Late in my career, maybe too late in fact, I started down a path seeking self-awareness. In a coaching meeting my mentor asked me, “Giles, are you self-aware or do you just think you are self-aware?” Because I’m a confident person (most times) I rushed to answer “of course I’m self aware!” But as I started to speak, the words slammed to a stop like a running dog that comes to end of his chain. I thought about it and had to admit out loud “I don’t know if I am really self-aware.” A simple question opened my eyes to the fact that I wasn’t completely aware of myself in terms of how I was perceived in the workplace as a leader, a co-worker, and a person. It shook me a little and made me feel incomplete. But I accepted it and sought to do something about it.
Beside sitting down and having introspection sessions with myself, trying to take an objective look at myself, I talked with my co-workers. I didn’t choose people who I knew would just say nice things. I chose people that I thought would give it to me straight. The most memorable meeting I had was with a colleague who let me have it with both barrels. BLAM! And I remember she did it in the nicest and most friendly way. But man, it stung a little! In the past, when I was in a different stage of “myself,” I would have been hurt, angry, or defensive. Instead, I felt grateful and thanked her for helping me.
So, what do I mean by “a different stage of myself?” Well, for me it’s gone like this: Self-judgement, Self-assessment, and Self-awareness. And I’ve spent time in all three.
Admittedly, I spent a good part of my life judging myself and still fight it at times. It’s so easy to judge yourself, isn’t it? We all do it at times. Like when you make a mistake and say “How could I be so stupid!” Or when we look in the mirror and judge our features, our clothes, or our weight. At times we can be our own worst enemy and we know it. We know it because when a friend or family member is self-judging themselves we tend to say things to them like “don’t be so hard on yourself,” “put it behind you,” or “don’t dwell on it,” because those are the things we know are happening in our head when we judge ourselves. And when we judge ourselves too harshly, for whatever event or reason, it begins to negatively affect the other aspects of our life – job performance, grades, relationships, you name it.
And when we think about self-judgement, we tend to think of it purely in the negative sense. But overly positive self-judgement can be just as foolish and harmful as negative judgement. (full disclosure – I’ve been here too, though I really, really, do not like admitting it) To walk around thinking that you’re awesome because you’ve either won the big game, or received an award at work, or made the Dean’s List, it’s as big a self-judging lie as thinking you suck because you made a mistake at work, or failed a test, or made an error that cost you the game. (And when you get the self-awareness part of this it’s gonna hurt).
My favorite poem is “If” by Rudyard Kipling, and my favorite line is:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
And they are impostors, aren’t they? We have good days, we have bad days, we have victories, we have defeats, we have triumphs and disasters. But at the end of those days we are the same person we were the days before. Self-judgement should not define us.
Many years ago, like 30, I received the best annual performance review I have ever received in my entire career. Not kidding. It was two full pages of single spaced words and sentences that were so glowing and beautiful that you would have thought I was the greatest thing to hit the planet since sliced bread. According to the review, I could do no wrong. I should have framed that thing and hung it up on the wall it was so good. But I didn’t.
Believe it or not I wasn’t really happy with it. Don’t get me wrong, it was really nice, really flattering, but where was the criticism? I wanted to get better, I wanted to grow! In my review meeting with my boss I even asked the question, “what do I need to do to get better?” And the answer was something like, “just keep doing what you’re doing.” (Aaaaarrrrrggh!) So, I went back to my office, shut the door and contemplated my own performance (“Jobu, I do it myself!” – for Major League fans). It was the first time I actually assessed my own performance from the standpoint of creating my own improvement plan.
And I did it. This wasn’t an exercise in self-judgement, it was self-assessment. I was able to objectively think about what I had accomplished, what I had failed to accomplish (without judging), what I still wanted to accomplish (career objectives) and created short and long term plans to go do it. My self-assessment was a guiding light to better opportunities that led me away from that company. Which is OK, because if I just kept “doing what I was doing,” nothing would have changed and my career would have never progressed.
Over the years, I continued to self-assess and refine my plans annually. (And I do self-assess my rowing. You know what I mean if you’ve seen my whiteboards) But, I found I wanted to get to another level of understanding. What would make me a better leader, a better co-worker, a better person? It was self-awareness.
A while back I wrote about Mindfulness and how it related to my rowing. I don’t want to confuse Mindfulness with what I am calling self-awareness. Mindfulness is about being completely conscious and present in the current moment, aware of your feelings and thoughts, which, thankfully, I am able to achieve when rowing. But self-awareness is understanding yourself and how others perceive you. It’s not easy to be able to think of how others perceive you. And it’s not easy asking others how they perceive you. But what revelations you will have! Back when I had that conversation with my co-worker, I decided to be open, accepting, and not be defensive. I wanted to understand my strengths and development needs (I never call them weaknesses) and what I could do to get better. What an eye-opening experience! While I was walking around thinking I was doing great, I found out others didn’t think I was that great. Ouch! But I accepted it as an opportunity to get better.
I mean, what more can we ask for than an opportunity to get better everyday?
Rowing My Way Through Self-Awareness
I feel like self-awareness is an ongoing process. And now that I’m retired, I still strive to be self-aware. What’s a person to do? Sure, The Warden keeps me in check (I don’t call her The Warden for nothing) and has been doing it for 45 years. And our four kids keep it real too. I love when they tell me I’m doing “old person” things! But since I’ve discovered my passion for rowing, I want to get better everyday and self-awareness is key. But it’s not easy being self-aware about rowing when you row by yourself in your own home but here’s how I do it.
Blogging – Self-awareness is the main reason I write this blog. Not only to share my rowing experiences but it helps me become more self-aware. Even if no one reads it, I’ve spent the time reflecting on a subject and how it relates to my rowing and what I could do to improve whether it be rowing or just trying to be a better person. And when I put fingers to keys, I discover even more. I love when I get feedback from others on that month’s topic, its incentivizing! It keeps me going.
Social Media – I post about my rowing on Instagram and Facebook pretty often. I always hope that my posts provide enjoyment and a little inspiration for others. And I am always willing to share my failures along with my successes. But posting my results helps me be self-aware of my strengths and my development needs.
Coaching – I sought out coaching. In the past two years I’ve participated in ROW-20, an online rowing class that consists of 20 consecutive days of rowing led by Austin Hendrickson who offers video review of your rowing technique. In those reviews, I ask Austin to be “brutal” with his critique. I know because of my quest of self-awareness, I can be open and accepting of his feedback. And there were a couple of times when he was brutal – and it was great! I still watch those videos to keep myself in check.
We’re All Connected
For me, the greatest benefit of self-awareness is realizing we are all connected as people. Understanding myself has helped me feel more connected with people who I get to interact with. Being able to understand them a little better because of how they perceive me makes me feel more complete. It’s a continuing journey for all of us and I am loving the ride.
I have found when I write, that I start thinking more about everyone who reads my story. Of course I hope they enjoy it and hope that they learn a little more about me. And I also hope they learn a little about themselves, too.