Insight: Why We're Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life - Tasha Eurich 2017
The Meta-Skill of the Twenty-First Century
To Mama, Noni, and my beloved S.P.
It is most perilous to be a speaker of Truth. Sometimes one must choose to be silent, or be silenced. But if a truth cannot be spoken, it must at least be known. Even if you dare not speak truth to others, never lie to yourself.
The men burst in with urgent news to report. A party of 35 enemy scouts had been spotted roughly seven miles away, camped out in a rocky ravine. What would the young lieutenant colonel decide to do?
The pressure was on, and he knew it. After all, this was a time of war, and he alone was responsible for the 159 recruits he’d led into the field. Despite the fact that the colonel was a 22-year-old rookie with zero combat experience, he’d somehow found himself second in command of an entire army. Not only did he have to act quickly and decisively, he needed to prove himself to everyone who was watching. This would be a crucial test of his military prowess, but he had no doubt he would ace it. The supremely self-assured young man was just itching to show his superiors what he was made of.
Those men in the ravine? They were clearly planning to attack, he confidently (and, as it turned out, inaccurately) concluded. So the colonel ordered a sneak assault. In the early hours of May 28, his troops descended on the unsuspecting party, who didn’t stand a chance. In less than 15 minutes, 13 enemy soldiers were dead and 21 were captured.
Brimming with pride over his victory, the colonel returned to camp and began firing off letters. The first was to his commander. But before even recounting news of the battle, the emboldened leader took the opportunity—in the form of an eight-paragraph diatribe—to grouse about his pay. His next letter was to his younger brother, to whom he nonchalantly bragged about his fearlessness in the face of enemy attack: “I can with truth assure you,” he wrote, “I heard the bullets whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound.”
His self-congratulatory correspondences completed, it was time to plan his next move. Convinced that the enemy was about to launch a revenge attack, he realized he would need to find a better location for their camp. After crossing a nearby mountain range, the colonel and his men found themselves in a large, low-lying alpine meadow. The grassland was surrounded on all sides by rolling hills dotted with bushes and a dense pine forest. Surveying the area, the colonel declared it the perfect defensive location and ordered his troops to begin preparations.
A few days later, he looked on proudly as his men put the finishing touches on their circular stockade, which consisted of scores of upright seven-foot logs draped with animal skins. And because it could hold only 70 men at once, he’d ordered them to dig a three-foot trench for everyone else to crouch in. The colonel thought it was marvelous, assuring his commander that “we have with nature’s assistance made a good entrenchment and by clearing the bushes out of these meadows prepared a charming field for an encounter.” He knew they’d be outmanned, but “even with my small numbers,” he reported, “I shall not fear the attack of 500 men.”
Unfortunately, not everyone agreed with the confident young leader. One of his many questionable decisions was the placement of the fort. Because it was built on such soft ground, a light shower of rain would turn the meadow into a swamp, and a downpour would flood the trenches and drench their ammunition. What’s more, they were so close to the woods—just 60 yards away—that enemy marksmen could sneak up undetected and effortlessly fire on their fortress at close range. As for the fort itself, the colonel’s allied commander—a seasoned battle veteran—insisted that “that little thing upon the meadow” simply would not hold.
Undeterred and convinced that he knew best, the colonel dismissed these arguments out of hand, furiously proclaiming the commander and his army to be “treacherous devils” and “spies.” A minor rebellion followed, with the allied commander and his followers fleeing in fear (incidentally, this fear turned out to be extremely well-founded). In the battle that was to come, the colonel wouldn’t find the bullets whistling past him to be quite as charming.
And that battle would be momentous. So momentous that the colonel’s mistakes would change the course of history. In the years since, historians have attempted to explain how the operation went so tragically wrong. Many have appropriately criticized the colonel for “advancing when he should have retreated; for fighting without awaiting sufficient reinforcements; for picking an indefensible spot; for the slapdash construction of the fort; for alienating his…allies; and for shocking hubris in thinking that he could defeat the imposing [enemy] force.”
But the colonel’s downfall can’t be attributed simply to tactical errors, flawed maneuvers, or the lost trust of his men. Examining them alone overlooks their root cause: at the most basic level, the colonel lacked the single most important, and yet least examined, determinant of success or failure—whether on the battlefield, in the workplace, or anywhere else. That quality is self-awareness.
