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
Surviving and Thriving in a Delusional World
Part Four: The Bigger Picture
Someone told me I was delusional. I almost fell off my unicorn.
A tadpole is swimming in a pond. All of a sudden a frog appears in the water next to him.
“Where did you come from?” the tadpole inquires.
“Somewhere dry,” replies the frog.
“What is ’dry’?” the tadpole asks.
“It’s when there is no water,” says the frog.
“What is ’water’?”
The frog is speechless. Emphatically gesturing at the abundant substance surrounding the tadpole, he asks, “Water? You mean…you can’t see it?”
“But how can you not see it? It’s all around you!”
This little allegory perfectly captures how it feels to be around an un-self-aware person. Whether it’s a spouse who doesn’t pick up on social cues, a boss who seems utterly incapable of seeing her behavior through her employees’ eyes, or a friend who is oblivious to how miserable his job is making him, the experience can be downright maddening. How can this smart, otherwise reasonable person, we wonder, be so utterly blind to the “water” they are swimming in—to who they are, how they behave, and what impact they have on those around them?
After surveying thousands of people, I’ve come to the obvious but nevertheless empirically based conclusion that one doesn’t have to throw a rock very far to hit a delusional person. In fact, only two of our unicorns reported not knowing such an individual. (Comically, one decided that since he couldn’t think of any, the most likely explanation was that he was delusional. He seemed relieved when we assured him that this wasn’t the case.) Of course, not all unaware people are created equal; sometimes they are innocuous or amusing, like an oblivious person sitting next to us on the train or a character on a reality TV show. Other times, they sap our energy and try our patience: like a hopelessly self-involved in-law or a delusional boss or co-worker. And still other times, when they’re as close to us as a partner, a parent, or a child, they can be a seemingly endless source of stress and heartbreak.
In the workplace, delusional people aren’t just annoying and frustrating; they can significantly hinder our performance. Scarily, being on a team with just one unaware person cuts the team’s chances of success in half, and unaware bosses have a detrimental impact on their employees’ job satisfaction, performance, and well-being. When reporters at the Washingtonian asked 13,500 employees in the Washington, D.C., area about their worst boss ever, they were regaled with mind-boggling tales of bad behavior. As just a few examples, one manager made employees who said anything “particularly stupid” stand on their chair as punishment. Another added up the time people spent in the bathroom and deducted the corresponding number of vacation hours each pay period. But perhaps the most unbelievable example came from an employee who tried to take a day off to attend his father’s funeral. His boss’ response? “We need you now. What difference does it make to him?”
Now, it would be easy to just dismiss these three bosses—and others like them—as simply bad people. Malicious jerks. Sociopaths, even. While these things may or may not be true, most people in the unenviable position of working with them don’t often stop to think about the role that self-awareness—or a lack thereof—is playing in the equation. After all, most people, even horrible bosses, don’t wake up every morning and say, “Today, I’m going to humiliate and upset everyone I talk to!” Instead, they may just be completely delusional about their behavior and its impact. But this puts us in a difficult position. Upon learning the truth, the delusional might very well be horrified and even want to take action to change. But is it really our responsibility to shock others into awareness? And even more fundamentally, is it even possible?
The truth is that challenging a delusional person can be risky at best and disastrous at worst. Remember, almost everyone thinks they’re above average, morally upstanding, and supremely self-aware—and the most delusional can be the least receptive to hearing otherwise. After all, as we’ve seen in previous chapters, when we hear feedback that suggests we’re not what we think we are, as renowned psychologist William Swann puts it, not only do we feel incompetent, we “suffer the severe disorientation and psychological anarchy that occurs when [we] recognize that [our] very existence is threatened.” Pretty heavy, right?
We’ve already heard the stories of so many ordinary people who have radically improved their own self-awareness, so it must at least be possible to help the delusional become more self-aware. But not everyone will want to change. (You know what they say about leading a horse to water, right?) Given this reality, what is the best way to deal with delusional people? Is it to understand them and perhaps help them change? Or is it better to simply minimize the collateral damage of their delusion on our success and happiness? In this chapter, I’ll address these questions with the goal of providing you a few actionable strategies for dealing with the three specific types of unaware people you may encounter in your life—the Lost Cause, the Aware Don’t Care, and the Nudgable—and keep them from draining your energy, enthusiasm, and happiness.
ACCEPTING WHAT WE CANNOT CHANGE AND CHANGING WHAT WE CAN (OR HOW TO SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE MARIA)
Robert was happy in his new job as development manager at a small IT security company. He was passionate about the work he did, had a great boss, and trusted and genuinely liked his co-workers. In fact, Robert loved everything about his new job—with one giant exception. That exception was named Maria.
Maria, like most un-self-aware people, seemed to inhabit her own reality. As the long-time manager of the company’s support desk, she stubbornly clung to the mistaken assumption that her colleagues shared her every opinion and disparaged them when they deigned to disagree with her. She used intimidation and bullying to control her team, and it was hurting morale to the point that they couldn’t muster the motivation to go out of their way to help their customers. On top of all that, Maria never let an opportunity slide to remind her colleagues about her academic credentials and years of experience.
Even Maria’s conflict-avoidant supervisor seemed scared of her. After an earnest but ineffective attempt to confront the behavior a few years back, he’d thrown up his hands and effectively given her worst qualities free rein to grow. Rather unsurprisingly, Maria’s behavior was a constant source of tension and conflict in the office—and if she had any vague awareness of how it was affecting the people around her, she certainly wasn’t showing it.
As the days and months dragged on, Robert felt Maria’s impact on the team growing like a cancer. Her co-workers were afraid to disagree with her lest she bite their heads off. They were frustrated that her boss wasn’t doing anything to hold her accountable for her bad behavior. Over time, Robert found himself waking up each morning less and less excited to come to work.
Then, one day, his prayers were answered in the form of an announcement from their human resources director. Each member of the company’s leadership team (of which he and Maria were members) would get the chance to receive anonymous written feedback from their colleagues. This is our chance to put it all on the table! Robert thought.
When it came time to put pen to paper, Robert decided that he had nothing to lose by being brutally honest about the specific behaviors that were driving everyone insane. “Maria takes her role very seriously and puts the hours in,” he wrote. “But she doesn’t realize her harsh tone, over-policing of staff, and constant references to her qualifications and experience combine to create a toxic atmosphere that is really hurting team morale and performance.” When Robert finished recording his feedback, he felt oddly optimistic. She’s really not a mean person, he decided, she probably just has no idea how much her behavior is damaging our team.
The human resources director collected and compiled everyone’s feedback. And a few days later, the eight members of their leadership team—Robert, Maria, and their peers—gathered in a conference room to discuss what each person had learned from the process. Robert found himself nervous but hopeful that today would be the day they finally addressed the elephant in the room.
The morning moved at glacial pace. For some reason, Maria had asked to go last, and the team was holding its collective breath with nervous anticipation. When it was finally her turn, the air in the room was like hot marshmallow.
