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 Anatomy of Self-Awareness: The Seven Pillars of Insight
Part One: Roadblocks and Building Blocks
The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand.
For thousands of years, the Mayans were the dominant society in Mesoamerica.*1 Yet until archeologists began to study this extraordinary civilization in the early 1800s, their ruins lay dormant for nearly a millennium. Since that time, we’ve unearthed remarkably specific details about the Mayan way of life. Long before the advent of what we know of as the modern calendar, for instance, the Mayans measured time using days and months. They had a complex grasp of astronomy. They cultivated crops in the unlikeliest of places. They created one of the first written languages. They built massive palaces and pavilions without metal or machines, and they are even thought to have discovered how to make rubber.
But in the midst of these groundbreaking discoveries, there was one much larger mystery that plagued archeologists for more than a century. As one of the most populous civilizations in human history, the Mayans reached an all-time high in AD 800, and yet by AD 950, 95 percent had mysteriously vanished. Scientists developed several theories as to why this occurred—a catastrophic event like an earthquake or volcano, a virus brought by Spanish settlers, a gruesome civil war—but for many years, there were no concrete answers, and the question vexed scientists for decades.
But all along, the evidence had been staring them in the face—they just hadn’t stitched the information together in the right way. Then, finally, someone did. In his 2005 book Collapse, geographer Jared Diamond proposed that the Mayans’ disappearance was the combination of massive deforestation and prolonged drought, which caused crops to fail, trade to shift, and cities to be slowly swallowed by the rainforest as survivors moved away. Though there isn’t total agreement, most scientists believe that Diamond finally solved the central mystery of the Mayans once and for all.
The science of self-awareness has followed a remarkably similar pattern. Just as the Mayan ruins lay dormant for centuries before being discovered by archeologists, the topic of self-awareness can be traced as far back as 600 BC—yet it’s only been subjected to scientific scrutiny in the last 40 years. For millennia the discipline of self-knowledge was confined to philosophy and religion. Roman philosopher Plotinus believed that happiness was achieved by knowing our true self. And perhaps most famously, the seven sages of ancient Greece inscribed the phrase “know thyself” at the entry of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, a mantra that Plato later reinforced in the teachings of Socrates.
And though most people associate self-awareness with Buddhism, nearly every religious tradition recognizes its importance. In chapter 1, we saw the Christian parable about the planks in our (and others’) eyes. Confucius advised that to govern others, one must first govern oneself. The Hindu Upanishads said that “enquiry into the truth of the Self is knowledge.” In the Jewish faith, self-knowledge has been called “the prerequisite for any self-improvement.” Avicenna, a tenth-century Muslim philosopher, wrote that “self-awareness is essential to the soul and [our] awareness of ourselves is our very existence.”
But sadly, when self-awareness researchers finally had the chance to catch up, they made many of the same mistakes the Mayan archeologists did, spending years focused on surprisingly myopic details at the expense of bigger, more important questions. The result? Piles of disjointed, often peripheral research that no one even bothered trying to stitch together. So when I set out to summarize the current state of scientific knowledge on self-awareness, I initially came up with more questions than answers, starting with the most central question: What was self-awareness, exactly?
As you read in the last chapter, when I initially began my research program, I was surprised to learn that one of the biggest obstacles to the study of self-awareness was the astonishing lack of agreement about how to define it. In the early 1970s, psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert Wickland were among the first to scientifically examine a construct that they called “self-awareness.” But Duval and Wickland chose to define it as a temporary state of self-consciousness (sort of like how you feel at a party where you don’t know anyone—the feeling of “everyone’s looking at me and I want to go home”). Kenyon College professor Allan Fenigstein and his team’s definition wasn’t much better, with self-awareness being more akin to the personality trait of self-consciousness. The definitions that other researchers concocted were all over the map—from introspection to pondering how other people see us to the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us. But in my view, most of these definitions largely missed the point.*2 Why? Because focusing on ourselves doesn’t mean that we understand ourselves.
In my work as an organizational psychologist, one self-evident truth has always been that people who have a clear understanding of themselves enjoy more successful careers and better lives—they’ve developed an intuitive understanding of what matters to them, what they want to accomplish, how they behave, and how others see them. Unfortunately, though, I couldn’t find this version of self-awareness anywhere in the scientific literature. In fact, the picture of a self-aware person that most existing research painted was less of an enlightened Dalai Lama figure and more of a neurotic Woody Allen one (no offense, Mr. Allen—I love your movies!). Clearly, there was a huge mismatch between how researchers were defining self-awareness and what it really looked like, at least to me, in the real world.
So, my research team and I spent more than a year identifying what made up this real-world self-awareness. We arrived at the following definition: self-awareness is the will and the skill to understand yourself and how others see you. More specifically, we discovered that our unicorns—the people from our study who dramatically improved their self-awareness as adults—possessed seven distinct types of insight that unaware people didn’t. They understood their values (the principles that guide them), passions (what they love to do), aspirations (what they want to experience and achieve), fit (the environment they require to be happy and engaged), patterns (consistent ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving), reactions (the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that reveal their capabilities), and impact (the effect they have on others).