While a precise definition is more complex than it first seems, self-awareness is, at its core, the ability to see ourselves clearly—to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world around us.*1 And since Plato instructed us to “know thyself,” philosophers and scientists alike have extolled the virtues of self-awareness. Indeed, this ability is arguably one of the most remarkable aspects of being human. In his book The Telltale Brain, neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran poetically explains:
Any ape can reach for a banana, but only humans can reach for the stars. Apes live, contend, breed and die in forests—end of story. Humans write, investigate, and quest. We splice genes, split atoms, launch rockets. We peer upward…and delve deeply into the digits of pi. Perhaps most remarkably of all, we gaze inward, piecing together the puzzle of our own unique and marvelous brain…This, truly, is the greatest mystery of all.
Some have even argued that the ability to understand ourselves is at the core of human survival and advancement. For millions of years, the ancestors of Homo sapiens evolved almost painfully slowly. But, as Ramachandran explains, about 150,000 years ago, there was a rather explosive development in the human brain—where, among other things, we gained the ability to examine our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, as well as to see things from others’ points of view (as we will learn, both of these processes are absolutely critical for self-awareness). Not only did this create the foundation for higher forms of human expression—like art, spiritual practices, and language—it came with a survival advantage for our ancestors, who had to work together to stay alive. Being able to evaluate their behaviors and decisions and read their impact on other members of the tribe helped them, to use a slightly more modern reference, not get voted off the island.
Flash forward to the twenty-first century. Though we may not face the same day-to-day threats to our existence as our ancestors did, self-awareness is no less necessary to our survival and success—at work, in our relationships, and in life. There is strong scientific evidence that people who know themselves and how others see them are happier. They make smarter decisions. They have better personal and professional relationships. They raise more mature children. They’re smarter, superior students who choose better careers. They’re more creative, more confident, and better communicators. They’re less aggressive and less likely to lie, cheat, and steal. They’re better performers at work who get more promotions. They’re more effective leaders with more enthusiastic employees. They even lead more profitable companies.
On the flip side, a lack of self-awareness can be risky at best and disastrous at worst. In business, regardless of what we do or what stage we’re at in our careers, our success depends on understanding who we are and how we come across to our bosses, clients, customers, employees, and peers. This becomes even more important the higher you ascend on the corporate ladder: senior executives who lack self-awareness are 600 percent more likely to derail (which can cost companies a staggering $50 million per executive). And more generally, un-self-aware professionals don’t just feel less fulfilled in their careers—when they get stuck, they tend to have trouble figuring out what their next phase should even be.
The list goes on and on. After so many years of researching the subject, I would go so far as to say that self-awareness is the meta-skill of the twenty-first century. As you’ll read in the pages ahead, the qualities most critical for success in today’s world—things like emotional intelligence, empathy, influence, persuasion, communication, and collaboration—all stem from self-awareness. To put it another way, if we’re not self-aware, it’s almost impossible to master the skills that make us stronger team players, superior leaders, and better relationship builders—at work and beyond.
Now, you’d certainly be hard pressed to find many people who don’t instinctively know that self-awareness is important. After all, it’s a term we tend to toss around pretty freely—about our boss, our colleagues, our in-laws, our politicians—although have you noticed that when we do, it’s usually in the negative, as in “so-and-so just isn’t self-aware”? But despite the critical role it plays in our success and happiness, self-awareness is a remarkably rare quality.
For most people, it’s easier to choose self-delusion—the antithesis of self-awareness—over the cold, hard truth. This is particularly true when our delusion masquerades, as it often does, as insight. The colonel is one example. Let’s look at a more modern manifestation. I recently picked up Travis Bradberry’s best-selling book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and I was astonished to learn that over the last decade, our collective emotional intelligence (EQ) has improved. (EQ is defined as the ability to detect, understand, and manage emotions in ourselves and others, and countless studies have shown that people who have it are more successful, more resilient in the face of obstacles, more tolerant of stress, better at building relationships, and more.) But in my work as an organizational psychologist, Bradberry’s findings didn’t match what I had observed: at least anecdotally, I’ve seen low EQ becoming more, not less, of a problem in recent years.
