Self-awareness is a critical, if often underrated, competency
A few months ago, when I started this blog, I was talking with one of my former managers about a common acquaintance, how he completely lacked self-awareness and how this affected his work and his relationships with others.
“You should write about self-awareness or the lack of it in your blog,” she said half-jokingly.
“I might, one day,” I half-promised.
And here I am. A few months have passed since then, but I never forgot about that conversation, and I always thought one day I wanted to talk about it. I have touched upon self-awareness in other posts (if you’re going to change the world, start with the Man in the Mirror, and for that you need self-awareness; you also need plenty of self-awareness to use the superpower of vulnerability), but this time the entire post is dedicated to the topic. It deserves its space; as we will see, self-awareness is critical.
A New Year resolution
I don’t tend to pick new year resolutions (I chose many new resolutions, but why do they have to be in January and not in November or May?), but this year I am proposing to improve my self-awareness.
Why? Because it is one of the most important competencies or abilities you can have. It is the source of everything else. If you know yourself well and are aware of your strengths, weaknesses, motivations, emotions, drives, and desires, you are already well on your way to effectively lead yourself and others to success.
In Ancient Greece, when people visited the Oracle of Delphi, one of the maxims written on the temple forecourt was “Know thyself”. It is the first step in self-development and growth. Know yourself, and then you will understand your purpose and motivations in life, be happy and improve your relationships with others.
If self-awareness is that important and beneficial, is it something you can learn?
Nature vs. Nurture
Like most skills and competencies, there is a bit of nature and nurture when it comes to self-awareness. Genetics plays a part, and some people are more predisposed, by nature, to be better tuned to how they feel, what their strengths and weaknesses are, etc.
Nature always matters, but it is never alone, nurture also tends to play its part, and self-awareness isn’t an exception. The family environment, schools, the books read, the feedback received, mentors and role-models… all of this builds up or fails to build a person’s self-awareness.
So it is a bit of both. Someone might have the potential to be very self-aware because it is in their genes, but if this skill isn’t fostered and promoted, it will not flourish. On the other hand, someone with a low potential for high self-awareness might work on it and get closer to the potential dictated by nature, and display what would be high levels of self-awareness, even if not genetically predisposed for it.
Self-awareness as part of Emotional Intelligence
Self-awareness is the first of five components of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) as per the model of its leading proponent Daniel Goleman. He believes it is an essential skill that allows those who have it to know how their emotions affect them and others and help them improve their performance. People with self-awareness also have a better understanding of their values and purpose, which, as I wrote in another post, are key for high performance, fulfillment, and happiness at work.
In Goleman’s opinion, self-aware people are able to evaluate themselves realistically and honestly, are usually perceived as self-confident, even if they often have no problems showing their vulnerability (remember, vulnerability is a superpower!), and they display a self-deprecating sense of humour.
Self-aware people seek constructive feedback to learn more about themselves and improve, whereas people with low self-awareness often mistakenly think they know themselves very well, and they don’t like to hear feedback that goes against the image they have built about themselves in their imagination.
It is my own impression not supported by any evidence, so I might be mistaken, but I have the feeling that there is a positive correlation between people with high self-awareness and growth mindset, whereas people with low self-awareness tend to lean more towards a fixed mindset. If you are self-aware, you realise you can learn, grow and get better by practicing and making mistakes.
How to be more self-aware
There are different techniques or methods to improve self-awareness. Here I will focus on three.
The Johari Window is a technique created by Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham in 1955, and it helps people know themselves and their relationships with others better. The name comes from a combination of the authors’ first names.
It involves an exercise whereby different adjectives describing a subject end up in different quadrants of a box (see figure). There is a public quadrant, also known as the Arena or the Open quadrant, where known to self and known to others match. This is the area in which our view of ourselves and that the others have of us are aligned.
The second quadrant is the Blind Spot area. This is where there are things about us others know, but we don’t.
The third quadrant, also known as the Façade or the Hidden area, is where there are things known to ourselves, but unknown to others. These are our inner views of ourselves, which often we don’t want others to know, usually due to shame and embarrassment. These are things we don’t usually like about ourselves, so we don’t want others to know them.
Finally, there is the Unknown quadrant, with things neither we nor others know about us.
The first quadrant can be made bigger through feedback, coaching, introspection, or just by conducting this simple exercise with others, making the quadrants two (Blind Spot) and four (Unknown) smaller. This increases our self-awareness.
We can also reduce the third quadrant, the Façade, by sharing more about ourselves with others and displaying our vulnerability, again making the first quadrant, the public one, bigger. This improves our relationship with others.