In this chapter, we will uncover the essence of these Seven Pillars of Insight and begin to paint the picture of the rich, multifaceted understanding that makes up self-awareness. Then we’ll discuss an equally important dimension of insight: that to be truly aware, we can’t just understand ourselves; we also need to know how we’re seen by others.
THE SEVEN PILLARS OF INSIGHT
Benjamin Franklin was a celebrated politician and inventor and one of America’s most beloved early statesmen. But one of the lesser-known achievements of this Renaissance man was the incredible self-insight he gained over the course of his adult life—indeed, because he was born nearly 30 years before George Washington, it’s actually Franklin who might have been America’s first unicorn.
Born in Boston in 1706 as the tenth son of a soap maker, Franklin was forced to leave school at age 10 because of his family’s financial struggles. By age 12, he was serving as his brother James’s bound apprentice in a printing business. But in 1723, after years of fraternal mistreatment (in today’s parlance: bullying), Franklin ran away from home to start a new life in Philadelphia. Just three years later, he’d already failed in two business ventures and fathered an illegitimate son. (Just as with Washington, most history textbooks seem to gloss over such unflattering facts.)
Though Franklin was raised as a Presbyterian, he rarely attended church, declaring that he was unimpressed and frustrated that “not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforced.” That depressing conclusion, coupled with his childhood struggles and ill-advised early life choices, brought about Franklin’s commitment to “arriv[e] at moral perfection.” So, at the ripe age of 20, he created a set of principles by which he wanted to live his life:
1.Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2.Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3.Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4.Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5.Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
6.Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7.Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8.Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9.Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10.Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
11.Tranquillity: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12.Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13.Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Franklin called them “virtues,” but one could also call them values, which is our first pillar of insight. Indeed, developing a core set of principles that guide how we want to live our lives is a first and critical step in becoming self-aware. In particular, values define the person we want to be and provide a standard for evaluating our actions. In a move that puts even the most diligent self-awareness unicorns to shame, Benjamin Franklin evaluated his actions through a “little book” he created to track his progress, filling the margins with inspirational quotes from Cicero, the Proverbs of Solomon, and James Thomson (along with inventing bifocals and swim fins, Franklin also appears to have been the father of the self-help journal). On every page was a red table with each virtue in its own row, and each day of the week in its own column. And though he paid special attention to one virtue every week, he reviewed the entire list at the end of each day, making a “little black spot” if the day’s behavior hadn’t reflected that virtue.
Though not all self-awareness unicorns are as diligent as Franklin, many employ similar techniques. One young professional, for example, has his list of values pinned to his refrigerator: each evening while he’s cooking dinner, he evaluates how well his actions mirrored them that day. In addition to a studied commitment to living their own values, many also described dedicating time and effort to instilling them in their children. (For a few questions to help you explore your own values, take a look at appendix A.)
Henry David Thoreau once said, “Do what you love. Know your bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw at it still.” Thoreau had it right: when we understand our passions—what we love to do—we’re finding a bone we can chew on forever. My friend Jeff, a proud unicorn, can trace his passions back through the branches of his family tree. He inherited an engineer’s brain and curiosity for how things work from his maternal grandfather, along with a sense of craftsmanship and an aversion to boredom from his paternal grandfather. He spent the first part of his career bouncing around various IT jobs, from computer system administrator to higher-education software designer. Then, quietly at first, he began to notice that he was becoming more interested in the design of buildings. In time, his new passion became so insistent that he could no longer ignore it. So he packed in the IT work and landed a coveted spot in a master’s program in architecture.
When he finally graduated and scored a job, Jeff reveled in his accomplishment. He’d done it. He was an architect now. It was true that every day wasn’t as perfectly fulfilling as he had imagined. There were bad clients to deal with, of course. And sometimes there were bad bosses. As an introvert, Jeff found working in an open-concept office to be pretty draining. And he had to admit, some of the projects were kind of boring. A surprising number of them, actually. Perhaps that was why he kept finding himself going home after each increasingly trying day feeling exhausted and empty. Then one day, he finally asked himself, “Can I do this for the next thirty years?” The answer was a clear and resounding “No.”
Jeff spent months trying to figure out what his next step would be. On index cards, he listed as many things that he enjoyed doing as he could think of, arranging and rearranging them to find the patterns. It was at this point that Jeff finally listened to the nagging voice he’d been ignoring for years. I’m not going to be really happy, he discovered, unless I’m working for myself.
He decided to explore how that would actually feel on a day-to-day basis. And after much consideration, Jeff finally settled on his next move. He had designed software; he had designed websites; he had designed buildings—now he would form a consulting company that would help artists and entrepreneurs design their own businesses. By doing what he loved, Jeff would help others do what they loved (talk about a virtuous circle of self-awareness). And with a final jolt of glee, he realized that he’d be able to work out of his home office. The process of exploring his passions also helped Jeff understand that he isn’t wired to seek the stability of a 30-year career—he’s wired to follow his curiosity for design wherever it leads him. (For a few questions to get you thinking about your passions, take a look at appendix B.)
Entrepreneur Ben Huh experienced a similar “midlife” career crisis—only his arrived a bit earlier. At the ripe young age of 23, Ben felt like his life was over. He’d spent eighteen months, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of other people’s money, on a startup that had gone up in smoke. The sense of shame and defeat was just too much for the young overachiever to bear. He spent days in bed, isolated, broke, and even haunted by thoughts of suicide. After he finally managed to pull himself out of this bleak period, Ben realized that he needed a plan. So he sat down with a blank sheet of paper and made a list of things he wanted to achieve in the life he’d come so close to ending. The task turned out not to be as easy as he thought it would be. The struggle, he has said, was in being able to see into this future and find the “evergreen shoots” that would define it.
