“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” - Aristotle
null “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” - Aristotle
“KNOWING YOURSELF IS THE BEGINNING OF ALL WISDOM.” - ARISTOTLE
Article first published on Alistair Cox's LinkedIn on 26th January 2021.
If I asked you, “what’s your favourite colour?”, “what’s your favourite food?” or “what’s your favourite movie?” you’d most likely be able to respond, probably instantly.
But, if I asked you, “what are your core values?”, “what is your strongest strength?”, or “what is your weakest weakness?”, would the answers come so easily to you?
What defines you as a person? The things you value most in life or whether you prefer pizza to burgers?
It’s amazing how little we might actually know about ourselves, and that’s because we’ve never asked.
How curious are you about yourself?
It’s highly likely you’ve never asked yourself these kinds of confronting questions before. Most people haven’t. If you have, it’s probably only been in preparation for a job interview. It’s therefore very likely that you’re looking in the mirror but not really seeing your true self. Many of us live our lives on autopilot and fail to take the time to really understand ourselves; to reflect on who we are and what we want. It’s sad to say, but often others may well have a more accurate picture of us than we do of ourselves.
We’re always striving towards the next achievement and the next goal, and we don’t take time to think about how we did (or didn’t) achieve the last one. It doesn’t even occur to us to analyse what we could do better next time.
We often go through life doing the same things, making the same choices, taking the same paths and we wonder why the outcome isn’t different each time. Many of us are in a constant cycle of ‘more of the same’. Why? Because we aren’t practising self-reflection in any meaningful way.
That’s a problem, but it’s one that can be fixed.
Incorporating regular self-reflection into our personal and professional lives is the key. To be at our most successful and happy, we must, as I’ve explained previously, be curious about the world around us. However, we must also be equally curious about who we are as people.
I firmly believe that events over the past year have changed us for good. When nothing can be taken for granted anymore, we alter how we see the world and what really matters to us. Whatever our individual circumstances, we have been afforded the time to reflect on our lives, the decisions we’ve already made, and those we are yet to take. If you’ve used that time wisely, you’ve got a head start on self-reflection, had some practice and many are now starting to appreciate its value. The trick now: making this practice a permanent habit.
What is self-reflection?
What do we actually mean by self-reflection? Self-reflection is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “the activity of thinking about your own feelings and behaviour, and the reasons that might lie behind them.”
The practice of self-reflection is an extremely powerful one, but it can be uncomfortable. The key is to reflect in a non-judgemental way, with the main aim of striving towards self-improvement and learning via constructive suggestions, not self-criticism and negativity, or self-reinforcement of what we already think we know. Only by understanding the forces and motivations, both good and bad, that got you to where you are today and how you feel about that, will you be able to see more clearly where you want to go next and how you’re going to get there.
Be warned though: this is not easy and if done well will likely be confronting. It is not a test with right and wrong answers. It is not something to be done within a time limit. Your answers do not make you “good” or “bad”. No one is listening and judging you. But if your answers here are honest, accurate and true to yourself, they will paint your picture.
The fact that self-reflection is hard is probably why we don’t do it more often; why most of us are strangers to ourselves. Perhaps we assume that we already know who we are, that we’re clear what drives and motivates us, what we’re good at, what we’re bad at. However, many of us fall into the trap of making these presumptions without really knowing where they come from. But actually, they are often wrong, biased and can unknowingly lead us to make the wrong choices and decisions.
Self-reflection can also boost performance at work
As Aristotle put it, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” And that wisdom extends into our professional, as well as our personal, life. Here’s how:
- It can boost motivation and energy levels at work: As explained in their Harvard Business Review article, professors at the University of Florida and the University of Maryland found that those leaders who practised self-reflection each morning, asking themselves what makes them a good leader, felt more motivated and less depleted at work.
- It can boost happiness at work: Research found that those commuters who used their travelling time to prepare and plan for the day ahead were happier and more productive.
- It can build our self-confidence at work: By practising regular self-reflection, we are more likely to create better experiences and make better decisions. When this happens more often, and we experience more positive outcomes, we start to see ourselves as more capable and confident, boosting our self-esteem in the process.
- It can help us develop resilience to deal with challenges and change at work: Self-reflection can help us recognise and break the cycle of constant negative self-talk and self-limiting beliefs. It can help us see ourselves for the strong, capable and talented people we are, thus building our resilience in the process.
- It can help us become more compassionate at work: By understanding our innermost motivations, worries, likes and dislikes, we develop a level of emotional intelligence which allows us to be more compassionate and empathetic to the unique situation and perspectives of others in our working lives.
- It can help us become better learners: Regular self-reflection will help us become better learners because it enables us to be more aware of how we learn best. Importantly, it will help us more readily adopt a growth mindset and practise more self-appreciation, meaning when faced with failure we are more easily able to appreciate the learnings and move forward in a positive way. A willingness and ability to keep learning is one of the key attributes people are looking for in the talent they recruit today, so it’s important for your career.
How to practise self-reflection
With all this in mind, how can we get better at true self-reflection and make better career decisions?
Ask yourself the right questions
The questions you ask yourself are the key to unlocking those things that you don’t already know about yourself. Only by asking yourself the right questions, and by asking them regularly, will you get to the true answers, and thus go on to make the right career decisions.
But what questions should you ask yourself when it comes to self-reflecting on your career? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
1. What is my ultimate career goal? Is my current role going to help me achieve it?
2. How do I personally define career success? Are my goals truly fulfilling me, or is that definition impacted by the opinions and perspectives of others?