“I was really shocked to hear how you all see me,” she began. “It was not a pleasant experience going through your feedback.” For a moment, she looked upset. The team was now on the edge of their seats. Would this be the moment that she’d see the error of her ways? Would Maria’s bad spell finally be lifted? “But honestly, I just didn’t recognize myself in any of these comments.”
Even though it felt like the walls were crashing in, the room was utterly silent. No one was quite sure how to respond to the level of delusion to which Maria clearly still clung. Robert cleared his throat and tentatively asked, “Maria, what did you hear from the team?”
“One thing’s for sure. I didn’t hear anything I actually need to change,” she flatly replied.
“What makes you say that?” he probed, trying to remain calm.
“Well, someone said that I was full of myself—always talking about my qualifications and experience. That person was obviously just jealous of my success.”
“Can you think of any other reason someone might have said that?” he carefully asked.
“What other reason is there?” Sensing an opening, Robert opened his mouth to speak. But before he could get a word out, Maria continued her thought. “There is no other reason.”
Robert looked back at Maria, blinking. In a split second, he weighed the pros and cons of coming clean that he had written the comment and pointing to any one of the many examples of the behavior that had inspired it. But despite his initial optimism, Robert suddenly realized that no good would come of it.
Unfortunately, he was right. A full year passed since Robert’s team completed this exercise, and a lot of things are different at work—a lot of things, that is, except for Maria. While each and every other team member had made a concerted effort to respond to the feedback they received, Maria continued to remain willfully ignorant; not only dismissing all of her colleagues’ comments, but repeatedly reminding them how wrong they’d been.
Maria represents the first of three categories of delusional people: the Lost Cause. Lost Causes cling to their delusion with a righteous, indignant, and unshakable zeal. Because they can’t (or won’t) consider any other opinion besides their own, anyone who attempts to shine a light on their less desirable characteristics will get the proverbial flashlight thwacked out of their hand. Because they already see themselves as pretty close to perfect, they’re rarely if ever willing to entertain the notion that they might have room to improve. Although you can occasionally get them to listen to feedback by appealing to their self-interest (“This behavior is hurting your reputation”), it is usually pointless to challenge their self-views.
When you discover that someone in your life is a Lost Cause, it’s easy to feel hopeless. The good news is that although we can’t impose insight on Lost Causes, it doesn’t mean that we can’t take action to minimize their impact on our success and happiness. Indeed, there is much to learn from how Robert learned to peacefully coexist with Maria—primarily by working to manage his own reactions and better understand her impact on him and the rest of the team.
Once Robert realized that Maria had no desire to improve her self-insight, he challenged himself to adopt the mindset of compassion without judgment. Rather than getting constantly bent out of shape about her deficits, he realized that they were simply on different journeys. If we revisit our “horse race of awareness” analogy from chapter 2, Robert was picking up speed while Maria was dead last—but with this realization, he was able to view her as someone who was simply struggling, rather than as a malicious megalomaniac. It was actually freeing to realize that Maria’s self-awareness was not his problem to fix—it was hers and hers alone.
Robert isn’t the only one to adopt such an approach; when surveyed about how they deal with the Lost Causes in their lives, only about half of our unicorns reported directly intervening, but nearly all used strategies to control their own reactions. In his superb book The No Asshole Rule, Stanford professor Bob Sutton shares an instructive metaphor for managing our reactions to Lost Causes. (And for that matter, to the second type, the Aware Don’t Care, whom you’ll read about in a minute.) Imagine you’re white-water rafting. Your boat is calmly floating down a picturesque river, when all of a sudden you see a rough patch ahead. As you paddle through the rapids, you’re abruptly thrown into the violent waters.
Most people in this situation try to fight it: kicking and flailing to get back to the boat; trying to swim toward the shore; futilely clinging to a slippery rock. But those strategies are actually more likely to kill us than save us, and the less we battle the current, the sooner we’ll find ourselves in calmer waters. Robert liked this metaphor—it reminded him that he was actually more in control than it seemed. If Maria said something antagonistic to him, for example, rather than standing up to her or trying to make her see the error of her ways, he would simply imagine floating feet-first, and getting out of the rough waters as quickly as possible.
When dealing with a delusional person like this, it’s easy to write him or her off as simply a bad person. But what if we challenged ourselves to name a few of their positive characteristics? This is an example of another tool; one that draws on the mindfulness tool of reframing, or looking at our problem from a different perspective. When Maria brought her 13-year-old daughter to work, Robert was genuinely struck by how Maria treated her: she was unbelievably kind, fiercely loyal, and demonstrably proud. To stay in control of his reactions when he was working with Maria, Robert kept that image in his mind and forced himself to conjure it when she wasn’t behaving quite as magnanimously toward him.
Another technique that’s equally applicable to Lost Causes is one that Robert originally learned in elementary school. In fifth grade, the class bully set his sights on Robert, who would come home every day crying and fearful of the next day’s abuse. This went on for weeks, until his mother said something that he never forgot. “Honey,” she told him, “this kid is a bully. He’s mean, he’s cruel, and I know how much he’s hurting you. But have you ever asked yourself, what can he teach me?” Initially, young Robert thought his mother was a bit nuts—what in the world could he learn from that malevolent monster?—but soon he realized that perhaps he’d been too hasty. Perhaps the experience was an opportunity to learn something about himself. Maybe, he thought, he’s showing me that I need to do a better job sticking up for myself. And so he did.
Robert was reminded of this a few months after his failed showdown with Maria. Since that day in the conference room, she was aiming an inordinate amount of ire his way. And one evening, after a particularly hellish day, he’d finally had enough. He was going to quit. But as he began drafting his resignation, he remembered his mother’s words. Maria, he realized, was just a different kind of bully. So Robert asked himself the question his mother had asked all those years before. Was this actually an opportunity to learn a few lessons about dealing with difficult people and therefore improve himself?
When he gave this new perspective a trial run, it worked almost instantly. He began to view the situation not as a soul-eroding marathon, but as an interesting and beneficial challenge. Though she had no idea, Maria was helping Robert increase his self-awareness and turn those lemons of delusion into lemonade.
Lost Causes aren’t the only type of delusional people out there. Let’s now look at a second variety, who, as we’ll see, can seem indistinguishable from Lost Causes, but in reality suffer from a much, much different problem.
WHEN A LITTLE SELF-KNOWLEDGE ISN’T ENOUGH
I was once hired by a manufacturing company to coach Jerry, a VP who was a successor for their chief operating officer role. From our first meeting, I was impressed with Jerry’s intelligence, instincts, and insight. But these characteristics couldn’t have been more different from those of his boss, Daniel, whose behavior was the stuff of legend. The current COO’s “leadership” techniques included yelling at his direct reports when they disappointed him, humiliating them in front of their colleagues, and causing even the most composed professionals to lose their cool. Unsurprisingly, Jerry’s department had the highest turnover rate in the company, along with the lowest morale.
Naturally, I had lots of questions about this mysterious Daniel. Did he have even an inkling about how ineffective his approach was? Had anyone ever mustered the courage to confront him? And if they had, did he at any point even try to change his behavior? I would soon learn the answer, and it wasn’t what I expected.