For anyone who knows Ben, the fact that he decided to kick-start the next phase of his life with a list of life goals won’t seem surprising. For as long as he can remember, he’s been ambitious and goal driven. Ben was born of humble beginnings in Seoul, South Korea, and his family moved to the United States when he was 14. His parents cleaned buildings to scrape by, and Ben helped as much as he could, often fishing soda cans from the trash to recycle for pennies. The family shared a one-bedroom apartment; Ben slept in the master bedroom, his mom and dad on a mattress in the living room. He was determined to build a more comfortable future for himself, and eventually became the first person in his family to graduate from college.
And so, six years later, alone in his new home of Seattle, Ben created his list. It included things like meeting the perfect woman, selling a company for profit, and learning how to ride a motorcycle. Now I know what you’re thinking: I’m about to tell you to put this book down and start making your list of life goals right away. But hold on—Ben’s story comes with a surprising twist. Years later, he was the successful CEO of humor website I Can Has Cheezburger (aka the birthplace of cat memes), which he’d purchased in 2007. Yet something was still missing, and he couldn’t put his finger on what it was.
One day, he was having a seemingly ordinary lunch with one of his investors, discussing some of the struggles he was experiencing. He said, “You know, I have these goals. There are all these things that I want to do.” That’s when his lunch companion dropped a bombshell that would ultimately trigger an explosive change. “The goals aren’t important,” his investor said. “What’s important is the process of getting there.”
That lunchtime wisdom would become the catalyst for a year-long process to, as Ben puts it, “figure out why I am here on this planet.” Instead of adding more bullet points to his bucket list, he started to ask himself a far more central question: What did he really want out of life? He eventually came to realize that the answer was simple: to experience as much of the world as he could with the people he loved. At that point, he had the means to do something truly special with Emily, the perfect woman he’d met (and checked off his list) in 2001. And that’s exactly what he did.
In 2015, Ben made the decision to step down from Cheezburger, and he and Emily promptly embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime trip around the world. Ben doesn’t yet know where the rest of his journey will take him, but one thing he can be certain of is this: it will be far more meaningful than simply checking a bunch of goals off a list.
Ben’s story is a powerful example of what it really means to understand our aspirations. What’s more, it shows that while setting goals is relatively easy, they don’t always lead to true insight or perfect happiness. Instead of asking, “What do I want to achieve?” the better question is, “What do I really want out of life?” While goals can leave us feeling deflated and disappointed once we’ve achieved them, aspirations are never fully completed; we can get up every morning feeling motivated by them all over again. And even if we aren’t in the enviable position of being able to quit our job and travel the world, we can all live better lives by understanding what we want to experience and accomplish while we’re here on this planet. (By the way, there are a few questions to help you learn more about your aspirations in appendix C.)
I once worked with a commercial banker (and unicorn) in the early stages of a promising career—let’s call him Sam. Sam had a quiet confidence and a rare ability to connect with anyone, which would have set him on a path to success in almost any industry. But these skills were particularly useful in the world of banking, where clients appreciated the openness and confident spirit that Sam couldn’t help but exude. And sure enough, right out of college, he scored a well-paying job at a growing bank.
Of course, no job is perfect, and Sam quickly realized that his manager was a major source of discomfort and frustration. Sam and his new boss seemed to have virtually opposite work approaches: where Sam listened and connected, his manager jumped to conclusions and bullied. When they met with potential clients, Sam explored what they needed, but his manager would strong-arm them to make on-the-spot decisions. Not only did this fail to bring in new clients, it made short-term ones out of the ones they had.
On the upside, the bank provided generous individual incentives for hard work, handsomely rewarding employees who met their goals. But Sam couldn’t help but notice that this gave employees no incentive to work together, which was exactly the condition under which he thrived. And there was virtually no support for employees like Sam who valued taking the time to build trusting relationships with prospects—there was only pressure to make quick sales.
Unnerved by the atmosphere of friction and competition, Sam felt like a fish out of water. And with each passing day, his despair grew. He soon noticed he was taking his stress home: instead of enjoying the precious little time he spent with his girlfriend and his family, he was constantly preoccupied by everything that was upsetting him at work.
But as difficult as things became, the trials Sam faced ended up having a silver lining, because they led him to a valuable discovery about his own nature. When he began to closely examine the causes of his stress, he discovered a strong need to form deep and lasting relationships with his colleagues and clients. And in realizing this would probably never happen in his current work environment, he knew he had to leave.
Because Sam was so talented, he soon found a job with a company known for its strong client focus, and he quickly became one of his department’s top performers. Something had finally clicked: his mood improved, he had more energy to serve his clients, and his life outside work became more fulfilling. Among other positive developments, Sam proposed to his girlfriend and she accepted. (It probably goes without saying that she will most certainly enjoy planning a wedding with “the new Sam” far better than with “the old Sam.”)