It wasn’t until I took the online assessment that came with the book that I identified the stunning source of the discrepancy. While, yes, Bradberry’s research involved a staggering 500,000 people, his conclusions were based on their own self-assessments. Think about that for a minute. Picture a few of the least emotionally intelligent people you know. If you asked them to evaluate their own EQ, how much would you bet that they’d see themselves as at least above average? So an alternative, and far more likely, explanation for Bradbury’s findings is a growing gap between how we see ourselves and what we really are. In other words, what looked like an increase in EQ was more likely a decrease in self-awareness.*2
Our increasingly “me”-focused society makes it even easier to fall into this trap. Recent generations have grown up in a world obsessed with self-esteem, constantly being reminded of their wonderful and special qualities. It’s far more tempting to see ourselves through rose-colored glasses than to objectively examine who we are and how we’re seen. And this isn’t just a generational problem, or even just an American one—it afflicts people of all ages, genders, backgrounds, cultures, and creeds.
Right now, you might be mentally conjuring all the delusional people you know and chuckling—the co-worker who thinks he’s a brilliant presenter but puts everyone to sleep in meetings; the boss who brags about being approachable but terrifies her team; the friend who thinks she’s a “people person” but is always the most awkward guest at the party. Yet there’s something else we all need to consider. As the Bible asks, “How can you say to your brother, ’Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4). Whether it’s at work, at home, at school, or at play, we’re quick to accuse others of being unaware, but we rarely (if ever) ask ourselves whether we have the same problem. Case in point: in a survey that I conducted among potential readers of this very book, a full 95 percent reported that they were either somewhat or very self-aware!
The truth is that while most of us think we know ourselves pretty well, this confidence is often unfounded. Researchers have established that our self-assessments “are often flawed in substantive and systematic ways.” As you’ll read more about soon, studies show that we tend to be terrible judges of our own performance and abilities—from our leadership skills to our car-driving prowess to our performance at school and at work. The scariest part? The least competent people are usually the most confident in their abilities.
And in most cases, the planks in our eyes are pretty obvious to everyone but us. A tone-deaf college student who drops out of school to become a singer. A braggadocious boss who reads scores of business books but remains a terrible leader. A parent who spends very little time with his kids but thinks he’s “Dad of the Year.” A thrice-divorced woman who’s convinced that the end of each marriage was her ex’s fault. Or a colonel who thinks he’s a military genius but is really about to get in way over his head.
But being overconfident about our abilities isn’t the only way that low self-awareness can play out. Sometimes we lack clarity about our values and goals, causing us to perpetually make choices that aren’t in our best interests. Other times, we fail to grasp the impact we’re having on the people around us, alienating our colleagues, friends, and families without even knowing it.
Now, if that’s what unawareness looks like, the next logical question becomes: What does it mean to be self-aware? When I began my three-year research program on the subject, answering this question seemed like a rather straightforward place to start. Yet I was stunned to learn just how many conflicting definitions existed. Without a clear definition of self-awareness, though, how could I possibly develop an empirical method to help people improve it? So my research team and I spent months reviewing more than 750 studies to see what patterns emerged. And in the process, we unearthed two main categories of self-awareness that, strangely, weren’t always related.
Internal self-awareness has to do with seeing yourself clearly. It’s an inward understanding of your values, passions, aspirations, ideal environment, patterns, reactions, and impact on others. People who are high in internal self-awareness tend to make choices that are consistent with who they really are, allowing them to lead happier and more satisfying lives. Those without it act in ways that are incompatible with their true success and happiness, like staying in an unfulfilling job or relationship because they don’t know what they want.
External self-awareness is about understanding yourself from the outside in—that is, knowing how other people see you. Because externally self-aware people can accurately see themselves from others’ perspectives, they are able to build stronger and more trusting relationships. Those low in external self-awareness, on the other hand, are so disconnected with how they come across that they’re often blindsided by feedback from others (that is, if others are brave enough to tell them). And very often, by the time they hear this feedback, their relationships are too far gone to be salvaged.