After Jerry had set his own goals for our coaching process, the two of us decided to sit down with Daniel to make sure he was on board. Jerry and I made a plan for the conversation as we waited in the cavernous seating area outside Daniel’s office. When we were ushered in, I stuck my hand out to introduce myself to Daniel. Now, for some context, I’ve often been accused of having an unusually firm handshake (when I first met my graduate advisor, for example, his first word to me was literally “OW!”). But when I shook Daniel’s hand, his grip was so aggressive that I felt like he was trying to get me to drop to the floor. That was my first clue about what was really going on.
Luckily, Jerry had a gift for dealing with Daniel that bordered on magical, and the meeting got off to a great start. Jerry’s first goal was to delegate more effectively so he could focus more on the strategic aspects of his role. Daniel was on board. But he didn’t quite feel the same way about Jerry’s second goal, which was to work on better engaging his employees. Before Jerry could finish explaining his plan to do so, Daniel held his hand up as if to say, “Stop talking right now.” Jerry obliged.
“Jerry, this one’s a waste of your time.”
“Why is that, Daniel?” he calmly asked, as if he had anticipated this question from his rather predictable boss.
“Because it doesn’t matter if your employees are ’engaged.’ The most effective management tool I’ve ever come across is fear. If they fear you, they will get the work done. It’s really that simple.”
I was so shocked that I almost fell out of my chair. I have heard executives say a lot of ridiculous things over the years, but I had never met someone who openly admitted to a strategy of intimidation. And Daniel didn’t just admit to this strategy; he was bragging about it. That’s when I realized that, unlike so many of the delusional bosses I’ve encountered in my coaching work, Daniel knew exactly how he was behaving—and it didn’t bother him in the slightest. Though many of his actions screamed Lost Cause, his was an entirely different problem. Daniel was a textbook case of the second type of delusional person: one I call Aware Don’t Care.
Whereas a Lost Cause’s primary issue is a lack of insight and no motivation to acquire it, the Aware Don’t Care know exactly what they’re doing—and the negative impact they’re having on others—but they act that way anyway. Why? They truly believe that their counterproductive (often borderline-abusive) behavior will help them get what they want. And therein lies their delusion. From Daniel’s perspective, he (wrongly) believed that cultivating fear helped him do his job better.
I have an uncle who recently retired from a long career as a surgeon. During his residency, one of his attending physicians was an avid marathon runner; this starkly contrasted with the residents, most of whom rarely left the hospital, let alone found time to exercise. Every morning, rounds began on the fifth floor. But rather than meeting his residents there, the attending required them to gather on the first floor and march up five flights of stairs together. One day, my breathless uncle asked him if he knew how hard it was for everyone to climb the stairs. “Of course I do,” the attending replied. “I do it so none of you will ask me questions.” There we have it, folks. Aware, and definitely didn’t care.
But since the behaviors of the Aware Don’t Care can so closely resemble those of a Lost Cause, how can we tell the difference? Sometimes, we learn the answer only when we confront them—as Robert did with Maria, and as my uncle did with his attending. Other times, though, there can be clues. Lost Causes usually show inconsistency between what they say about themselves and how they behave. Remember Steve, the construction executive from chapter 3? When I first met him, he waxed poetic about what a great leader he was and how much his employees respected him; both claims were in direct contradiction to his actions. The Aware Don’t Care, on the other hand, show a different pattern. They are likely to acknowledge their behavior, but brush it off or defend it (i.e., “Yeah, I know I yelled at her, but she deserved it” or “Of course I’m pushy with clients—that’s the only way to make the sale”). Like Daniel, they might even take to bragging about their unsavory characteristics.
Another way to tell Lost Causes from the Aware Don’t Care is to look at their perspective-taking abilities. Lost Causes tend to believe that their way of thinking is the only way—like Maria, who assumed that everyone else shared her opinions and freaked out when they didn’t. The Aware Don’t Care, on the other hand, often show that they understand their behavior from other people’s perspectives—like the hospital attending who knew just how onerous those five flights of stairs really were—but they also demonstrate the belief that the behavior is productive. And for that reason, it’s usually not worth the energy to try to change them.
When we learned about the Cult of Self earlier in the book, we saw that narcissists—people characterized by grandiose levels of self-admiration—are an especially delusional bunch. But while a lack of self-insight has traditionally been a cornerstone of narcissism, recent research has indicated that they possess something called “pseudo-insight.” For example, and rather shockingly, one of the best ways to identify a narcissist is to simply ask them whether they are, in fact, a narcissist—more often than not, they’ll reply in the affirmative. But why on earth are they so willing to admit to toxic traits, like egotism, selfishness, and vanity? Just like Daniel, they are aware that they possess these characteristics, but don’t see anything wrong with them. In fact, they tend to view them as positive! As social psychologist Brad Bushman observes, narcissists “believe they are superior to other people and are fine with saying that publicly.”
There is also evidence that narcissists have at least some awareness of the (generally inevitable) erosion of their personal relationships, but they don’t seem to recognize their role. Instead, they blame others and cling to their overly positive self-assessments. One fairly amazing way they do this is to conclude that others are just too dim to appreciate their brilliance. And while narcissistic leaders think extremely highly of their leadership performance, they are rated lowest in effectiveness by their teams—the only people they are impressing, in other words, are themselves.
While the two techniques mentioned above (floating feet-first and asking “what can they teach me?”) will also work with the Aware Don’t Care, there is another that’s particularly well suited for them. I first came up with the laugh track when I had the misfortune of working for an Aware Don’t Care boss many years ago. After a series of public humiliations, including being reamed out for a relatively small mistake in front of our entire leadership team, I was at the end of my rope. I figured I had two choices: I could quit, or I could find a better way to deal with my manager. Because I adored every other aspect of my job, I decided to try the latter. One day, after a particularly unpleasant encounter with said boss, I happened to recall my favorite TV show growing up, The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Mary’s boss was a surly man named Lou Grant, played by the incomparable Ed Asner. On a good day, Lou Grant was grumpy and hotheaded; on a bad day, he was nasty and downright abusive. But because his outrageous comments were often followed by a canned laugh track, to the viewer, they seemed comical and surprisingly endearing. I decided that the next time my boss said something so cruel that it made me want to cry, I’d imagine a laugh track behind it instead. Now, it would be inaccurate to say that this completely transformed my experience of working for him, but the tool did make it that much more bearable (and occasionally, hilarious).
These stories are proof that when it comes to delusional people who refuse to change, by managing our own reactions, we often have more control than we think. But unfortunately, changing our mindset is not always sufficient. There are times when we’ll need to proactively assert ourselves and set boundaries, and there will be times—if all else fails—when the only tool we have at our disposal is to remove ourselves from the situation.
I have a good friend who, in addition to having a successful coaching practice, is a rather prolific writer. A few years back, Scott was hired by a well-known entrepreneur—let’s call him Joe—to perform some initial research for a book he wanted to write. In their first meeting, Scott was blown away by how down-to-earth Joe was for a multimillionaire. Seconds after they met, Joe enveloped Scott in a huge bear hug, and throughout their conversation, he seemed positively enraptured by everything Scott had to say. This is going to be a blast! Scott thought excitedly.