When we determine where we fit, the type of environment we require to be happy and engaged, we get more done with less effort, and end the day feeling like our time was well spent. This involves understanding simple truths—like the fact that you’re happier when you’re traveling, or that you need to go for a run during your lunch hour—as well as deeper insights to help you live a happier life—like the kind of partner who will fulfill you or the type of company where you’ll thrive. (To help you clarify the best fit when it comes to your job, your relationships, etc., you’ll find a few questions in appendix D.)
In many ways, the pillar of fit builds on the ones before it: only by knowing what you value, what you’re passionate about, and what you want to experience in life can you start to create a picture of your ideal surroundings. Just look at Sam. As difficult as it was to leave his first grown-up job, he was lucky to gain such valuable insight about where he fit so early in his career. By finding a company that shared his values and let him do what he loved, he also found an environment that energized rather than exhausted him. And whether you’re thinking about your home life, your work, or the people with whom you choose to surround yourself, energy is probably the ultimate measure of fit. At the end of the day, is your environment creating energy or taking it away?
If I asked you to describe your personality, what would you say? You might tell me that you’re driven, or kind. Or, if you’ve taken a personality test lately, perhaps that you’re an INTJ/Yellow/Expediter/Analytical-Conceptual.
Psychologists often use the word “personality” to describe our patterns of behavior. Our patterns are our consistent ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving across situations. For example, if I snap at my co-worker one morning, I might just be tired. But if I snap at her most mornings, not only will she not invite me to the office happy hour, I probably have a pattern of prickliness. Psychologists have been busy trying to distill and measure the human personality since World War II, when personality tests were first developed to assist in military selection. Most people in the business world have had some experience with personality assessment, whether it’s the Myers Briggs, or the Hogan, DISC, Insights, Emergenetics, Social Styles, NEO, Birkman, Keirsey Temperament Sorter, True Colors…and boy, could I go on, but fortunately I won’t—in the United States alone, there are more than 2,500 personality assessments on the market, and some are far better than others. But even though our unicorns saw these assessments as important self-awareness milestones, they also reported that they were not sufficient for cultivating true insight on their own.
What’s more, it’s not enough to shine a light on our behavioral patterns across most situations—we must examine our patterns in specific kinds of situations as well. Let me give you an innocuous, if slightly humiliating, personal example. A few years ago, I was doing some work with a group of leaders in Uganda. The retreat center where we were having our meeting was in a beautiful but secluded area accessible only by water. When our group arrived at the dock, there were two boats: one for us and one for our luggage. Though I wasn’t quite aware of it at the time, I instantly became anxious and spent the rather lengthy ride internally debating the foolish question of whether my luggage and I would ever be reunited. Of course, just minutes later, we were.
Flash forward to another work trip—this time in Honduras to teach a leadership workshop. My client had chartered three vans to pick everyone up at the airport: two for us and one for our luggage. When we arrived at the hotel, all of the bags had been unloaded, but this time, mine was nowhere to be found. We searched everywhere and eventually discovered that it had been left on the curb at the airport. That’s when I had a complete and total meltdown. Everything in my bag was replaceable, and rationally I even knew that it probably would show up (it did)—yet there I was, crying in the hotel lobby like a bully had stolen my lunch money. It was at that point that I began to suspect a pattern: when my luggage and I are separated, I become upset. No, irrationally upset. Given the fact that I travel more than 100,000 miles a year, it was a pertinent epiphany.
A few months later, my husband and I were visiting his brother and sister-in-law, who were living in Costa Rica at the time. We decided it would be fun to hop a puddle-jumper to Bocas del Toro, a small island in Panama, for a long weekend. Upon our arrival at the tiny airport, which consisted of one dilapidated building where a surly woman presided over “immigration” with a tattered three-ring binder, the property manager of the house we rented was kind enough to give us a ride. He threw our bags in the bed of his pickup truck and we all squeezed into the backseat. Then, without warning, the sky opened up and a hard rain started pelting our luggage. I pressed my face against the rear window, helplessly watching my suitcase get drenched.
But this time, I instantly recognized what was happening. I looked at my husband and announced, “I am irrationally upset that my bag is getting rained on.”
“I can see that,” he replied.
“I think,” I attempted, “I’ll see if I can take some deep breaths and maybe just calm down a little.” And so I did. Understanding this pattern had helped me be more mindful in the moment and measurably improved my day.
They say that knowledge is power, and that is certainly the case for this pillar. Whether it’s an irrational luggage-separation anxiety or anything else, recognizing our patterns—especially our self-defeating ones—helps us take charge. For example, if you’re an introvert who tends to get drained after back-to-back meetings, find a few minutes of alone time to recharge at the end of the day. If you shoot off angry e-mails when you’ve worked too many hours, save your late-night responses in a draft folder to review in the morning. If after a few glasses of wine you feel an inescapable urge to call your ex, give your phone to a friend (who hopefully is also driving you home) before you start boozing. The point is to first detect the pattern, then be able to identify it when it’s happening, and then experiment by making different—and better—choices.
Susan was doing the best she could. Her demanding boss at the growing real estate company where she worked often required that she put in 70-hour weeks. Though she was constantly stressed, she threw everything she had into her role, usually managing to keep her head above water. Or so she thought. One day, completely out of the blue, Susan was abruptly fired.