Now, it’s easy to assume that someone who is internally self-aware would also be externally self-aware—that being in touch with our feelings and emotions helps us tune in to how we’re seen. But strangely, research (mine and others’) has often shown no relationship between them—and some studies have even shown an inverse one! You probably know someone who loves to gaze at their own navel but has precious little understanding of the way they’re coming across. For instance, I have an acquaintance who spends thousands of dollars each year on therapy and meditation retreats to “work on himself,” but his friends see him as oblivious and insensitive—and he has absolutely no idea. The other side of the coin is also dangerous. Being too fixated on how we appear to others can prevent us from making choices in service of our own happiness and success.
The bottom line is that to become truly self-aware, you have to understand yourself and how others see you—and what’s more, the path to get there is very, very different than what most people believe. But if this sounds intimidating or untenable, there is good news. My research has shown that self-awareness is a surprisingly developable skill.
The colonel’s epic battle finally happened on the morning of July 3. An enormous force of 700 enemy soldiers, commanded by the half brother of one of the massacred scouts, rounded on the colonel’s flimsy fortress in three huge columns. Despite the size of the opposing army, the colonel was convinced he would be victorious, just as he’d been the last time.
From the cover of the forest, the enemy began to rain bullets upon them. And because their position was so utterly unprotected, the colonel’s men could return fire only by popping up from their trenches and shooting blindly. Mostly, they missed their targets. And just when things didn’t seem like they could get much worse, a torrential downpour began to drench the meadow, turning their fort into a mud pit and rendering their ammunition useless.
The battle lasted only a day, but the colonel would pay an astronomical price. Compared to just 30 enemy casualties, 100 of his men lay dead or wounded in the muddy, blood-soaked meadow. On July 4, the colonel surrendered, signing a document in a language he didn’t speak. (In so doing, he would inadvertently admit to perpetrating war crimes, and the fallout would dog him for months.)
In a final act of humiliation, as the colonel and his remaining men marched back home, they were helpless to stop the enemy from looting their baggage as they departed. Following their narrow escape from this unmitigated calamity, the colonel’s regiment was divided into 10 smaller companies. And rather than accept a demotion to captain, he quit.
But here’s what I didn’t tell you about this embarrassing battle and the hopelessly self-deluded man responsible for it. The year was 1754. The place was Great Meadows, located in present-day Pennsylvania. And the colonel was none other than George Washington. The events at Fort Necessity soon snowballed into the Seven Years’ War, and as English author Horace Walpole writes, “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America [would] set the world on fire.” It would also be the first—and last—time that Washington would ever surrender to his enemy.
Given Washington’s reputation as a heroic general, brilliant statesman, and father of our nation, his behavior as a 22-year-old rookie is pretty shocking. But that’s precisely the point: though he became a wise, restrained, self-aware statesman, he started out as a brash, arrogant, unaware upstart. As historian W. W. Abbott put it, “more than most, Washington’s biography is the story of a man constructing himself.” And if we examine that process of construction, we unearth many clues about what a successful self-awareness journey looks like.
Where Washington 1.0 couldn’t see or acknowledge his shortcomings, Washington 2.0 reveled in searching them out. “I can bear to hear of imputed or real errors,” he declared. “The man who wishes to stand well in the opinion of others must do this.” Where Washington 1.0 didn’t care what anyone thought of him, Washington 2.0 “studied every side of [important decisions], analyzing how his actions would be perceived.” Where Washington 1.0 favored fantasy over reality, Washington 2.0 believed in “consult[ing] with our means rather than our wishes.” Where Washington 1.0 suffered from delusions of grandeur, Washington 2.0 tempered his ambition with humility and service to the greater good. When Congress elected him president, for instance, he modestly responded, “While I realize the arduous nature of the task which is conferred on me and feel my inability to perform it…all I can promise is only that which can be accomplished by an honest zeal.”
Here’s the key point: although there was only one George Washington, there are so many others—professionals, parents, teachers, students, artists—who have made similar self-awareness transformations. I have spent the last three years researching such outliers: people who have made remarkable, against-the-odds improvements in their self-knowledge and reaped the resulting rewards. Throughout this book, you’ll hear their inspiring and instructive stories.