The contract Scott drew up was simple and unambiguous—or so he thought. He would perform in-person interviews with 10 CEOs who shared Joe’s management philosophy, write a report for each, and submit it, along with his travel expenses, to get paid for that portion of the work. The day before his meeting with the first CEO, which was taking place in New York, Scott’s assistant Jenna had set up a final call to review the interview questions. Jenna dialed in at the top of the call to make sure everything was on track and then left Joe and Scott to proceed with their conversation.
As the call came to a close, Joe asked, “You’re good on the subject areas I need covered tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I’m good,” said Scott. “If you think of any others while I’m in the air, just pass them along to Jenna. She’ll make sure I get them the moment I land.”
“Sure,” said Joe. “She seems very efficient.”
“Oh, Jenna’s the best,” Scott replied enthusiastically. “I call her my right-hand woman. We’ve built the whole business together. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”
Initially Scott thought nothing of this portion of the conversation. But then, just a few minutes after hanging up, his phone rang again. It was Jenna.
“Is everything okay?”
“Sure,” she said. “But you’ll never guess who just called me? Joe!”
“Is there a problem?”
“I don’t know how to say this, exactly…but he offered me a job.”
Scott was stunned. “Wh-what?”
“He offered to double my salary. And he didn’t even ask what my salary was!”
“You must be kidding,” said Scott, suddenly choked with feelings of anger and panic.
“I turned him down, of course,” she quickly added. “But I thought you should know.”
That night, Scott struggled to sleep. How could Joe do that just minutes after he’d shared how valuable Jenna was to his business? He knew Jenna was happy and fairly compensated, and he felt lucky that she’d had the loyalty to turn Joe down. But the whole incident had left him feeling belittled and betrayed. He decided to confront Joe the next morning and state his needs.
“Joe, I wanted to talk to you about what happened yesterday after our call.”
There was a long pause as Scott waited for Joe to realize he’d been found out and apologize for his completely unprofessional behavior. “Jenna told me that you tried to hire her away from me.”
“Yeah,” Joe sighed. “And she turned me down on the spot. But that’s okay. You know, I have to be honest, most people in her position would crawl over broken glass to work with me. Frankly, the fact she turned me down makes me question her judgment. It’s really no loss to me.”
Scott couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It almost seemed as if Joe thought he was calling to apologize to him. The multimillionaire was clearly clueless about the impact of his actions—not just on their relationship, but potentially on the success of the very project he’d hired Scott to complete. “Look, Joe, can I ask you a favor?” said Scott. “Can you please refrain from hiring my people?”
Another long pause followed. Apparently, Joe had to think it over. But finally, he agreed to Scott’s request.
Though Scott was understandably unsettled by the whole encounter, he hoped it would be a minor bump in the road. He toiled over the report for his first interview, and a few weeks later, he submitted a 15-page product to Joe, accompanied by receipts for his travel expenses, just as they had agreed. Later that day, Scott received a phone call.
“Scotty,” said Joe. “I got your report. I’ve got to tell you, I’ve decided I don’t want this guy or his company anywhere near my book. The stuff he was saying about staff feedback? One-hundred-percent Texas horseshit.”
Scott was naturally disappointed to hear that he’d wasted three weeks of work. But his disappointment was nothing compared to the fury he was about to experience.
“I’ll reimburse your travel expenses, of course,” Joe continued. “So don’t worry about that. Just send your receipts to my office.”
Scott’s heart felt like it had frozen in his chest. “And, uh…my fee?” he said. “I’ll send the invoice for the fee at the same time?”
“Scotty, no,” said Joe, suddenly impatient. “I just told you. This thing is of no use to me. I’m not paying for horseshit.”
Hardly containing his anger, Scott decided he had no choice but to assertively state his needs. “Joe, this is not reasonable at all. You approved the interviewee and the questions. The report is exactly what you asked for. I have to be paid.”
After a long discussion—and Scott’s repeated insistence that Joe honor their agreement—the irascible entrepreneur finally agreed to pay up. But Scott was still (understandably) quite perturbed. Of course, at this point he seriously considered taking the money and running. But because he believed in the project—and was getting paid quite handsomely—he decided to try one more thing before he threw in the towel. This time, he would create better guidelines for their relationship. What they needed were clear boundaries they could both agree on.
Scott added about four pages of specifics to the contract, spelling out the exact requirements for the work product, and just in case, the exact travel expenses that Joe would reimburse him for. After a few back-and-forths, he was able to get Joe’s signature and set out to schedule his second interview. Now, even for someone as narcissistic and delusional as Joe, there could be no doubt as to where they stood. Or so he thought.
Unfortunately, Joe’s behavior persisted. At one point, and in direct opposition to their contract, he even refused to pay for Scott’s expenses because he’d taken a short taxi ride instead of the subway. Up until now, Scott had been doing everything he could to deal with his unaware client. He’d assertively stated his needs and aggressively clarified his boundaries. And he’d attempted to manage his own reactions. But his concern continued to grow. How bad is this going to get? Scott wondered. He decided to pick up the phone and call a few mutual acquaintances to get more information.
The most concerning data came from Candace, one of Joe’s longtime executives. In the last two years, Candace had been diagnosed with a serious autoimmune disease, and despite knowing about her diagnosis and what it meant, Joe had apparently continued to summon her into the office at all hours of the night and on weekends. “He’s killing me,” Candace half joked, “and he has absolutely no idea.”
As he hung up with Candace, Scott finally decided that enough was enough. It was time to walk away. This cruel and unfeeling behavior was proof positive that Joe simply was never going to change, and the money Scott was sacrificing was minimal compared to the sanity he would be regaining. And in case you’re doubting Scott’s decision, this might be a good time to tell you the topic of the book Joe was writing. It was a book on…wait for it…emotional intelligence. It just doesn’t get any more delusional than that, does it?
Granted, not everyone dealing with a delusional person has the luxury of walking away. But as Scott discovered, when someone is as thoroughly mired in delusion as Joe, the problems they create in our lives don’t magically disappear. In many cases, they intensify over time. If we’ve exhausted all of our options—changing our mindset, stating our needs, and reinforcing our boundaries—but still can’t manage, we must face these situations with unflinching honesty about who they are and the true probability that they will ever change. Sometimes, after weighing those factors, we may indeed decide that whatever the sacrifice—whether it’s leaving a job we love, cutting ties with an impossibly unaware friend or family member, or giving up a lucrative contract—our best option may be to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and move forward.
HELPING THE DELUSIONAL DECODE THE FLASHING LIGHTS
Mercifully, though, not everyone is unreachable. Indeed, the third type of delusional person, the Nudgable, is one whose behavior we absolutely can have an impact on, at least to a degree. What sets the Nudgable apart from their more hopeless counterparts is that they genuinely want to be better; they just don’t know that they need to change their approach. And unlike Lost Causes and the Aware Don’t Care, they are generally surprisingly receptive to receiving this information—that is, when it’s delivered in the right way.
