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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Psychology Today: Know Thyself: How to Develop Self-Awareness

From Psychology Today, posted September 29, 2015.

How well do you know yourself?  How deeply do you understand your motivations? 

If you’re on this website, you probably know the basics of psychology. You understand biases, the power of the halo-effect, or even how we make decisions. 

But, do you understand what drives you? Your own self-image? Or how others experience you?

The charge, “Know thyself,” is centuries old, but it has never been more important. Research from psychologist Daniel Goleman shows that self-awareness is crucial for all levels of success. As he outlines in Emotional Intelligence, above an IQ of 120, EQ (Emotional Intelligence) becomes the more important predictor of successful leaders. Developing self-awareness is the first step to develop your EQ.

You can’t gain self-awareness through knowing psychology. Rather, it requires a deepunderstanding of your past and current self. Experiences shape how we see the world. So, we have to reflect on how the world has shaped us. 

How can you gain self-awareness?  Here are three steps to start. 

1.Understand Your Life Story

Over the past 10 years, psychologists have focused on a new field of research called narrative identity. As Dan McAdams, Northwestern University psychology professor, explains, “The stories we tell ourselves about our lives don’t just shape our personalities –- they are our personalities. ”

Your narrative identity is the story of your life; but it’s more than just a story. How you understand your narrative frames both your current actions and your future goals. As research from Southern Methodist University shows, writing about difficult life experiences improves our physical and mental health. How much you confront your life’s challenges – what I call “crucibles” – defines your level of self-awareness. 

So, how can you begin? In Discover Your True North, I give a few questions to start. 

Looking at your early life story, what people, events, and experiences have had the greatest impact in shaping the person you have become?
In which experiences did you find the greatest passion for leading?
How do you frame your crucibles and setbacks in your life?

2. Create a Daily Habit of Self-reflection 

Next, you should develop a daily practice of setting aside at least twenty minutes to reflect on your life. This practice enables you to focus on the important things in your life, not just the immediate. Research from Wisconsin’s Richard Davidson demonstrated direct correlation between mindfulness and changes in the brain – away from anger and anxietyand toward a sense of calm and well-being.

Reflection takes many forms. Some keep a journal, some pray, and others take a long walk or jog. Personally, I use daily meditation as my mindful habit. By centering into myself, I am able to focus my attention on what’s really important, and develop an inner sense of well-being.

3.Seek Honest Feedback

We all have traits that others see, but we are unable to see in ourselves. We call these “blind spots.” Do you see yourself as others see you? If not, you can address these blind spots by receiving honest feedback from people you trust.

Receiving feedback is hard. So, focus on psychological triggers that might block your learning. As Harvard’s Sheila Heen argued in “Thanks for The Feedback”, three main triggers prevent our learning: relationship triggers, identity triggers, and truth triggers. If you feel defensive, think back to why you do. Often, we can explain it using these triggers. 

Becoming self-aware won’t happen in a day. Rather, it will take years of reflection, introspection, and difficult conversations. As you follow these three practices, you will find you are more comfortable being open, transparent, and even vulnerable. As you do, you will become a more authentic leader and a more self-aware person.