Stunned, devastated, and angry, she blamed her superiors for this shocking turn of events. She hadn’t given up on them—how could they give up on her? But once her anger died down, Susan was determined to seek a silver lining in this very dark cloud. She had a sneaking suspicion that her behavior had played a role in her boss’s decision—she just didn’t know exactly how. As she carefully sifted through what she called the “oh, shit moments” in her now ex-job, Susan realized that her unawareness of her real-time reactions—that is, the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that reveal our capabilities—had come back to bite her. Her reactions to her co-workers, especially under stress, were unmasking a serious weakness: her inability to control her emotions. And especially with her boss, she hadn’t been doing a very good job of it. He’s got to know I’m working 70 hours a week, she’d reasoned; he should be able to let a few snippy comments go. But he wasn’t, and she’d paid a hefty price.
Since her shocking realization, Susan has worked to manage this weakness and better monitor her reactions. When she’s stressed, she now pays careful attention. Is she cutting people off? Is her tone short? Does she seem agitated? When she feels herself becoming abrupt, she makes a point to pause, think, and soften her tone. On the rare occasion that the stress becomes too intense to manage, she will excuse herself, take a breather, and return to the conversation.
Another upside that came from Susan’s ordeal was that she found a new job that was much more fulfilling and much less stressful. In her new position, she works hard not just to manage her stress, but to adapt her communication style to others’ (rather than expect them to adapt to hers). This has been a total game-changer, and it’s no wonder that it helped her become a bona fide unicorn.
However, it’s important to point out that when we examine our reactions, we don’t just uncover our weaknesses; sometimes we can discover strengths we never knew we had. Paul, a longtime operations executive, was raised in a poor town in Colorado. His shy nature, coupled with a critical family, led him to believe from a very young age that “everyone was better than me.” Things became so bad that at the age of 23, he made the difficult decision to move to the big city (i.e., Denver) and try to make it on his own.
All Paul could afford was a tiny property in a rough part of town that was called, somewhat ironically, Uptown. “At the time, it was really sketchy,” he told me. “The house had been foreclosed on by the bank, and it was a mess. The windows were all broken out. I didn’t even get a key.” But despite the dilapidated condition of his new home, there was something about the neighborhood that gave him a feeling of community, opportunity, and promise.
Not long after he moved in, Paul found himself chatting with a neighbor who wanted to form a registered neighborhood organization. He didn’t know exactly what that was, but he was happy to get involved anyway, making flyers and passing them around to generate support. And when the organization was formed, he helped out where he could. For the first few years, everything seemed to be going well. Until, that is, he had a chance conversation with a friend who worked at the city planning office.
Paul learned that the organization’s current president—a local attorney—had been making decisions on many important matters that the group didn’t even know about, let alone have the opportunity to discuss. “The things he was signing off on, and approving on behalf of the neighborhood, were projects that would have benefited some very influential businesspeople far more than us,” Paul told me.
What put him over the edge, though, was learning that plans were in motion for a 20-story high-rise just a few blocks from his house. And if it went ahead, it would change the neighborhood forever. When Paul heard this news, a hidden side of him kicked into gear. There was no way he was going to let the president get away with this. Paul called an urgent meeting and he agreed to step down.
While Paul was surprised by his swift and decisive reaction, he was even more surprised when he learned his neighbors’ new choice for president. It was…him. He didn’t want to let them down, so despite some hefty reservations, he decided to give it a try. But the new role couldn’t have come at a more trying time. In exactly 10 days, the association would have its one and only chance to stop the high-rise at a city planning meeting. Paul had never given a presentation before, of any kind whatsoever, let alone to a room crammed full of people looking to him as their leader. “So here I am,” he told me, “I’m twenty-five, I’m shy, I really didn’t want to be president, and I’m nervous as heck.” But he stood up and delivered his presentation as best he could.
When it was finally over, he wasn’t really sure how he’d done. That is, until one of his neighbors, who worked for Hughes Aircraft, excitedly approached him and practically offered him a job on the spot. Maybe, he realized, I’m not as inept at all this as I thought.
Paul’s gut response to the actions of a slippery attorney set forth a chain of events that opened his eyes to qualities he’d never known he had: a knack for public speaking, a gift for working through conflict, and the initiative to step up in the face of a challenge. And just like that, a new world began to open up for him. Paul went on to have a career as a successful CEO and has run businesses all over the world. And that 20-story high-rise? Naturally, it was never built. Years later, his organization managed to get the Uptown neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it’s since become one of the most desirable places to live in Denver. (If Paul has inspired you, appendix E has some questions to help you get at the foundational aspect of this pillar—that is, your strengths and weaknesses.)
So far, each pillar of insight has been about us—what we value, what we’re passionate about, what we aspire to do, what environment we need, how we behave, how we respond to the world. But to be truly self-aware, we must also build on that to understand our impact: that is, how our behavior affects others. Over the course of our daily lives, we often encounter people who appear completely oblivious to this: the boss who assigns an arbitrary emergency project on a Friday afternoon, paying no notice to his employees’ groans and sighs. The man in the grocery store blocking an entire aisle while a mother with a double stroller hopelessly waits to pass. The woman who inexplicably sits through two cycles of a left-turn arrow, seemingly unaware of the multitude of deafening honks from the cars trapped behind her. Theoretically, these people might have a stellar understanding of their inner selves, but when it comes to the impact that they have on those around them, it’s like they’re completely blind.
