“Success in the knowledge economy comes to those who know themselves – their strengths, their values, and how they best perform.”
― Peter F. Drucker, Managing Oneself
The entrepreneur and investor, Gary Vaynerchuk, has emphasized how self-awareness is the #1 trait you should develop.
He’s not alone. Will Smith understands this too. One of the most referenced Will Smith clips on the web is from a Charlie Rose interview where Will says the only difference between him and others is his sickening work ethic. He’s not much smarter, sexier, or athletic than others. It’s his work ethic. But there’s more to the story than that when you watch the whole interview.
Around the 50-minute mark, Will reveals that he understood he would never be as funny as Eddie Murphy or as powerful as Denzel Washington. They had talent that he couldn’t surpass. But he was above-average at all areas of film and that was his gift. He could do humor but also acting. He was self-aware enough to identify his natural strengths and weaknesses. He was great at being a jack-of-all-trades.
So it’s more than just blindly outworking others. He directed and focused that energy towards his unique superpower.
Research shows that people who are self-aware are better communicators, have stronger relationships, are more honest, and are more creative.
What Self-Awareness Really Is
Self-awareness is the ability to see ourselves clearly for who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world. Great self-awareness is much harder than you think because we have countless biases and assumptions that cause us to see ourselves through rose-colored glasses rather than objectively.
According to a Harvard Business Review article, cited at the end, a study of 1000 employees in 300 companies in over 100 countries found that those at the highest levels of leadership have better self awareness than those lower down. Fortunately, self-awareness can be increased.
How to Cultivate Self-Awareness
Identify your unique superpower. Pat Flynn, a top online entrepreneur, emphasizes this “superpower” concept a lot. Just like how a business should identify and grow their durable, competitive advantage, an individual should identify and grow their unique superpower, something that comes easily to you that comes hard to others. I get it — it seems like most of us don’t have this superpower. But we all do, we just haven’t identified it yet.
Scott Adams, creator of the world-famous cartoon, Dilbert, and author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, explains that his superpower was mixing many skills in a unique way. He wasn’t the best cartoonist, comedian, or marketer. But he was above average in these areas and combined them in a unique mix to create a comic strip that made jokes about life in the modern business world.
I have put thousands of hours into video games. Yes, I’ve tried turning this passion into a career through YouTube. But it didn’t work. One of my main time sinkholes is League of Legends. While I did manage to learn a lot about the e-Sports industry, all those hours spent playing didn’t make me money. As Simon Sinek says in his book Find Your Why, it’s hard, if not impossible to identify your gifts on your own. You need to get someone who isn’t your friend or family to identify it for you. It may be so natural to you that you don’t notice it. Hence, I was told that one of my gifts was learning and synthesizing a large amount of objective information, whether it was e-sports content, podcasting, business advice, or the nuances of social media.
Speaking of League, the video game’s solo queue system has an algorithm that ranks your skill. If you win games, your ranking increases. It ranks hundreds of thousands of players, and if you are in the top 1% of the 1%, you are often scouted to compete professionally. Since it’s the most viewed e-Sports game out there, you can make a good living at the top. But it’s so competitive, and the vast majority make nothing from it.
Playing in the solo queue system has tested my self-awareness immensely. The game is fun but often toxic. Every three to four games, there is at least one raging troll or negative child who blames every death on something other than himself and spits every curse word you can think of.
This person would spew every curse word known to man at you and your teammates. He would blame you for every mistake. He would scream at you. He always held a perspective of “I have played flawlessly. It’s all your fault we’re losing.”
In reality, he had a horrible rank. There were hundreds of thousands of people ranked higher than him. And if you checked his match history, he’d played hundreds of matches. It wasn’t his teammates. The only common denominator between his matches was him.
Yet it was interesting seeing how often people like this would show up. I’m not going to lie, I have been drawn in to act just like this many times. There’s a certain psychology of the game that pulls you in.
People can be blind to their own weaknesses, while they can clearly see other people’s. According to the book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, this psychological phenomenon is ever-present among humans. We are biased to be severely less aware of our own shortcomings.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Matthew 7:3
To a top-ranking player, it’s clear as day that he making all sorts of mistakes in his game play. But the beginner is unaware of his errors, and the natural reaction is to blame everyone but yourself for your loss. You don’t know what you don’t know. In his mind, he was playing perfectly. Even though the statistics showed differently.
I noticed the same thing playing out when driving. Research shows that the vast majority of people think they’re a better than average driver. People make all sorts of driving mistakes and are oblivious to them. Some will even blame others for their own mistakes or accidents!
Most people will stay in their comfort zone and never progress. If you want to get better and become more successful, be brutally honest. If you’re failing at work because you’re rude to coworkers, but you won’t accept the truth because of your ego, you’ll never improve and get that money you want.
Find people you can trust who have known you for a while. Explain this to them so that they can be honest. Promise you won’t judge them or react violently. Ask them to honestly tell you your shortcomings and flaws.
Your initial reaction to some of this advice might be outrage or disbelief.
But that’s probably the bias kicking in. Consider that their feedback might be spot on and work to improve it.
To get a more accurate picture, get more than one opinion. If you have at least 5 people tell you the same thing, you know it’s a point to work on.
The Levels of Self-Awareness
Self-awareness consists of how you are thinking, how you are feeling, and how you are aware of and accounting for your blind spots. Research shows that mindfulness meditation can improve the brain region associated with how aware you are of emotions and thinking during the heat of the moment.
Blind spots and biases are harder to spot if you’re unaware of them. Get familiar with basic psychology around cognitive biases is a great way to start. But once you’re aware of them, you need to set up systems to identify and work around them when they happen during the moment they occur. You can avoid situations where they’re in effect. That’s one reason Warren Buffett never go to auctions. Or you can set up a plan and/or team to deal with them rationally when they occur.
Further recommended reading:
- How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams
- Principles by Ray Dalio
- Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
- Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
- Self-Awareness Is More Important Than An MBA (Harvard Business Review)