“Understand yourself”. That’s #1 under four pieces of key advice for entrepreneurs in a recent INC. Magazine lead by columnist Lolly Daskal.
Wow, I thought. That’s what we psychoanalysts toil away at helping people do. I was delighted to see it headlined in a popular business magazine by a superstar coach.
But I wondered immediately how many of INC.’s readers would have any idea how to turn that essential piece of advice into action? That’s the hard part. It requires a different way of thinking and observing from our habitual ones. I have some tips below to get you started.
First, let me make the case for understanding yourself. Your “self” is your best instrument. By “self” I mean that complex amalgam of mind, brain, emotions, behavioral habits, values, body and culture that determines what you want, what you perceive, and how you understand the world around you. If you know your “self” extremely well, you have an immediate competitive edge. Because each of us has unconscious biases, determining narratives, “foibles” as Daskal puts it, idiosyncrasies and different strengths and weaknesses. Knowing what these are in increasing precision allows you to use the tool of your self to great advantage in any business decision.
It’s important to understand that each of us has an unconscious as well as a conscious mental life. And we each have the capacity for rational as well as irrational/emotion-driven thought. The trick is to get familiar with as much of this terrain as possible and gather input from all segments and modes of experiencing and processing information.
Like anything else worth doing, to achieve expertise in this area takes a lifetime of practice (remember Malcolm Gladwell: it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient).
And finally, there’s no one else whose mind and brain is put together like yours, so there’s no book or test that can tell you who you are. But there are established techniques that can lead you to self-understanding—and some are distinctly are counter-intuitive.
I’ve spent over a quarter century helping people understand themselves, so I thought I’d share some of the less obvious tips and techniques I’ve learned and teach my clients.
So here are 10 ways to get started on the path to knowing yourself in a comprehensive and complex way that will sharpen and clarify your decisions and performance—and maybe even lead to a more satisfying life:
1. Trust your gut to tell you when something is off, but not to tell you exactly what the problem is.
Your “gut” is a very reliable sensor that will tell you something is wrong in your social environment. But it is notoriously inaccurate at identifying what that “wrongness” is and therefore what you should do. If something doesn’t feel right, it isn’t. Trust that. But you need a lot more thought to determine exactly what the problem is. Your first thought about what the problem is might well be entirely wrong. In fact, it’s more likely to be a false lead than a useful one. That’s because we all tend to organize data according to familiar patterns and assumptions, which may not be the most relevant factors in the current situation. Try to let your mind loose and think of all the possible reasons for the “wrongness” you feel. It may turn out to be something correctable. If you can’t figure it out, it’s probably best to walk away.
2. Pay attention to your subtler reactions
These subtle cues to people and event (such as states of mild confusion, distraction, a sudden fit of yawning in an interview) are extremely valuable. Learn to notice them and ask yourself what’s going on. If you are sleepy during a meeting with a subordinate, ask yourself if they are really engaged in the work. If you are in a meeting and find that as hard as you try, you keep feeling confused about what people are trying to say, ask yourself if it’s you (some personal issue is snagging your focus) or are you picking up on a significant structural problem in the project or issue being discussed.
Here’s an advanced way of using your “self” as an instrument. Sometimes we notice internal feelings or reactions that seem strong but somehow foreign. There’s a discrepancy between something—a feeling–inside and what you know about yourself that day. Let’s say you’re having a good day but in a meeting with client you’re flooded with anxiety. You think, “That’s weird, I feel so anxious but I’m not really upset about anything”. It is possible you’re soaking up the other person’s feelings and experiencing them indirectly. Some of us are more likely to do this than others, and another key part of self-knowledge is knowing if you have this talent or predilection. If you do, you can use it to get inside of the heads of the people you’re dealing with before they even know what they’re feeling.
3. Practice the art of associative thinking.
A crucial road to self-understanding is to learn to think in a nonlinear, associative way. If I’m feeling anxious and ask myself directly what I’m worried about I’m likely to come up with either a trite answer or none at all. Instead of a direct linear question, learn to let your mind lose and see what floats in. A story, a bit of history, a song or memory? You’ll be surprised at the revelations that can ensue.