Not surprisingly, this final pillar is especially important for leaders, as Eleanor Allen learned the hard way. She’ll never forget the five little words that turned out to be the most surprising—and game-changing—feedback she has ever received: “You have got to stop.”
Just a month earlier, Eleanor had stepped into one of the greatest challenges of her career. She and her family had moved to Puerto Rico, where she’d become the program manager for a large and complex water infrastructure capital improvement program. During the first few days in her new cramped but well-appointed office, it began to dawn on her that her new job was going to be considerably more difficult than she’d imagined. With a rising sense of horror, she discovered letter after legalese letter from their client explaining that the team had not been supplying what had been requested, and what they had been supplying was unacceptable. Eleanor’s team was clearly on the verge of being fired.
But if she’d stepped into a burning building, Eleanor was also confident that her previous experience had equipped her with a fireproof suit. After all, the engineer by training had led challenging programs and projects all over the world, earning the kind of problem-solving skills that could only be developed through truly high-stakes work. She carefully triaged the situation and started firing off a stream of regular e-mail instructions to her 100-person team. Although she would have loved to have more time to build relationships in person, there just wasn’t any. I’ll get to that after I put out the fire, she vowed.
A few weeks went by. And somehow, things still weren’t getting done. Again and again, Eleanor would assign a task that was due to the client on a certain date, which would come and go with no deliverable. She felt frustrated and alone, and didn’t understand why she couldn’t make the changes that were needed. One afternoon, as she sat fuming behind her paper-cluttered desk, Eleanor finally lost her cool. How could these smart, capable people be this ham-fisted?! she exploded. No wonder we’re about to get fired! As if on cue, her office door burst open. It was her deputy, Evelio, a bristly, energetic, and fiercely intelligent local engineer.
“What’s the matter?” Eleanor asked. “What’s going on?”
Evelio slammed the door behind him. “You!” he said, at a volume just a hair shy of shouting. “You have got to stop.”
“What?” she stammered, completely blindsided. “What are you talking about?”
Evelio took a step toward her. “You are driving us crazy!” he said. “No one is reading your e-mails! No one knows what our priorities are!”
“Eleanor,” he said. “You’re the one who’s going to get us fired!”
She could tell her deputy had come prepared for a fight. But in a moment of pure, brilliant, shining self-awareness, she took a breath, looked him in the eye, and said, “Okay, then. Tell me. What should I do instead?”
“Step away from your computer,” he said. “Right now. Don’t even think about typing another e-mail.”
She did as she was told, lifting her hands from the keyboard.
“Now get up. We’re going to go talk to our team. You have to build some trust with them before you issue any more orders.”
Eleanor hesitated, seemingly glued to her chair.
“Come with me,” he said. “I’m going to reprogram you.”
That was when Eleanor realized her mistake. She’d been communicating with her team all wrong—and without seeing the impact it was having on their morale and productivity. With each e-mail, the team’s resentment mounted, causing them to dig their heels farther into the already shaky ground. Apparently, the very in-person interactions Eleanor felt they didn’t have time for were precisely what the team needed most.
From that moment forward, Eleanor effectively called it quits on the e-mail. With Evelio’s help, she began to invest in really getting to know them, organizing Friday socials, convening a Fun at Work Committee, and, with my help, holding an offsite meeting with her leadership team. She also found every possible excuse to spend time with her client, appearing at their office just in time for coffee or lunch in the cafeteria. In weeks, she noticed a new and palpable feeling of trust. As time went on, those bonds only grew: now, when there was a hiccup, they called her to troubleshoot it instead of issuing an austere letter.
In less than six months, Eleanor and her team literally took the project from worst to first: they became the best performing program on the island, completing their work on time and under budget. (And they had fun!) Two years later, when Eleanor was promoted to another role, Evelio effortlessly stepped into her shoes. Eleanor went on to become the CEO of the global non-profit Water for People, but says that to this day she’s never enjoyed socializing with colleagues as much as she did with Evelio and their team in Puerto Rico (a fact to which I can also personally attest, and not just because of the blur of mojitos I vaguely recall during my visit).
Luckily, while increasing awareness of our impact requires commitment and practice, it is possible (and for a few questions to help you do that, take a look at appendix F). The key skill we must develop to read our impact is perspective-taking, or the ability to imagine what others are thinking and feeling (this is different from empathy, which involves actually experiencing others’ emotions).
It may seem counterintuitive that looking at the world from other people’s perspectives would help us understand ourselves better. Let’s look at one study that powerfully demonstrates the impact of perspective-taking on the pillar of impact. Researchers surveyed more than 100 Chicago couples every four months for a year on their feelings of marital satisfaction, intimacy, trust, passion, and love for their partner. Disconcertingly, during the period of the study, the couples, who were married an average of 11 years, showed “robust declines in marital quality.”
The researchers wanted to see whether anything could turn the tide. So they asked their participants to write for 21 minutes about a conflict in their marriage. Compared to couples who simply wrote about the conflict, those who were instructed to write about how a “neutral third party who wants the best for all” would view the conflict saw the decline in marital satisfaction reverse completely over the following year. By rising above their own perspective and seeing their problems through their spouses’ eyes, they could be more level-headed and less defensive. This mindset helped them better understand how their actions were impacting their spouses, and in turn, start treating them better.
