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You probably know more than a few people who are just clueless about themselves.
They make the same errors over and over but never seem to notice. They think they’re great at stuff that, frankly, they’re terrible at. But that’s not the real problem…
The real problem is you’re one of them too. Hey, so am I. Humans just aren’t terribly self-aware creatures.
In one study of more than 13,000 professionals in financial services, technology, nursing, and more, researchers found almost no relationship between self-assessed performance and objective performance ratings.
Some people are probably shaking their head at me right now. They think they’re the exception. They think they know themselves pretty well…
If you don’t think you need to learn to be more self-aware, then you definitely need to learn to be more self-aware.
…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… When given the opportunity to purchase a discounted book on improving EQ, the students with the lowest scores— that is, those who most needed the book— were the least likely to buy it.
And self-awareness is a really good quality to have, almost across the board. What’s the research show?
There is strong scientific evidence that people who know themselves and how others see them are happier. They make smarter decisions. They have better personal and professional relationships. They raise more mature children. They’re smarter, superior students who choose better careers. They’re more creative, more confident, and better communicators. They’re less aggressive and less likely to lie, cheat, and steal. They’re better performers at work who get more promotions. They’re more effective leaders with more enthusiastic employees. They even lead more profitable companies… some research has even shown that self-awareness is the single greatest predictor of leadership success.
In my book, I point out that “know thyself” is the first step toward success in life. (I’m by no means the first person to say that, just the most recent.)
So what does Dr. Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist who has spent oodles of time studying the problem, have to say about how to really get to know yourself — and reap all those delicious benefits?
Let’s get to it…
Maybe you spend a lot of time thinking about what you’re really like and you think that’s given you some self-awareness. Wrong.
The act of thinking about ourselves wasn’t correlated with knowing ourselves. In fact, in a few cases, he found the opposite: the more time the participants spent in introspection, the less self-knowledge they had (yes, you read that right). In other words, we can spend endless amounts of time in self-reflection but emerge with no more self-insight than when we started.
If you really want to get to know yourself better, do it like a good researcher would: spend less time theorizing and more time collecting data points to see patterns and trends.
Stop weaving elaborate theories and look to your behavior and the results.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my new book here.)
So you’re starting to see clear trends in what you do and how it makes you feel. Awesome. The next thing you usually do is ask yourself why that happens.
Umm, that’s a huge mistake, by the way…
A lot of research shows that asking “why” we do things is a really bad idea. It makes study subjects more depressed, they tend to fixate on their problems, and focus on blaming rather than fixing the issues.
But asking “what” questions helps us learn and grow.
Why questions stir up negative emotions; what questions keep us curious. Why questions trap us in our past; what questions help us create a better future. Indeed, making the transition from why to what can be the difference between victimhood and growth.
One of the most self-aware study subjects had this to say about the “why” vs “what” issue.
If you ask why, you’re putting yourself into a victim mentality. People end up in therapy forever for that. When I feel anything other than peace, I say “What’s going on?” “What am I feeling?” “What is the dialogue inside my head?” “What’s another way to see this situation?” “What can I do to respond better?”
(To learn how to stop checking your phone, click here.)
So you’re asking the correct W questions now. But we don’t get to know ourselves all that well in the abstract.
There are things you want to accomplish in life, and thinking clearly about those is actually another path to self-awareness…
Not only does setting goals help you get what you want, it also helps you get to know who you are.
…in one study, participants completed a three-month life-coaching program that focused on setting goals and measuring their progress toward them. Not only did the program help participants reach their goals in record time, they showed less introspection and more self-awareness. Another study demonstrated that people sustained this progress nearly eight months later.
You’re defining what’s important to you. And that’s a big part of what makes you, well, you.
(To learn the 4 rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
All the methods we’ve covered so far are great, but it’s time to bring out the big guns. What’s the single most powerful way to learn more about yourself?
Who knows you better than you do? Pretty much everyone around you.
…other people generally see us more objectively than we see ourselves. Psychologist Timothy Smith and his colleagues powerfully demonstrated this in a study with 300 married couples in which both partners were being tested for heart disease. They asked each participant to rate both their own and their partner’s levels of anger, hostility, and argumentativeness— all strong predictors of the illness— and found that people’s self-ratings were infinitely less accurate than those of their spouses. Another study asked more than 150 Navy officers and their subordinates to rate the officers’ leadership style, and found that only the subordinates could accurately assess their bosses’ performance and promotability.
So that idiot who makes the same mistakes over and over, never realizing it? You could easily tell him what he’s doing wrong. But he’ll never ask you.
However, if you’re smart, you’ll ask the people around you for some feedback. This is where knowing blunt people really pays off. You don’t want to ask friends who are gonna sugarcoat anything.
Your dentist may like the euphemism, “You may feel a little pressure” but I don’t, so I’ll be straight with you: this is gonna hurt. You’re asking blunt people to say negative things about you.
This is painful, but powerful. So ask — unless you’d rather keep being their idiot who makes the same mistakes over and over.
(To learn how to make friends as an adult, click here.)
Surveying those around you is harsh medicine but it’s the method that delivers the best results. So what’s a way to get to know yourself better that can actually be fun?
You might think that reading all this stuff and writing these blog posts makes me feel like a smarty-smart know-it-all. Nothing could be further from the truth…
I am constantly being smacked in the face with how wrong wrong wrong many of my ideas are and how the way I’ve always handled X, Y or Z is actually the worst method imaginable. It’s utterly humbling.
By continuing to learn, especially in the areas where you think you’re an expert, you discover the mistakes you’ve been making. And being aware of your mistakes takes you a long way in terms of self-awareness.
In their landmark 1999 study, David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that when overconfident poor performers were trained to improve their performance on a task, not only did they improve, so did their awareness of their prior ineffectiveness. A true commitment to ongoing learning— saying to ourselves, the more I think I know, the more I need to learn— is a powerful way to combat knowledge blindness and improve our effectiveness in the process.
(To learn the 4 scientific secrets that will make you lucky, click here.)
Okay, you’ve learned a lot — about self-awareness and maybe about yourself. Let’s round it up and find out the single most important thing about getting to know what you’re really like…
This is how to be more self-aware:
The single most important thing to realize is that self-awareness doesn’t come naturally. It takes a little effort.
The biggest mistake you can make is assuming you already know everything there is to know about yourself and you don’t have anything else to learn.
Everyone thinks they’re the exception, and therein lies the danger. Anyone who goes around saying they know everything about themselves is an idiot.
Luckily, I’m not an idiot because I know everything about myself. But, you know, I’m the exception…
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