July 14, 2020

Unlocking the Power of Self-Awareness


Article by Christopher Cook

As we begin to emerge from an unprecedentedly challenging time in global history, one of the best personal growth practices we should all pursue is cultivating a healthy amount of self-awareness in our everyday lives and our personal and professional pursuits.

Put simply, without self-awareness, we are tricking ourselves into living out life through the perception of reality instead of reality itself. On the flip side, when we have self-awareness, we put ourselves into a position to grow and succeed.

Fundamentally, self-awareness is an honest understanding of yourself: your habits, your strengths, areas in which you need improvement, and your way of perceiving life. The more you know about yourself, the better you are at adapting to change.

So, how do you become self-aware? One of the most effective and honest ways is by inviting feedback into your life. Honest feedback. Really honest feedback.

Keeping Your Knife Sharp

I grew up in a generation in which everyone got a trophy just for showing up. In tee-ball, everyone was a winner, even if you came in 15th place. While I am an enormous proponent of encouragement and empowerment, these things can mask your blind spots unless they are accompanied by regular, honest feedback. Worse yet, I personally believe that an “everyone gets a trophy” culture supports mediocrity.

The challenge, therefore, is to actively invite feedback into your life from people who know and love you the most. If you’re unsure about how to initiate that kind of conversation, use this script as a launching point.

[To your friend/colleague/family member]: I need you to be really honest with me. I know you care about me, and I know this may be hard for you to do, but I absolutely need your honest feedback in order to grow and become the best I can be. How am I doing in [a particular area of life or skill set]? Do you think I’m capable of [achieving this goal]?

After getting the feedback you need, take a deep breath, swallow hard, and make adjustments.

Hear me out: This isn’t an exercise in celebrating self-deprecation. It’s an honest growth tactic to keep you from living in a fantasy. A key benefit of inviting feedback into your life is that doing so keeps your knife sharp, so to speak. Allow me to explain.

Just the other day, I was coaching a group of executives in a midsize organization here in the Detroit area on the subject of self-awareness. I shared that, as a pretty serious home cook, I take the care of my equipment seriously, especially my knives. The most dangerous knife in any cook’s arsenal is the dullest knife — the knife that has not met an adequate amount of abrasion, or conflict, with a sharpening stone. Abrasive, confrontational self-awareness serves a similar function in our own lives.

No one likes hard conversations. No one likes the pain of owning up to embarrassing mistakes. No one likes conflict. But using self-awareness to develop the maturity of character to step into conflict keeps us sharp, effective, and efficient as we meet the challenges of everyday life.

However, there are forces working against our self-awareness. Thanks to social media, all of us have become our own public relations agencies, tasked with publishing our most polished selves for all the world to like, adore, comment, and even share. Heck, I’ve done it myself.

Is there anything inherently wrong with using social media in this way? No, but what troubles me is the obsession with digital affirmation as a motivation for posting. Sometimes, if we don’t generate a response within a few minutes, we delete the post and try later. Why? Because we’re hooked on likes, comments, and retweets as a measure of our total worth and value. However, all of these distractions prevent us from apprehending the gifts of self-awareness, honesty, and feedback in this very real, obstacle-riddled world.

Self-Awareness + Applied Self-Knowledge

In a 2013 op-ed published by The New York Times, Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield cite the research of Harvard Business School business theorist Chris Argyris, who studied how self-awareness aids one in overcoming obstacles in life. Argyris found that, when people face obstacles, their most common response is single-loop learning, which Sweeney and Gosfield describe as “an insular mental process in which we consider possible external or technical reasons for obstacles.”

According to Argyris, the less common, but more effective, approach to obstacles is double-loop learning. “In this mode, we question every aspect of our approach, including our methodology, biases, and deeply held assumptions,” Sweeney and Gosfield write. “This more psychologically nuanced self-examination requires that we honestly challenge our beliefs and summon the courage to act on that information, which may lead to fresh ways of thinking about our lives and our goals.”

Sweeney and Gosfield note that their own experiences align with Argyris’s research: “In interviews we did with high achievers for a book, we expected to hear that talent, persistence, dedication, and luck played crucial roles in their success. Surprisingly, however, self-awareness played an equally strong role.”

For self-awareness to be truly effective in helping us overcome obstacles, we need to incorporate a key ingredient into the process: applied self-knowledge.

Imagine texting while driving. Slave to the ping of the latest message, you take your focus off the road in order to glance at your phone. Mere seconds later, eyes back on the road, you find yourself dangerously drifting into the opposite lane.

Self-awareness allows you to acknowledge, “Yes, I was texting while driving,” but that acknowledgement alone doesn’t lead to a change in behavior. Applied self-knowledge is what leads to behavior change. Self-knowledge is how we answer the question, “Why was I texting while driving in the first place?”

When we understand the motivations behind our thoughts and actions — productive or unproductive — and create action plans to pivot our accompanying behavior, we are better positioned to experience lasting growth in our personal and professional lives.

Self-awareness is not self-deprecation, nor is it self-consciousness. Self-awareness will keep you focused on that which matters most and keep you away from those things that distract you from your purpose, allowing you to grow in areas of strength and become aware of your blind spots.

That’s the point. We’re all in process. If we’re going to be our best for those who matter most in life, we do need encouragement and empowerment, but we also need a healthy dose of honest, growth-motivated feedback. We can gobble up all the self-help guides and personal growth strategies money can buy, but if we don’t know ourselves well enough to put any of it into effective practice, we’ll never become the best versions of who we were destined to be.

A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.

Christopher Cook is a leadership coach and business consultant to both Fortune 1000 and nonprofit organizations. Additionally, he is the host of Win Today With Christopher Cook, a popular weekly podcast available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and other outlets. Through his work at WINTODAY.tv and as a contributor for SUCCESS magazine, he serves as a guide to help people design their roadmaps to wholeness from the inside out.

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