The Johari window was devised as a therapeutic exercise involving the subject and the people who knew him or her selecting adjectives defining them, but I don’t think it is necessary to conduct the exercise exactly as prescribed to get some value out of it. It can make us reflect on what we think is our public and façade window, make the active commitment to reduce the blind window by asking feedback and to wonder what may lay in the unknown quadrant.
Coaching is one of the most powerful methods to increase self-awareness. After all, the coach’s mission is just that, to accompany the coachee in a journey of knowing themselves better so they can grow and achieve their goals.
As a coach myself, I have been coached by others several times. Every time I have learned deep, meaningful things about myself that previously I was ignorant about. It never fails to amaze me.
You think you know yourself very well and bang, it hits you. There is always something new you didn’t know that makes you see yourself and others in a different light. It is usually shocking and uncomfortable but also rewarding and enlightening. The truth, especially when it is about oneself, isn’t always pleasant, but it is the truth nevertheless, and knowing it will make you stronger, better, happier, you name it, in the long run.
A coach is like a mirror, that through questioning, feedback, and different exercises, helps you look at yourself better. It’s a mirror that reaches hitherto hidden blind spots and uncovers what it has been hiding, often in plain sight for all others but you. Coaching helps you reduce the Blind and Unknown quadrants, be more honest with yourself about your Façade quadrant, and question why you aren’t being more public about it.
Know thyself, as the Delphi Oracle said. A coach is like a modern oracle, but she doesn’t tell you about your future. She doesn’t tell you anything but asks you the right questions for you to find your answers yourself.
I started meditating through an app called Headspace in 2013 or 2014 but stopped after a few months, and since then, I didn’t keep up doing it regularly. I remember I felt good when I did it, but still, I stopped it for some reason I can’t remember. I guess I find it hard to keep some habits, especially if they are the healthy type.
Then last year the pandemic kicked, and I was spending a lot of time alone at home, getting anxious and stressed, so I decided to give it a go again, this time with an app called Waking Up. It was a great decision. Covid-19 was terrible for so many reasons, but restarting meditation and writing will be something for which I will be forever grateful to this virus.
Meditation has many benefits, and I would recommend everybody to do it, but this post is not the place to extol its virtues. We are here to talk about self-awareness, and oh boy, does meditation help with it.
Meditation is about being more present and in the moment, being conscious of your breath and aware of everything that is happening in your consciousness: thoughts, sounds, sensations of the body, images, what you see in your visual field with your eyes closed (it’s never completely black, is it?).
The first time you try to focus on your breath without concentrating on anything else, you realise how hopeless a task this is. A myriad of thoughts and images come racing out of nowhere, and you realise you don’t control your thought process as much as you thought you did.
As you meditate more and more, you start noticing better where your thoughts are coming from, and the images, feelings, emotions, sensations like heat or cold, the energy passing through your body, the mood you are in… You start to be more mindful about everything happening through your consciousness, as and when it happens. You begin to get to know yourself and how your conscious mind works better.
In summary, you start to be more self-aware.
AI in support of Self-awareness
In this blog, we always tend to keep an eye on the future and how things may be different. I found something interesting regarding AI and self-awareness in Pedro Domingos’s The Master Algorithm.
Domingos explains that there is an enormous amount of data about each of us online, as we all know, but luckily, it is not located in one single place (yet), nor is it accessible to one single agent. Google has some data about you, Facebook some more, Amazon knows something else, etc. Domingos believes that in the future, we may have all the data there is about us in a USB or cloud, all in one place, and we could ask the Master Algorithm (this will be the master of all algorithms, the one unifying all the rest, that hasn’t been created yet, but we seem to be getting there) to interpret the data for us and tell us who we really are.
In similar lines, Yuval Noah Harari argues in his great Homo Deus and 21 lessons for the 21st Century, that we will reach a moment in the near future where AI and algorithms, based on all the data they have collected about us, will know our desires and what drives us better than ourselves. When this future arrives, we may have delegated all our decisions to machines, as they will know better what is good for us.
This is a scary and dystopian thought, and there are several reasons why I think (or hope) we may never end up there, but this is a discussion for another post. What matters here is that as AI gets better and gets to amass data about us in one place, we may reach a moment when we could get some AI to help us increase our self-awareness. AI would analyse the data, how we did in certain meetings, how we are doing in our work, how we feel about it, etc., and give us advice, pointers, tell us about our blind spots, etc. It would be like an artificial mentor, but with much more data about us than any human could ever have.
But I think we are still far from this, if we ever get there. Before we get to that time, we’ll have to continue working on our self-awareness through the old means: introspection and reflection, seeking and interiorising feedback, coaching and mentoring, meditation, and tools like the Johari window.
And you, how are you improving your self-awareness?