Yet studying these outliers wasn’t my original plan. When I first began my research, after reviewing every study on self-awareness my team and I could get our hands on, I decided to interview a few dozen people who fit our criteria for high self-awareness. My logic was that if I could learn what they were doing, I would unlock the secret formula for everyone else. But I hit a brick wall that, in hindsight, I should have anticipated. Interviewing people to whom self-knowledge came naturally—and who had always been self-aware, at least as adults—turned out to be surprisingly pointless. When I asked my interviewees what they did to stay self-aware, they said things like “I don’t know—I guess I just try to reflect on myself,” or “I’ve never thought about it. I just do it,” or “I guess I was born this way.”
Suddenly, I had an epiphany: if I wanted to hack the code of self-awareness, I wasn’t going to find the answer in those who came by it naturally. Instead, I had to find people who had made dramatic, game-changing improvements in self-insight over the course of their adult lives. In other words, I needed to study self-aware people who didn’t start off that way.
As we began our search for these self-awareness savants, my research team and I adopted two stringent and unwavering criteria. The first was that they had to be high in both types of self-awareness—internal and external—as rated both by themselves and someone who knew them well. Second, they needed to have begun their adult lives with low to moderate levels of self-awareness but dramatically improved it over time, again as rated by themselves and someone who knew them well.
After surveying thousands of people from all around the world, our team identified 50 individuals who fit our two criteria. One of my research assistants playfully but appropriately began to refer to them as self-awareness unicorns—after all, they were rare, special creatures that most people didn’t believe even existed!—and the term stuck. Our self-awareness unicorns came from all walks of life, and remarkably, there were no patterns by job type, industry, age, gender, education, national origin, or any other demographic characteristic. They were professionals, entrepreneurs, artists, students, teachers, stay-at-home parents, executives (even a Fortune 10 CEO), and more. But this diverse group did have two things in common: a belief in the supreme importance of self-awareness and a commitment to develop and hone it throughout their lives.
To help you get a better understanding of what a self-awareness unicorn really looks like, let me tell you about the first time I realized I was in the presence of one.
It was almost exam time at the Government Secondary School in Chibok, Nigeria, and 276 girls were deep in hard-earned sleep. In the early hours of April 14, 2014, their peace was suddenly shattered by a group of men bursting into the darkness of their dormitory. The men reassured the panicking and confused girls, “We’re security guards. We’re here to assist you.”
Once the now-terrified students had left the safety of their dorm, they were loaded onto trucks at gunpoint and driven to a fortified camp in the Sambisa Forest. The men were, in fact, members of the Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram. Though at the time I’m writing this, 57 of the girls managed to escape and 23 have been released or rescued, it’s hard to say whether the remaining 196 will ever be found. And though this story received worldwide attention, what isn’t widely known is that the Nigerian military had four hours’ warning about the attack. They also knew exactly where the girls were being held. And yet they did nothing.
Far from the Sambisa Forest, a manager at a Nigerian oil-and-gas company was in New York City when she heard the news. Initially, she dismissed it as impossible. But 34-year-old Florence Ozor soon realized that it was tragically and unacceptably real. She had to do something—but what?
Florence had always felt most comfortable at home with her nose in a book. She wasn’t outgoing and had always intentionally stayed under the radar, both at work and in her community. And as someone who kept her head down to avoid being labeled self-promoting or arrogant, Florence certainly wasn’t someone you’d expect to see on the front lines of the war on terror. But in a divine act of timing, she’d recently had a profound insight that would alter the course of her entire life. If self-awareness is a journey, insights are the “aha” moments along the way. They’re the fuel powering the souped-up sports car on the highway of self-awareness: with them, we can step on the gas pedal; without them, we’re stranded on the side of the road.
And Florence was about to hit the gas. Just days before the Chibok girls were abducted, she was in Washington, D.C., attending an orientation for a coveted four-week mentoring program put on by Fortune magazine and the U.S. State Department. One morning, Florence was sitting in a breakout session on engaging the media to create social change that was making her pretty uncomfortable. To her, the session’s call to action seemed to be to hang out a neon sign for the media that said “Look at me!” She’d always stood for justice, but not publicly—Florence was more inclined to fight these battles in small circles. As an introvert, she’d feared that stepping onto the world stage would let too many people into her space, and the inevitable result would be a loss of privacy and control.