The day I turned 16, I joyfully experienced the classic rite of passage of getting my driver’s license. Eager to exercise my newfound freedom, I begged my mother to let me drive to school and back the next day. She hesitated, understandably, because I had a play rehearsal that went late into the evening and little practice driving in the dark. But eventually she relented. That evening, I got into my car, turned on my headlights, and headed home. Exhilarated to be behind the wheel, I thought everything was going great. Then I noticed that almost every car I passed was blinking their lights at me. Why is everybody doing that? I wondered.
I soon found out. As soon as I made it home and pulled into the driveway, my mother burst out of the garage, frantically waving at me to turn off my brights, “Honey, you’re blinding the entire neighborhood!”
All of a sudden it made sense. Completely unbeknownst to me, I had been shining my brights directly at Denver drivers for miles—and what’s more, they’d all been trying to tell me as much. I just couldn’t, quite literally, read the signals I was getting. This is a good metaphor for what life is like for unaware people. Though they can’t decode what the flashing lights in front of them mean, other people usually can. And if they’re open to it, we can help the unaware see themselves through our eyes.
Call me an optimist, but I believe that more often than not, most unaware people are at least somewhat Nudgable. Many times, rather than representing a deep disconnect from reality, their unawareness results from far less pervasive and sometimes even situational causes. For example, research has suggested a positive correlation between stress and unawareness: that is, the more stress we are under, the more unrealistic we tend to be about our abilities, characteristics, and behaviors. This makes intuitive sense. Have you noticed that people seem to be most delusional about their behavior in times of stress? Unawareness isn’t always an indictment of someone’s potential to develop insight—they may just need a bit of a nudge.
My friend Lisa has been on the board of a local non-profit for nearly a decade. A few months ago, they brought on new a board member, let’s call him Phil, who was more than a touch delusional. In no time at all, Phil was annoying everybody, constantly bragging about his successes in the private sector with no apparent understanding of how he was alienating those around him. That is, until he realized that the other board members were giving him the cold shoulder. When he had tried to join a few committees, he’d been effectively shut out.
One evening after a board meeting, Phil approached Lisa with a frustrated look on his face. He asked her if, as the longest-serving board member, she might give him some advice. He shared his frustration and asked if he was doing anything that was contributing to the problem. As is often the case with the Nudgable, Phil knew something was wrong, but he couldn’t quite read the signs. Lisa suggested that he pay closer attention to his language: instead of telling everyone everything he had done, she gently suggested, perhaps he could ask his colleagues questions to get to know them better. Phil was taken aback as he processed the information. He then proceeded to announce that he would change his approach starting at that very moment. Though it took a little longer than Phil may have hoped, he was eventually able to win over his fellow board members, and was invited to join more than one committee.
In Phil’s case, Lisa had the perfect opening to deliver her feedback. Unfortunately, though, not every unaware person is savvy enough to seek it out. After all, the big catch-22 of self-awareness is that the people who need it most are usually the least likely to know they need it. So is it ever a good idea to confront an unaware person more directly? And if so, how can we guard against the inevitable risks? How can we deliver these important insights without the recipient shooting the messenger (i.e., you)? As we’ll see from the following story, when it comes to the Nudgable, a little compassion, coupled with some thoughtful preparation, can really go a long way.
It was the week before Christmas in a picture-perfect mountain hotel. Sophia and Emma, who’d been best friends since kindergarten, had been having a fantastic time in Vermont, courtesy of Emma’s generous and successful father. He’d treated them to seven days of private snowmobiling lessons, lavish shopping trips, and pricey dinners. But sitting in the luxurious suite they’d been sharing as the gold December sun shone through the windows, Emma suddenly looked anxious.
“What’s up?” asked Sophia, sitting on the edge of the bed with a freshly made cup of coffee.
Emma was peering around the open door. “Is my dad around?” she whispered.
“What, Frank?” said Sophia. “He went to the gym to find your mom. Why?”
“It’s the ski lesson he booked for tomorrow,” said Emma, rubbing the back of her neck. “I don’t think I want to go.”
“Really!” she replied, wide-eyed. “Why would anyone strap slippery wood planks to their feet and slide down a mountain at a high speed…voluntarily? I want to live to see Christmas.”
“So don’t go!” laughed Sophia. “Just kick back in the spa. What’s the big deal?”
“It’s Dad,” she said. “He’ll chew me out for sure.”
Sophia (who also happens to be a self-awareness unicorn) did her best to reassure her old friend that she was worrying too much. After all, Sophia had known Emma’s father for years. Frank was an extraordinary man. He’d overcome a difficult childhood to put himself through college and then medical school, and he had since become a world-renowned surgeon. She knew him to be physically imposing, at nearly seven feet tall with broad shoulders and a Hemingway beard, but also extremely kind. For a long time, Frank had supported Sophia’s dream of becoming a doctor, and been something of a mentor, arranging informational interviews with his colleagues, taking her to lunch to talk about her plans, and even helping with her medical school applications earlier that fall.
Of course, she’d heard about Frank’s “other side” from Emma for years, who’d often complained that he could be domineering, cruel, and controlling. For example, Emma had struggled with her grades in college, and at one point announced to her parents that she was going to take a year off from school to “regroup.” Frank had apparently lashed out at her, complaining about how much money he was wasting on her education and how ungrateful she was. This, of course, was devastating to Emma. “He wields his wealth and success like a weapon,” she’d bemoaned, more than once.
“I know you guys locked horns when you were growing up,” said Sophia. “But he’s not going to want to ruin Christmas making an issue of something dumb like a ski lesson.”
“Maybe,” replied Emma, hesitantly at first. “Yeah, maybe you’re right.”
Minutes later, Frank returned.
“Go on!” mouthed Sophia, gently pushing her friend toward the lounge space.
“Dad?” said Emma, leaning on the door frame. “Would you mind if I sat out skiing tomorrow? Would that be okay?”
As he walked to the wardrobe to hang his wife’s coat, Frank’s expression barely changed. “Sure,” he said flatly, his shoulders shrugging ever so slightly. Pleasantly surprised by her father’s non-explosive reaction, Emma put the whole thing out of her mind.
The next morning, as they were all heading back to the suite after breakfast, Frank ran into a colleague in the lobby. They made pleasant conversation as an open fire crackled and popped and sweater-clad guests milled about.
But when the woman asked about Frank’s plans that day, his warm demeanor instantly dissipated. “Well, we three,” he said, gesturing wildly toward himself, Emma’s mother, and Sophia, “are going to be taking a private skiing lesson. But someone,” he pointed at his daughter and dramatically rolled his eyes, “is too afraid to go skiing and decided to cancel at the last minute—and it’s too late to get my money back. Can you believe how ungrateful she is?” Frank bellowed, at a volume that reverberated through the lobby so loudly that he might as well have made an announcement on their PA system.
A long, awkward silence followed. Suddenly, Emma, choking back tears, stormed off without a word. As she went, Frank watched her with a look of genuine confusion. He turned at Sophia as if to ask, “Was it something I said?” Clearly, he had no idea how his brutish words had injured his sensitive daughter.