4. Know your habitual narratives, and practice coming up with others.
We all use narrative to govern and organize our mental lives. Some of these are conscious; others are subconscious but still very powerful. Without narratives we can’t process the vast amount of data that hits us every day. While narratives are essential organizing tools, they can also be limiting. We tend to get stuck in them. For example, a client of mine was dissatisfied with her career and kept thinking she would make a major change if she got a particular dream job. A change in her narrative— “Actually, I could make a major change right now- forget about the dream job” led to a completely different perspective.
5. Get to know your neurobiology.
Each of us has a unique neurobiology and innate temperament. Getting intimate with it allows us to maximize or potential. Some people are fast processors—they assimilate information rapidly and have made a decision before even consciously registering all the facts. Others (equally intelligent, I remind fast processors) are slow processors, and need a great deal of time to mull over options and nuances before arriving at a conclusion. Neither approach is right—just know which one leads you to the best decisions and respect that others take different paths. Some of us are strong at pattern and anomaly recognition, others at comparing abstract theories, others at seeing problems and solutions. We also differ on what I call “sponginess” to outside stimuli—some of us have good thick skins that allow us to block out others’ feelings and random bits of information to keep our focus (but risk missing key data). Others tend to soak up everything coming at them, including other peoples’ emotional states and needs. This allows for sensitivity and a rich collection of data, but can lead to being overwhelmed and distracted. Learn to protect yourself from too much stimulus inflow if you’re more of a sponge, and to open up and pay attention to what’s around you if you tend to block out stimuli.
Meanwhile, know your body. How much sleep do you need to function at top form? Know what eating well means for you. If you get cranky at 4 o’clock every day, or are prone to panic attacks, you might be sensitive to drops in your blood sugar. Find out how people with this sensitivity need to eat.
6. Don’t expect basic human fundamentals to change
If you’re an introvert, don’t expect yourself to become an extrovert. If you find someone difficult to deal with in initial negotiations, don’t expect that things will settle down once the deal is done—they more likely will still be difficult to deal with. If you do your best work alone, don’t spend too much effort learning about delegation and teamwork. A caveat—make sure it is a fundamental before you accept it as a given. You might think you can’t be a public speaker or a risk taker but with some practice a “fundamental” turn out to be amenable to practice and change.
7. Learn to interpret fear and anxiety correctly
Anxiety is a normal adaptive human function that alerts us to danger and stimulates us to action. “The sky looks ominous with a greenish tinge. I better get inside”. But over our lifetimes we collect fears and anxieties. One client was scared of starting over in a new city. Looking closer, we discovered that fear was based on childhood experience in a military family that moved many times; as a child she was overwhelmed by the emotional challenges of repeatedly adapting to a new environment. Now, she realized, she was more than equipped with the necessary skills and didn’t need to narrow her options based on avoiding a geographical change.
On the other hand, some fears are just part of who we are. If you really, really dread something, be compassionate to yourself and accept that. Find a work-around. You have a limited amount of energy and time. If you just can’t bear getting on airplanes, or public speaking, or starting conversations with strangers, don’t. There are always other ways to get where you need to go.
8.Try to work with people you like and are comfortable with
Life (and work and business) are hard. Don’t make it harder than it needs to be by forming alliances with difficult people, no matter what assets they bring to the table. Warren Buffet says it repeatedly (and beautifully) in his famous letters to investors:
“After some mistakes, I learned to go into business only with people whom I like, trust and admire.”
Conversely, he warns,
“We do not wish to join with managers who lack admirable qualities, no matter how attractive the prospects of their businesss. We’ve never succeeded in making a good deal with a bad person”.
Paraphrasing Buffet’s blunt advice, don’t work with people who cause your stomach to churn, or who are deceitful, inept or uninterested. It is like a very bad marriage.
9. Develop your differentness
You can’t be like everybody else. Learn more about who you are, and maximize your opportunities to perform as the best YOU. Warren Buffet again, quoting David Ogilvy: “Develop your eccentricities while you are young”.
10. Try to spend most of your time and effort doing what you want to do
Or at least work towards this as a goal. It’s amazingly easy to fill our entire lives with other peoples’ agendas. Think twice or three times before agreeing to give a talk, chair a committee, go to a meeting. Do you actually want to do it or is it something others want from you? Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism is a great guide to this aspect of self-knowledge.
Bonus point: Take the time to think about the impact of your actions and choices
You can do anything you want, but as a moral person and a good citizen, you need to take responsibility for the consequences of your behavior on others. This makes you a better person all around, strengthens relationships and creates undying loyalty.