3. How will I feel in five years’ time if I don’t make any changes to my current career trajectory?
4. If I’m coasting in my current role, what is the root cause?
5. Do I know what my current skills gaps are and how I can fill them?
6. What are the self-limiting, negative stories I tell myself every day that could be holding me back? Where do those stories originate from and on what facts (if any) are they based?
7. If I think back to a time when I was performing at my best, what was I doing, thinking and feeling?
8. What am I naturally good at? What comes easily to me and puts me into that ‘flow’ state?
9. Which strengths do I most admire in myself? Which accomplishments am I most proud of?
10. When did I last push myself out of my comfort zone? Do I really have a growth mindset in terms of my career?
11. What could I have achieved over the last year that I didn’t? Why didn’t I?
When you’re answering these questions, try to take a step back. They don’t need to be answered instantly. Ruminate on them and mull them over. My personal trick is to think about them as if you’re a stranger to yourself, ridding yourself of bias or preconceptions. Never answer them in ways you think others in your life or society would want to hear. Simon Sinek recommends looking at a situation as if you were the third person evaluating it, and I find that ‘detachment’ helpful when I explore my own story. Analyse your behaviour, decisions and actions with no judgement and an open mind. This is what will allow you to make the right career decisions for you going forward.
Be clear on your personal values
When self-reflecting, perhaps one of the most difficult questions to answer about yourself is, “what are my personal values?” Our personal values are the things that are important to us, that guide and motivate us, that direct the life we build for ourselves. They are the DNA of our personality and are unique to you. If you’re not clear on what yours are, how will you identify and reach your goals, make the right decisions and build the career and life you want to live?
All of us are different, we all have different personal values. However, as explained by Dr John Demartini, many confuse theirs for what they think they should be. When asked what their values are, most will unknowingly reel off a list of ideals in a bid to fit into whatever society says should be important to them. This is pointless and will lead you nowhere.
How do you understand what your own personal values are? As philanthropist and life coach Stefan James explains, ask yourself, “what’s important to me in my life?” Let the answer come to you without judgement and write it down. Perhaps family comes to your mind first – very few of us would say family is unimportant to us. But ‘family’ isn’t a value. To determine your values, think about what emotions your family galvanises in you – love, connection, pride or support, for example. Then, ask yourself the same question again, “what’s important to me in my life?” Let the answer come to you without judgement and write it down. And keep asking yourself the same question. Then, order the values you’ve written down into a hierarchy. What’s most important to you? What’s at the top of the list?
Understanding what your values are - the principles that underpin you as a unique human being - can help you get on the right track and importantly stay on it. Having a clear picture of your core values can also help you see what’s important, what’s worth your time and what isn’t, and ultimately give you a sense of purpose.
This kind of focus and clarity is vital to making the right strategic career decisions throughout your life. It’s almost impossible to imagine how you will achieve your goals without it! Understanding and living by your personal values will impact the way you interact with others and form relationships with colleagues and stakeholders. It will inform your choices around the work you pursue, which employer to work for, and your commitment to establishing a work-life balance.
Everyone self-reflects differently
Documenting what you’ve found during your self-reflection exercises will help it all seem more real, more memorable, more impactful and more actionable to you. Some keep a journal, some prefer simple notes on their phone, others prefer talking with a colleague, manager, mentor, family member, partner or friend.
I often look back on my own notes, some of them many years old now, and they bring into sharp light what matters to me most. It is interesting to see how underlying themes remain constant, even as life changes around us. But it is also interesting to see how new themes can emerge, which can then be a catalyst for positive change.
When and how often to self-reflect is also down to personal preference. What is key is making it a habit, something you instinctively and automatically do in a bid to improve yourself. We exercise regularly to make our physical being better, so we should self-reflect regularly to make ourselves mentally stronger, fitter, healthier and happier.
You may like to commit to daily reflection, at the start or end of the day. Or perhaps it’s a ritual you come back to at the end of a big project, before a performance review or when you reach a career milestone. It’s different for everyone, but what’s important is that you do it in a space in which you feel relaxed, open and free, and that you take action on what you’ve learnt.
As I said, self-reflection isn’t easy. It takes vulnerability, bravery, space, commitment and time. If you rush it, gloss over the hard questions, give up, provide the politically correct answer or just plain lie, you are only fooling yourself. No one is judging your answers apart from yourself.
Self-reflection is designed to make you better. And making improvements to anything in life starts with honesty and hard work. So, as we embark on an ever-changed world of work, I strongly believe the ability to self-reflect will be one of the most powerful skills that we can arm ourselves with.
Chief Executive, Hays
Alistair has been the CEO of Hays, plc since Sept. 2007. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America. He completed his MBA (Stanford University, California) in 1991 and returned to the UK as a consultant for McKinsey & Co. His experience at McKinsey & Co covered a number of sectors including energy, consumer goods and manufacturing.
He moved to Blue Circle Industries in 1994 as Group Strategy Director, responsible for all aspects of strategic planning and international investments for the group. During this time, Blue Circle re-focused its business upon heavy building material in a number of new markets and in 1998, Alistair assumed the role of Regional Director responsible for Blue Circle’s operations in Asia, based in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. He was responsible for businesses in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. Subsequent to the acquisition of Blue Circle by Lafarge in 2001, he also assumed responsibility for Lafarge’s operations in the region as Regional President for Asia.
In 2002, Alistair returned to the UK as CEO of Xansa, a UK based IT services and back-office processing organisation. During his 5 year tenure at Xansa, he re-focused the organisation to create a UK leading provider of back-office services across both the Public and Private sector and built one of the strongest offshore operations in the sector with over 6,000 people based in India.