For the rest of that day and long into the evening, Sophia couldn’t stop thinking about what she had witnessed. And the more she pondered Frank’s behavior, the more incensed she became on her friend’s behalf. She knew she had basically two options: to confront Frank or stay painfully MUM and see his behavior continue. Sophia felt compelled to talk to him, but she didn’t know whether it would do any good. And she was pretty sure that either way, she’d be putting herself right in the firing line of his outrageous temper.
To help her decide what to do, Sophia asked herself several questions. The first was, do the benefits of having this conversation outweigh the potential risks? Sophia started with the benefits: first and foremost, she cared about Emma. If she could do anything to minimize the hurt that Frank caused her in the future, she’d do it in a second. Sophia also cared about Frank and knew that if this behavior continued, it could effectively end his relationship with his daughter.
She imagined the worst-case scenario if their conversation went south. The most painful thing that could happen was that Frank would never want to speak to her again, but while that was possible, she had a hunch that the more realistic worst-case scenario was that he would yell at her and sulk for the rest of the vacation. So, given these two options—a better Frank or a worse vacation—she was happy to risk the latter in service of the former.
But even once Sophia decided that the benefits outweighed the costs, she still had another angle to consider. She asked: Does he know there’s a problem? Sophia believed (and the research confirms this) that if someone isn’t feeling any pain or frustration, they might not have enough motivation to change. In Frank’s case, though, he clearly knew something was wrong—his pained look when Emma ran away was proof enough—he just didn’t know he was the reason.
A related question was: Is his behavior counter to his best interests? When someone is acting in a way that’s inconsistent with their values and priorities, pointing out the discrepancy can be quite motivating, if a little jarring. Research has shown that human beings have a desire for congruence—that is, they want their behaviors and beliefs to match—and when they don’t, they experience an uncomfortable sense of cognitive dissonance. In Frank’s case, Sophia knew that he cared deeply about being a good dad to Emma. She even remembered a recent conversation where he had mentioned that the reason he worked so hard was to give Emma a better childhood than he’d had. Pointing out how his behavior was impeding those goals, Sophia reasoned, was likely to create an alarm-clock moment.
The answer to Sophia’s final question—Do I think that he will listen to me?—wasn’t as straightforward. Power differentials, like the one she had with Frank, make conversations like this very difficult. (Remember how hard it is to speak truth to power?) Indeed, for a 21-year-old pre-med student to think she should tell a successful 52-year-old surgeon how to act might seem silly on the face of it. But Sophia thought that the trust they shared would tip the balance. Frank respected her, trusted her motives, and recognized what a good friend she was to Emma; he had often remarked that she was his daughter’s most mature and responsible friend. What’s more, she reminded herself that he had been open to smaller pieces of feedback—albeit of a very different type—from her in the past, recalling a recent conversation in which she had playfully corrected his grammar. He’d seemed annoyed for a moment, then grinned and said, “You know, you’re the only person I would ever let correct me on something like that.”
After carefully weighing all sides of the issue, Sophia decided that she was going to talk to Frank. Instinctively knowing that the longer she waited, the more likely he’d be to minimize or even forget the inciting event, she decided to do it the very next day. Luckily, she had a window of opportunity already built in: Sophia and Frank were both early risers, and in the first few days of their vacation, they’d settled into an early-morning coffee routine. Tomorrow, Sophia would invite him to breakfast instead.
Later that night, as Sophia lay in bed sleeplessly staring at the ceiling, she figured she’s try to channel her nerves to make a plan for the conversation and think through a few contingencies. When morning finally came, she marched to their suite’s small kitchen and came face-to-face with Frank. “Frank, I’m starving,” she said as nonchalantly as possible. “Do you want to grab breakfast at the restaurant downstairs?” “Sure!” he replied, and off they went.
The hostess walked them through the nearly empty restaurant and gestured toward a table in the back. Once they ordered, the pair had an uneasy chuckle about the unnerving number of stuffed animal heads on the wall above them, then discussed Sophia’s plans for medical school the following year. “Frank,” she told him, “I really can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done to help me get here. I don’t think I’ve ever told you how grateful I am for your advice. You’re an incredible doctor and an even better friend.”
Sophia could literally see Frank puffing up across the table. But she wasn’t just buttering him up. Not only was her gratitude authentic, Sophia know that expressing it had another benefit. She’d just learned about self-affirmation in her social psychology course and thought that affirming Frank’s positive qualities as a doctor and friend would prepare him to hear about his less-than-ideal parental characteristics. (Incidentally, Sophia was right: affirmation has similar benefits with others as when we use it with ourselves.)
Smiling, Frank replied, “Wow, Sophia, thank you. It’s so nice to feel appreciated! And so rare for me,” he said, winking at her in a not-so-subtle reference to yesterday’s episode. Sophia didn’t think her opening would come this fast, but she decided to go with it.
“What do you mean?” she innocently inquired.
“I’ve just had it up to here with Emma. I mean, I’m sorry, I know she’s your friend and I probably shouldn’t be telling you this. But can you believe how ungrateful she was yesterday?”
Emma mentally reviewed the plan she’d come up with the night before. She’d decided to begin by asking questions to see if Frank could reach a place of insight on his own, without her having to forcibly drag him there.
“What was going on there, do you think?” she asked.
“The sad fact is, my daughter can be ungrateful.” He lifted a croissant from the basket at the center of the table. “All my life, I’ve spent, I mean, my God, hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to make her happy. And all my life, she’s thrown it back in my face. Skipping out on the ski lesson? I should’ve expected it.” He ripped the croissant in half and studied it with an air of faint disgust. “I was kind of hoping that she was finally starting to grow up.”
“Fair enough,” Sophia remarked, “but what do you think was going on from Emma’s perspective?”
“She was acting like a baby!”
Sophia tried again. “Frank, I can completely understand how mad that made you. But from Emma’s perspective, why do you think she was so hurt?”
“I have absolutely no idea.”
Sophia paused. She was waiting for an “aha moment,” but all she got was an old man angrily chewing a pastry. “Okay, you were both really upset, right?” she said. Frank nodded. “And you don’t want that to happen in the future?” More nodding. “So don’t you think it’s important to figure out why Emma reacted that way?”
Frank cocked his head, seemingly curious. Then, as if on cue, he punted Sophia’s question back to her. “What do you think was going on with Emma?”
Though this was a signal that he was open to an alternative version of the events, Sophia was worried that if she came right out with Emma’s perspective, he’d think she was taking sides, or wrongly conclude that his daughter had sent her friend to do her dirty work. Sophia carefully began, “Frank, I haven’t talked to Emma about this yet, so I can only infer, but think about it for a minute. She was obviously really scared to go skiing.” Frank rolled his eyes. She continued, “Then you lashed out at her for it, and in public, no less.”
“What do you mean? I was just making polite conversation.”
“Well, it was a conversation,” she said. “But it definitely wasn’t polite.” Frank seemed taken aback by Sophia’s candor. There was a tense silence. But then his shocked expression evolved into a small smile. She plodded on, “Did you notice the exact moment Emma got upset?”