But shortly after the session ended and Florence returned to her hotel room, a dam suddenly burst inside her. Her desire for privacy, she realized, was nothing compared to the changes she wanted to effect in the world. And the day the Chibok girls were abducted, this resolve profoundly deepened. She made an instinctive and instantaneous decision: no matter what the risk, no matter what she’d have to give up, it was a moral imperative to take a stand to bring the girls home. Never again will I run away from something just because I’m scared of the spotlight, she vowed, I’ve always been a fighter—why not let the world know it? That is who I really am.
By the time Florence had returned home from New York, the #BringBackOurGirls movement had begun to sweep the world. But her government was still doing nothing. Around that time, a remarkable woman named Hadiza Bala Usman organized a group to demand a response from both the international community and the Nigerian government. Armed with the newfound insight that she was capable of creating a wide social impact, Florence joined the group’s first protest in the capital city of Abuja. They gathered in the pouring rain near the city’s Unity Fountain, an enormous cement monument with a cascade of water soaring many stories into the sky. Holding the protest here wasn’t just a signal of their intent—unity—they also needed to be close to the country’s national assembly.
The protesters would continue to gather there every day until their message was heard. In the process, they faced intimidation and harassment by hired thugs who chased them with sticks, stole their phones and cameras, and even broke chairs over their backs, all while indifferent police and public servants looked on. But nothing has diminished their will. Florence and her compatriots will continue to demand action until the girls are safely home.
People tell Florence all the time how surprised they are that she stepped out of her small circle and into public life. Initially, she says, she even surprised herself, but she came to realize that this resolve wasn’t entirely new—it just hadn’t been brought out this powerfully before.
And since that time, her growing notoriety (both online and offline) has allowed her to make a deeper and more profound mark on her country, her continent, and her world. Through her newly formed Florence Ozor Foundation, for example, Florence and her team are focused on creating opportunities, inspiring success, and fostering prosperity on the African continent. In 2014, they spearheaded a civic, non-partisan initiative to educate and engage Nigerian citizens in the electoral process. They began a far-reaching media campaign that shaped the conversation and ensured that Nigerians knew where (and why) to vote. When the election was postponed, they partnered with organizations to organize protest marches, making the emphatic statement that the Nigerian people would not accept any more postponements. And it was thanks in large part to their efforts that, in spite of the unprecedented threat of terrorism and violence, nearly 30 million Nigerians turned out for the presidential election on March 28, 2015.
Florence’s remarkable commitment to self-awareness has helped her make choices in service of her long-term success and happiness. It’s helped her realize the impact she can have on the world. It’s helped her find her life’s calling. And with each passing day since the pivotal insight that steered her in a new direction, she has found that the more people she reaches, the bigger difference she can make. (Incidentally, as someone who knows Florence well, I have absolutely no doubt that she will accomplish her greater vision, perhaps, as I often tell her, as the first female president of Nigeria.)
But what’s just as remarkable about Florence is that this particular insight was just one among many others. That’s the thing about unicorns—they know that self-awareness isn’t a one-and-done exercise. It’s a continual process of looking inward, questioning, and discovering the things that have been there all along. Just like George Washington, Florence Ozor is a study in the transformative power of self-awareness.
While researching this book, I was lucky enough to interview Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Ford who led one of the most successful corporate turnarounds in history—he also happens to be a personal hero of mine. At the beginning of our interview, I asked him a rather direct question: Assuming he got as many interview requests as I suspected (he did: often dozens per week), why did he agree to talk to me? As we sipped coffee on a sunny patio in Scottsdale, he smiled. And with a twinkle in his eye, he replied, “Because no one has written this book yet, and it needs to be written. Throughout my career and my life, there has been one essential truth: the biggest opportunity for improvement—in business, at home, and in life—is awareness.”
I couldn’t have said it better. Though many management thinkers and business leaders sing the praises of self-awareness, there have been few, if any, systematic attempts to scientifically examine where it comes from and how to get more of it. For that reason, the central purpose of my research has been to help people increase their self-awareness in service of their personal fulfillment and professional success. Along the way, I made more than a few shocking discoveries that challenged conventional wisdom, and learned that much, if not most, of what people think improves self-awareness can actually have the opposite effect. In the pages ahead, you’ll discover these surprising myths and learn what it really takes to become self-aware.