But the great irony of perspective-taking is that we are least likely to do it when we need to do it most. I was recently on a Hong Kong—bound flight that, after hours of hopelessly boarding and deplaning, was finally canceled. Of course, all 500 passengers had somewhere to be—tears, anger, and a general sense of panic filled the air. A brave gate agent led our angry mob to a customer-service area manned by four airline employees. When my turn came, I hesitantly tiptoed over to an agent—his name-tag said “Bob”—fearing that I might not like what he was about to tell me. “I’m so sorry, Dr. Eurich,” Bob mumbled, “but I can’t get you to Hong Kong today.”
Just as I was about to start foaming at the mouth, I noticed the fear in Bob’s eyes. Luckily I’d recently learned about a tool developed by psychologist Richard Weissbourd called “Zoom In, Zoom Out.” To successfully take others’ perspectives in highly charged situations, Weissbourd advises, we should start by “zooming in” on our perspective to better understand it. So I zoomed in: I’m hungry, tired, and furious at the airline for its mechanical ineptitude. Next, we should “zoom out” and consider the perspective of the other person. When I imagined what Bob was experiencing, I thought, Poor Bob. I wonder what his day has been like.
“Were you scheduled to work this evening?” I asked. “No, ma’am,” he instantly responded, pointing to his colleagues, “All four of us were heading home for the evening but were called back in. I was supposed to pick my kids up from school because my wife is out of town. I’ll probably be here until ten p.m.” I’d been feeling pretty sorry for myself, but I now felt even worse for Bob. I asked if the other passengers had been yelling at him. He nodded and said, “People usually get so mad that they forget we’re people, too.”
I learned two unexpected lessons that day: first, that zooming out helped me calm down a bit and remember that I wasn’t the center of the universe (always helpful). Second, that taking Bob’s perspective helped me understand the impact of my behavior—which in turn helped me to control it.
FROM INSIDE OUT TO OUTSIDE IN: THE IMPORTANCE OF EXTERNAL SELF-AWARENESS
When Ben Franklin assembled his 13-point plan to arrive at moral perfection, his initial list contained only 12 virtues. But upon sharing it with a close friend, he learned that he’d completely overlooked his most significant opportunity for improvement. As Franklin later wrote:
[My friend] kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride show’d itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinc’d me by mentioning several instances.
As we learned earlier, one of the biggest myths about self-awareness is that it’s all about looking inward—that is, insight from the inside out. But armed with only our own observations, even the most dedicated students of self-awareness among us risk missing key pieces of the puzzle. For example, after you made that jokey comment to your colleague, was she genuinely amused or taken aback? While telling your life story to the guy you just met at a cocktail party, was he interested or did he secretly want to escape to the bar? When you gave your boss constructive feedback on her last department-wide presentation, was her “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind” grateful or dismissive?
To be truly self-aware, yes, we need to understand ourselves, but we also need to know how people perceive us—and to do this, looking inward is not enough. As we’ll soon learn, other people are the only truly reliable source of information about how we come across. The bottom line is that self-awareness isn’t one truth. It’s a complex interweaving of information from two distinct, and sometimes even competing, viewpoints. There is the inward perspective—your internal self-awareness—and the outward perspective, external self-awareness, or how other people see you. And remember, not only is there little to no relationship between internal and external self-awareness, having one without the other can often do more harm than good. You’ve probably witnessed the folly of people who think they have themselves figured out but are completely oblivious to how others see them. At the other end of the spectrum, we all know people who are so focused on the impression they create that they don’t understand or act in their own best interests.
Let’s pretend that internal and external self-awareness are hydrogen and oxygen, two of the most well-known elements on the periodic table. On its own, hydrogen is dangerous because it spontaneously ignites. (Remember the Hindenburg?) And though oxygen is not flammable by itself, in excess, it causes many things to burn more easily. But when you combine hydrogen and oxygen in the right proportions, the two elements unite to create life-sustaining water. Self-awareness is a bit like that: when we couple a clear perspective on ourselves with the ability to abandon that perspective and see ourselves as others do, this magical combination is a tremendous force for good.
Yet given the delicate balance between internal and external self-awareness, could there be certain pillars that are better acquired through private reflection than feedback from others, and vice versa? We’ll return to this question a bit later, but the answer is a qualified yes. Typically, our own views can be especially helpful for pillars that aren’t as visible to others: our values, passions, aspirations, and fit. For example, if a successful accountant outwardly appears to be fulfilled in his job but secretly dreams of a career as a Broadway dancer, he is likely the sole possessor of that information. The reverse is true for the pillars that are more visible to others, like our patterns, reactions, and impact. Here, the self-awareness roadblocks we’ll soon learn about can get in the way of an objective assessment, so we may need others’ input to see ourselves more clearly. But the truth is that for all seven pillars, it is critical to gain both an internal and external perspective. Then and only then can we develop a true understanding of who we are and how we’re seen.