“Was it when I was talking about how she didn’t want to come with us to the ski lesson?” Sophia nodded. “But I still don’t understand why.”
Emboldened, Sophia offered, “I think Emma was humiliated. She was already embarrassed about being so afraid, and you put it out there for everyone to see. And as for the fact that she walked away, she was probably trying not to get in a fight with you in front of a stranger.”
Finally, a faint glimmer of understanding came over his face. “So what I said made Emma feel like she was being punished for not wanting to go skiing?”
“Well, maybe. And Frank, if I may, there was one more thing I think Emma might have been reacting to. But let me ask you first: How did the issue of money factor into that whole situation, in your mind?”
Reaching for another croissant, he replied suspiciously, “I already told you. I was mad because Emma was wasting my money.”
“I understand. But how do you think money factored into the situation for Emma? Do you think it’s possible that she felt like you were holding the money you spent on the ski lesson over her head?”
Frank’s arm paused in midair. The croissant fell back into the basket. “Oh, wow,” he said, sitting back and exhaling. “I never thought about it that way. Is that something I do?”
Suddenly, the floodgates of insight burst open, and Frank was on a roll. He started connecting his behavior to his childhood experiences—how his family had trouble with money; how it was a frequent source of conflict; how helpless and frustrated it used to make him feel. “I don’t want to repeat that pattern. I had no idea I was doing this,” he pleaded. “There’s nothing in the world more important to me than being a good dad. But if I didn’t know I was acting this way, how am I going to know when I do it again?” Sophia thought for a moment. “Frank, why don’t you ask Emma to help you?”
And so he did. It took Frank a few weeks to muster the courage to sit down with his daughter. But when they finally talked, he was surprised to find out how good it felt to get things out into the open. Though Frank and Emma’s relationship didn’t heal overnight, of course, Sophia noticed a palpable difference in how they were interacting just weeks later. He was doing a much better job of listening to her and staying calm, and Emma told her that he’d virtually stopped talking about money. As time went on, Frank would lapse back into his old behavior perhaps more than was ideal—after all, he was unlearning decades of ingrained habits—but the difference was that now he was more aware of it when it happened. As a result, he was able to stay focused and improve a little every day, which over time created a stronger bond between them.
As Sophia’s story shows, it is often possible to help others to increase their insight, and it’s never too late to begin. For that reason, when dealing with a delusional person, it’s not a bad idea to be optimistic and assume that a person is Nudgable until it’s proven otherwise. But at the same time, we must also be practical—honestly assessing their level of openness and examining whether the benefits of such a conversation outweigh the costs, wisely choosing our timing and our words, and above all, keeping our expectations reasonable. Sometimes, a single conversation can be a game-changer, as Sophia found with Frank. Other times, the person might need a few more nudges. (Research has shown that on average, the more unaware a person is, the more likely they are to require repeated evidence over time, sometimes from several sources.)
But often, if we keep the tone of the conversation positive and constructive and show that we come from a place of genuine support, we can help the unaware see themselves more clearly. When we confront with compassion, we can often nudge them to make powerful changes that don’t just improve their life and happiness, but ours as well.
THE LIFELONG QUEST AND THE SPECKLED AX
A man once purchased a hand-forged ax from a blacksmith. Affixed atop its sturdy wooden handle, as the centuries-old story goes, was an iron head covered in opaque gray carbon, save for the blade, where the blacksmith had sharpened off the soot to reveal the smooth silver underneath. The man liked the look of the blade so much that he asked the blacksmith to sand the entire head to match. The blacksmith agreed, but only if the man would help him power the sharpening wheel. As the blacksmith pressed the head of the ax hard against the stone, the man began to turn the wheel. But the task was far more difficult than he had imagined, and after just a few minutes, the man stopped. And when he checked his progress, he didn’t see the bright, smooth silver surface he hoped for—the carbon had only been sanded away in a few areas, and the ax was a gray-speckled mess.
The man announced that he’d take the ax home as it was anyway.
“No! Turn on, turn on,” the blacksmith said. “We shall have it bright by and by; as yet, it is only speckled.”
“Yes,” replied the man, “but I think I like a speckled ax best.”
This story, penned by America’s first unicorn, Ben Franklin, perfectly illustrates how unexpectedly difficult the twin goals of self-awareness and self-improvement really are. We might strive for an ax that is shiny, smooth, and flawless, but feel intimidated by the effort and commitment it takes to get there. Rather than keep sanding away, we find it far easier to convince ourselves that we wanted an imperfect ax all along.
While a perfect silver ax—i.e., total insight and absolute truth—is not a realistic or even productive goal, that doesn’t mean we should throw in the towel when the going gets tough. Without a doubt, the lifelong pursuit of self-awareness can be long, difficult, and messy. We will hit obstacles or setbacks and feel daunted by the work it takes. And just when we think we’ve finally sanded off all of the proverbial soot, we might discover that we actually still have a way to go.
But the fact that we are never truly “finished” becoming self-aware is also what makes the journey so exciting. No matter how much insight we’ve achieved, there is always more to be gained. Few understand this better than our unicorns, who see self-awareness as a state of being that they consistently prioritize. And for the rest of us, no matter how self-aware we start out, we can all work to continuously broaden and deepen our insight throughout the course of our lives.
As we go about that process, we will learn things that surprise us, gratify us, and challenge us. And with each new insight will come the inevitable question of “Now what?” At the beginning of this book, I called self-awareness the meta-skill of the twenty-first century—that is, it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition for a life well lived. Another way of saying this is that insight is pointless if we don’t put it to use. Imagine how differently things would have turned out if George Washington hadn’t curbed his pride, restrained his fiery emotions, and learned to think before he acted; or if Florence Ozor hadn’t followed her heart and joined the #BringBackOurGirls movement; or if a young Alan Mulally hadn’t re-invented his management strategy after his first employee gave him a much-needed wake-up call. As we’ve seen from these and other examples, the most successful among us don’t just work to gain self-awareness—they act on it and reap the rewards.
Undeniably, this can feel easier said than done. Most leaders I know who have completed the Leader Feedback Process, for example, come away with a long, overwhelming list of strengths to hone and weaknesses to address. And the longer the list, the more daunting and paralyzing it can feel. Yet this need not be the case. Just one thing separates people who successfully act on insight from those who don’t: the ability to take things one step at a time. When Ben Franklin, for example, set out to practice his 13 virtues, he initially tried to tackle all of them at once. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t go so well; it took more energy than he’d imagined to break bad habits and build better ones in their place. So he changed his strategy to focus on one virtue at a time.
In one of my all-time favorite movies, What About Bob? Bill Murray’s character Bob has a codependent relationship with his therapist, Leo Marvin, played by Richard Dreyfuss. During one of their sessions, Leo tells Bob he’ll be going on vacation for a month. When Bob begins to panic, Leo gives him a book he wrote called Baby Steps to read while he’s away. Leo explains, “It means setting small, reasonable goals for yourself, one day at a time.” In an example of Murray’s classic comedic brilliance, his character follows this advice literally, taking hundreds of baby steps out of the office and into the elevator. “I’m in the elevator!” he gleefully exclaims. “All I have to do is take one little step at a time, and I can do anything!” A silly example, of course, but research confirms that both Benjamin Franklin and Leo Marvin were onto something.