I wrote Insight for anyone who wants to make the leap from self-blindness to self-insight, and in turn reap the rewards of smarter choices, stronger relationships, and a better life. My goal is to help you avoid the roadblocks and wrong turns; to give you tools to unlock a whole new level of self-knowledge; and to show you how to survive and thrive in an increasingly unaware world.
In Part I of the book, you’ll learn the building blocks of and roadblocks to self-awareness. In Chapter 2, we will begin with the Seven Pillars of Insight that separate the aware from the unaware. Once we understand what it really means to be self-aware, we’ll then take on the roadblocks and learn how to bust through them. Chapter 3 will examine the inner barriers that don’t just hamper self-awareness, but fill us with an unwarranted confidence that we already are self-aware. In chapter 4, we’ll move to the biggest societal obstacle to insight: something called the Cult of Self. Whether you know it or not, this tantalizing sect has been trying to recruit you and everyone you know to become more self-absorbed and less self-aware.
Part II will focus on internal self-awareness. In chapter 5, I’ll overturn the many myths and follies around what it actually takes to improve it. You’ll discover why introspection doesn’t always lead to insight, how those who seek the absolute truth about themselves are the least likely to discover it, and why many common self-awareness approaches like therapy and journaling have hidden pitfalls. Once we’ve established what doesn’t increase internal self-awareness, chapter 6 will show you what does, with several practical approaches that you can apply right away.
Part III confronts the surprising myths and truths of external self-awareness and shows us why we can’t unearth it on our own. We’ll discover that even when we think we understand how other people see us, we’re often dead wrong. Chapter 7 will expose the biggest misconceptions that people have about external self-awareness. Despite the lip service given today to “feedback” in the business world and beyond, it’s rare to get candid, objective data on what we’re doing well and where we could stand to improve. I’ll give you a few approaches to bust through these barriers and seek feedback—at work and at home—on your own terms. Finally, in chapter 8, you’ll learn how to hear that feedback without fighting or fleeing, and how to act on it while remaining true to who you are.
Part IV pulls back to look at the bigger picture. Chapter 9 will examine how good leaders foster self-awareness in their teams and organizations. You’ll see why trying to force team candor can be a surprisingly costly mistake—if you don’t have certain building blocks in place first, your efforts will backfire, creating less insight and more silence. I’ll end with a step-by-step process (one I’ve used for more than a decade) for your team to exchange feedback in a safe, direct, productive way.
Chapter 10 has the lofty but important goal of helping you survive and thrive in an increasingly delusional world. When I talk with people about my research, they often ask, “Can you please help me deal with [insert name of delusional person they know]?” We certainly can’t force others to become self-aware, but there are a surprising number of strategies that can reduce their negative impact, and in a few cases, even help them be less delusional. I’ll end the book with my Seven-Day Insight Challenge, a practical and battle-tested tool to help you engineer a few quick wins in your self-awareness journey. And if you’re interested in a more “block and tackle” guide, I encourage you to download the workbook available at www.insight-book.com.
Ultimately, there are two types of people—those who think they’re self-aware and those who actually are. My bold vision is to create a world filled with the latter. The barriers to self-awareness are numerous, but with the help of outside eyes and a few powerful tools, they are not impossible to navigate. And when we do, we’re laying the foundation for a whole new level of confidence and success. After all, without insight, how can we chart a course that will bring us joy and happiness? Or create deep and lasting relationships? Or fulfill our true purpose? I’m hoping that this book will be a powerful wake-up call to three simple facts: that self-awareness is the exquisite foundation to a life well lived, that it is possible to make the journey, and that the courage and effort it takes to get there are well worth it.
*1 Throughout the book, I’ll set key terms, tools, and key takeaways in bold type so it’s easier to refer back to them.
*2 I’m often asked how self-awareness is related to emotional intelligence. The simple answer is that whereas emotional intelligence is primarily about awareness and regulation of emotions in ourselves and others, self-awareness is a much broader term: it covers our internal characteristics that go beyond emotions—our values, passions, aspirations, fit, patterns, reactions, and impact on others—as well as how we’re seen by other people.