As an example, I have a friend—let’s call her Joan—who recently sought feedback from her co-workers to better understand her strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, they not-so-delicately communicated that she needed a personality transplant (though by all objective measures, she was performing phenomenally at work, receiving frequent recognition from her superiors and team). Thankfully, Joan had the internal self-awareness to see this feedback for the workplace sabotage that it really was. When evaluated alongside what she already knew to be true about herself, the feedback helped her realize that she wasn’t the problem—the problem was that the company’s cutthroat culture wasn’t the right fit for her. She’s since moved to a smaller company and I’ve never seen her happier. This is the perfect illustration of the magic that happens when we balance internal and external awareness.
And while balancing the two types of self-awareness isn’t always easy, our lives are brimming with opportunities to do so. There’s a wonderful Chinese proverb that says: “When the winds of change rage, some build shelters while others build windmills.” Where most people choose to hide or run for cover, self-awareness unicorns use their experiences to help power and fuel their internal and external self-knowledge. In particular, our research shows that they have a unique ability to recognize and learn from what I call alarm clock events: situations that open our eyes to important self-truths. Sometimes, alarm clock events boost our internal self-awareness by helping us see ourselves in a new or different light; other times, they give us new data on how we’re coming across to the outside world.
I’ve uncovered three general categories of alarm clock events. The first is new roles or rules. When we are asked to play a new role at work or in life, or play by a new set of rules, it stretches our comfort zone and demands more from us, and therefore can supercharge our self-knowledge. At work, for example, this can be things like job changes, promotions, reassignments, new responsibilities, or joining a new group or organization. In particular, our first leadership experiences are especially ripe opportunities for insight—in fact, when the American Management Association surveyed 700-plus CEOs, they saw these early formative experiences as the most impactful learning events of their careers.
But it’s not just work situations that challenge us with new roles and rules. The same is true in other parts of life: leaving home for college, taking on a new role in a community organization, starting a new romantic relationship, or becoming a parent. And again, the most powerful insights can often come from early experiences. For instance, Stanford researcher Seana Moran has found that when a young person has made dramatic gains in self-knowledge, it’s often the result of a situation that “challenges values or norms which may have been unreflectively accepted from family and culture.”
The second type of alarm clock event is an earthquake. Earlier, we read about Susan, a unicorn who achieved a new level of self-knowledge after being fired from her job. This is an example of the kind of event that, because of its significance and severity, shakes us to our core. Other examples might be the death or illness of a loved one, a divorce or the end of a significant relationship, or any serious failure or setback. Because earthquake events are so life-shattering, they all but force us to confront the truth about ourselves. I know someone whose husband abruptly left her, claiming that she was emotionally unavailable. She was crushed; yet she had no choice other than to face this emotionally devastating reality. It led her down a path to better understand how she was behaving—and how that behavior was getting in her way—which ultimately served her in all her relationships, romantic or otherwise.
But by definition, earthquake events also run the risk of paralyzing us, suppressing our emotional agility and making it that much harder to absorb what we’ve learned about ourselves, much less channel it productively. As management professor Morgan McCall observes, the emotionally laden nature of these situations tempts us to distance ourselves from them: we may get defensive, blame others, become more cynical, overcompensate, shut down, or give up. Luckily, there are steps we can take to protect against this. Our first task, as McCall and his colleagues advise, “is absorbing the suffering rather than reacting to it.” Susan, for example, could have continued to blame her boss and remain in denial about her role in her dismissal. But just when she most wanted to react to the situation, she instead chose to understand it. However, absorbing the truth isn’t enough; we have to put that insight into action, not just owning our mistakes and limitations but also committing to correcting them. Indeed, once Susan accepted her situation, she vowed never to let something like that happen again.
The third type of alarm clock event is something I call an everyday insight. One common assumption about self-awareness is that it’s only earned through dramatic, earth-shattering events—but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Surprisingly, by a margin of two to one, our unicorns reported having gained the most insight from more mundane situations. They mentioned instances when they suddenly saw their behavior in a new light, whether it was through an overheard conversation, an offhand comment, or even a bit of unexpected recognition. Others cited developmental experiences at work, like leadership programs, 360 reviews, and so on. Some unicorns even found “aha” moments in the midst of the most ordinary, even boring, daily activities, like exercising or cleaning.
Shortly after Susan graduated from college, for example, she and her best friend were moving into their first apartment. When they were unpacking their kitchen, Susan remembers her outrage upon noticing that her friend had stacked their plastic cups in front of the glass ones in the cupboard. “No one should drink out of plastic glasses!” she huffed. Hearing the way she came across in that moment, Susan realized, I am having an outsized reaction to something that isn’t important. Why am I being so controlling? In that moment, she was able to see herself from a slightly different perspective, and it produced a big insight that was about far more than plastic cups.
I see our findings on everyday insights as very good news: in a nutshell, we’re just as likely to earn self-knowledge during the course of our daily lives as we are during more challenging times. But in both cases, our unicorns didn’t just sit around and wait for self-awareness to strike—they built windmills, turning new information into energy to effect real and lasting change.
Now that you know the pillars upon which self-awareness is based, we can dive into specific strategies for strengthening it, and therefore improve our choices, our relationships, and our success. But before we do, we need to get a better understanding of the two biggest obstacles standing in our way.
*1 Which was centered around the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and the western parts of Honduras and El Salvador.
*2 There have been a few notable exceptions, like researcher Anthony Grant—we’ll learn more about his work in chapter 5.