Franklin likened this approach to weeding an overgrown garden: if you just walked up and started pulling weeds willy-nilly, you wouldn’t feel like you were making much progress. But instead, if you tackled just one bed at a time, you’d be surprised at how quickly you’ll end up with a better-looking garden. And although by Franklin’s own admission he never quite arrived at the moral perfection he set out to achieve (a typical unicorn comment), he was “a better and happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”
The same is true for the rest of us. The truth is that you could spend a lifetime applying and refining the concepts from this book. But as most people instinctively know, we also need quick wins to help us create and sustain momentum. To help you do this, I’ve created a simple exercise to catalyze your self-awareness journey, no matter where you are on that path. During each day of the 7-Day Insight Challenge, you’ll focus on one element of self-awareness. And since the point is to provide you with quick hits of insight, I designed each day’s challenge to be completed in 15 to 30 minutes. To help you to record and process your learnings from the Insight Challenge, you can download a workbook at www.Insight-Book.com. And if you’d like a more scientific baseline of your current level of self-awareness before you begin, you can find a free 360 assessment at www.Insight-Quiz.com.
Day 1: Select Your Self-Awareness Spheres
On a piece of paper, list the three most important spheres of your life: work, school, parenting, marriage, friends, community, faith, philanthropy, etc.
1.For each sphere, write a few sentences about what success looks like using the Miracle Question: If you woke up tomorrow and everything in that area of life was near-perfect, what would that look like?
2.Then, given your definition of success, rate how satisfied are you are now on a scale of 1 (completely unsatisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied).
Your biggest opportunities for self-awareness are those where you’re not as satisfied as you want to be. Circle the one or two spheres that you most want to improve (these are your target self-awareness spheres). Think about what is keeping you from achieving your definition of success and what changes you could make to get there.
Day 2: Study the Seven Pillars
Find a trusted friend, family member, or colleague. Go through the Seven Pillars of Insight together (chapter 2, this page). For each pillar, describe how you see yourself (e.g., what are your values?) and then ask the other person to share how they see you (e.g., what do they think your values are?). (And please, be a good friend and help your partner examine his or her own pillars!) After your discussion, reflect on the similarities and differences between your answers about yourself and your partner’s answers about you. What did you learn from this exercise, and how will you build on it moving forward?
1.Values: The principles that guide how we govern our lives
2.Passions: What we love to do
3.Aspirations: What we want to experience and achieve
4.Fit: The environment we require to be happy and engaged
5.Patterns: Our consistent ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving across situations
6.Reactions: The thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that reveal our strengths and weaknesses
7.Impact: How our actions are generally perceived by others
Day 3: Explore Your Barriers
Think back to chapters 3 and 4 and pick one or two barriers to self-awareness that you suspect might be at play in your own life (i.e., Knowledge Blindness, Emotion Blindness, Behavior Blindness, the Cult of Self, the Feel Good Effect, Selfie Syndrome). For the next 24 hours, try to spot the barrier(s) occurring in real time, either by questioning your own behavior and assumptions or spotting them in others. At the end of the day, think about what you learned and how you can apply the strategies you’ve read to help you shift your thoughts and your actions.
Extra credit: For the next 24 hours, pay attention to how often you are focused on yourself versus interested in other people, both online and offline. When you’re tempted to post your recent vacation photos or regale your dinner party guests with a story about your latest professional accomplishment, ask yourself, “What am I hoping to achieve by doing this?”
Day 4: Boost Your Internal Self-Awareness
Choose one of the internal self-awareness tools below to experiment with today. At the end of the day, spend a few moments reflecting on how it went, what you learned about yourself, and how you can build on this insight moving forward.
1.What Not Why (this page)
2.Comparing and contrasting (this page)
3.Reframing (this page)
4.Hitting pause (this page)
5.Thought-stopping (this page)
6.Reality checks (this page)
7.Solutions-mining (this page)
Day 5: Boost Your External Self-Awareness
Identify one loving critic within each target self-awareness sphere (chapter 7, this page). Ask them to share one thing that they value or appreciate about you and one thing that they think might be holding you back. As you’re hearing the feedback, practice the 3R Model (chapter 8, this page).
Day 6: Survive the Delusional
Think of the most delusional person you know (ideally, that you’ll see today). Which category from chapter 10 (Lost Cause, Aware Don’t Care, Nudgable) do you think the person falls into, and what leads you to this conclusion? Practice using one tool below to better manage your relationship with this person the next time you see him or her.
1.Compassion without judgment (this page)
2.Float feet-first (this page)
3.Reframing (this page)
4.What can he/she teach me? (this page)
5.Laugh track (this page)
6.State your needs (this page)
7.Clarify your boundaries (this page)
8.Walk away (this page)
9.Confront with compassion (this page)
Day 7: Take Stock
Review the notes you took over the course of the challenge and answer the following questions:
1.What do you now know about yourself—and about self-awareness in general—that you didn’t know a week ago?
2.What one goal can you set for yourself over the next month to help you continue the momentum you have now?
3.And once you’ve completed the challenge, be sure to join the Insight Challenge Facebook group. Just visit www.Insight-Challenge.com and you’ll be automatically re-directed to a dedicated group where you can share your successes and best practices!
If this book has convinced you of anything, I hope it’s that self-awareness isn’t just for unicorns. Truly, we are all capable of gaining insight and reaping the resulting rewards; of recognizing our self-limiting behaviors and making better choices; of knowing what’s most important to us and acting accordingly; of understanding our impact so we can improve our most important relationships. The lifelong journey to understanding who we are and how we’re seen can be a bumpy one, full of obstacles and roadblocks. It can be difficult, painful, and slow. It can make us feel imperfect, weak, and vulnerable. But this road is also paved with the greatest of opportunities. Author C. JoyBell C. articulated this far better than I ever could when she wrote:
I think that we are like stars. Something happens to burst us open; but when we burst open and think we are dying; we’re actually turning into a supernova. And then when we look at ourselves again, we see that we’re suddenly more beautiful than we ever were before.
Self-awareness transforms us into supernovas—more beautiful, better, and brighter than we ever were before.
Understanding our values—that is, the principles that guide how we want to live our lives—is the first pillar of insight. Values help us define the person we want to be, as well as set the stage for the other six pillars. Here are a few questions to help you better understand yours:
1.What values were you raised with? Does your current belief system reflect those values, or do you see the world differently than you were brought up to see it?
2.What were the most important events or experiences of your childhood and young adulthood? How did they shape your view of the world?
3.At work and in life, whom do you most respect and what do you respect about them?
4.Whom do you least respect and what makes you feel this way?
5.Who is the best (and the worst) boss you’ve ever had, and what did she or he do to earn that moniker?
6.When it comes to raising a family or mentoring others, what behaviors would you most and least want to instill?
To help you further identify or narrow your most important values, below is a fairly exhaustive list:
* W. R. Miller et al. “Personal values card sort.” Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2001.