligent? 

Thank you for having me. Great question. There are many definitions of emotional intelligence flying around. A simple one is this: the ability to notice and manage emotions. For example, an emotionally intelligent husband would notice when he’s getting angry and stop himself from doing anything stupid — like calling his wife a rhinoceros. Or an emotionally intelligent wife would be able to motivate her husband with charm, not pressure, to take out the trash.

Most of us quickly recognize people with high EQ: they are highly respected, connected, and successful. I would disagree though that emotional intelligence has only recently been put on the map — it’s just been called different names in the past: social skills, manners, behaving like a grown up. What’s new is that people realize that improving their EQ is far more impactful for their lives than, for example, improving their Excel or French skills.

That’s a great point about the long history of emotional intelligence. Now, what’s the origin story behind Ahead’s mission of mastering your emotions?

My co-founder John and I have known each other for fourteen years and this is our second venture together. The idea for Ahead was born in a very intense period while in that previous company. I lost a lot of my hair and we both lost our relationships at the time.

It became obvious to us that we — like most — have some quirks and unhelpful habits that were standing between us and success, both in our private and professional lives. But as we tried to get emotionally smarter, the self-improvement books, TED talks, and courses we used were a huge disappointment. Lots of inspiring words, but when it came to actually making it work in real life, they sucked.

We’re living in the 21st century, but we still try to teach cognitive skills by making students listen to a teacher’s wise words — when what’s really needed is to practice those skills yourself. You can’t teach children to ride a bike by giving them a “ride-a-bike” book to read. Why try to teach how to stay cool, content, or charming that way?

But people do keep on trying to acquire these skills by reading books, and personal development in general is a massive market. How is Ahead’s approach to self-improvement different from other solutions?

We don’t need bogus gurus selling us their 3, 5 or 10 secrets to a better me by tomorrow, and still, that industry is $70 billion large. We need a learning environment that helps us try things out ourselves and learn by doing. A book lying on our nightstand or a coach we see once a month can’t help us do that.

Our smartphone on the other hand can: it’s with us when emotions actually happen, allowing us to improve right then and there. It adjusts to what we need, giving us tailored advice and reminders when we need them. And it connects us with people on the same journey.

Ahead is not about passively consuming advice. It’s about you finding what works for yourself: how to notice your (or others’) emotions are rising, how to best manage them? All of that put into an app that’s interactive and fun, that feels like a game, not like a chore. Because as soon as things become complex or boring, we all quit, even when it comes to our deepest dreams.

Talking about complexity… It can be difficult to quantify something as complex as emotions. How exactly does Ahead monitor progress and suggest improvements?

You are right. It’s harder to measure how much better you learned to handle your emotions than how much weight you lost. But it can be done.

We’ve worked hard to build tools that help you gain clarity on your emotional moments and on what to improve. We’ve developed fun surveys that show you how those close to you already see the progress you’re making. We’ve designed your journey so you notice how you’re solving harder and harder challenges as you level up.

And whenever you learn something about yourself, we use that to give you a learning path that’s even better tailored to your experiences, needs, and goals.

Do you think there are any instances where EQ trumps IQ?

I personally don’t think we should look at this from the angle of “which is better”. What’s exciting is that our IQ is more or less set in stone from birth, but our EQ can be trained like a muscle throughout our lives. None of us is at mercy of our emotions.

Some research suggests that up to 60% of our job performance depends on our EQ. Of course our romantic relationships and friendships rely on it almost entirely. And even our health benefits from worrying or screaming less.

And the better your EQ, the better you can improve other skills: once you know how to overcome emotions that keep you from getting better, you can learn anything. Then you know how to floss regularly or exercise — even if you don’t feel like it.

The ripple effect sounds amazing. Why do you think people start using Ahead in the first place?

The motivations to use Ahead are manifold. We see people looking to improve their (romantic) relationships or further accelerate their career. The unifying characteristic is that they all have a growth mindset. They believe that EQ can be improved. They believe they have what it takes to improve: They’ve made their way through challenging studies and jobs, built trustful relationships, and raised kind children.

We have a channel where we collect all feedback from our users. It still awes me to read all the messages from people around the world that managed to get their frustration and anger outbursts under control — this is incredibly motivating for us in the team.

What about you… How do you personally use Ahead?

For me, Ahead has become a tool that helps me to understand myself better. I use it every day as an “extension” of my emotional brain. By now, observing myself and understanding what triggers my behaviors has become a little bit of a game to me. And I’m always excited to learn new techniques from our community of users to help me better recognize and manage emotions.

There’s still so much to achieve around emotional intelligence. Where would you like Ahead to be in the next few years?

We see it this way: evolution created emotions to keep us safe from lions and reproduce. But today emotions like fear, anger, sadness, etc. often doesn’t help, but hinders us.

The good thing is: we are not at the mercy of our emotions — we can learn to manage them. We can learn the most helpful skill there is to be happy, successful, and connected. The bad thing is: So far we never did. We don’t learn EQ skills at school, university, or at work – and only if we’re lucky, do we randomly pick up a trick or two before we’re old.

We want to change that and enable all of us to better manage emotions. So that we can all be happier together.

Thank you so much for your time, Kai! Where can people learn more about Ahead and give it a try?

You can download Ahead here and give it a try. We would love to hear your feedback!

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