Let’s face it, there will always be someone smarter than you. The sooner you admit that to yourself, the sooner you are on your way to taking it to the next level. Research and writing skills, critical thinking, and the ability to think on your feet are all standard prerequisites. What will set you apart?
Research is starting to quantify what casual observers have been saying for decades—hard skills might get you the job, but it’s the soft skills that will propel you to the top. Here’s the catch: Reading self-help books authored by your favorite politician, entrepreneur, or sports hero won’t help you maximize and build upon your current skill set. You’ll find the answer by taking a good, hard look in the mirror. It’s called self-awareness.
There are two primary forms of self-awareness:
- the ability to know yourself (e.g., strengths and weaknesses, propensities)
- the ability to know and react appropriately to the situations in which you find yourself.
The first form of self-awareness requires the ability to reflect upon and accurately assess your skills and abilities. The following six principles will help you maximize the hard skills you currently possess.
Mitigate Your Weaknesses
Most average Americans claim that they have above-average knowledge, skills, and abilities. This statistically impossible conclusion highlights the natural tendency to be overly optimistic about our capabilities. Lacking awareness of your “blind spots” can be disastrous. You will lose the confidence of your colleagues and clients if you don’t recognize and acknowledge your weaknesses. Pretending you don’t have blind spots will cause others to perceive you as a liability. Acknowledging your weaknesses and compensating for them through strategic partnerships will cause others to consider you trustworthy and savvy.
Leverage Your Strengths
If you have a clear, realistic understanding of your key differentiators, you will be better prepared to participate in projects that allow you to use these skills and abilities. Pinpointing your strengths may also identify what projects not to work on. It might feel therapeutic to meticulously manicure your strengths, but the gain will be incremental at best. Your limited time will be better spent working on something else, like your weaknesses.
Find Value Congruence
One of the most powerful mechanisms for increasing your productivity is working in settings that match your values. Evaluating the underlying values of your superiors, colleagues, employer, or industry niche, and then working in a value-congruent environment, will lead to more fulfilling and meaningful work. When work doesn’t feel like work, you will stay intrinsically motivated, regardless of the obstacles.
Become a Leader
In the knowledge worker environment (i.e., professional services), what constitutes an effective leader (or those capable of taking it to the next level) has evolved over time. In particular, the heroic leader approach is becoming extinct. In today’s fast-paced, ambiguous, information-driven work environment, the likelihood that any single heroic individual can lead everyone is nearly impossible. Today, the shared leadership approach reigns supreme. Shared leadership entails a group of individuals with unique skills and expertise, constantly negotiating who will offer leadership depending upon the situation at hand. To be effective in a shared leadership environment you must be aware of your strengths and weaknesses and whether the situation requires your influence and expertise.
The second form of self-awareness is the ability to be mindful of experiences as they occur and properly react to those experiences. These examples will help increase your focus and productivity while navigating the daily experiences in your work environment.
Self-awareness goes beyond accurately recognizing skills and abilities; it’s also about understanding our psychological triggers and emotional reactions to challenging situations. Stress can be paralyzing and severely inhibit our ability to remain productive. If you are capable of identifying and accepting your emotions, as opposed to immediately reacting, your focus will help you quickly resolve problems. When the challenging situation involves others, managing emotions ensures that you don’t embarrass yourself by doing something you’ll regret. Accepting the situation for what it is and then using logic, as opposed to emotionally driven banter, is more likely to bolster your image as a poised professional.
Mindful self-awareness is linked to the ideal form of concentration, called “flow,” during which you feel energized and enjoy being fully emerged and engaged with your work. Mindful self-awareness helps you remain focused on the task at hand, helps you squash distractions, and help you shut down unnecessary and unproductive ruminations. Moreover, jumping from heady, intellectually challenging work, to dealing with superfluous issues, and then back to your challenging project, is no simple feat. Research suggests that mindful self-awareness helps deal with this scenario by minimizing overreactions to the inherent frustration of the distractions and increasing your ability to quickly refocus your attention.
Before putting self-awareness into action, debunk the most common myths about cultivating self-awareness. You don’t need to sit cross-legged and make humming sounds, pay someone to administer and evaluate personality surveys, or participate in awkward group discussions. While mindful meditation, leadership coaching, and group development exercises have scientifically proven utility, getting started need not be anything extraordinary. Consider the following steps to becoming more self-aware.
The vast majority of our life experiences flow through our subconscious without ever making it to the point of conscious reflection. Setting aside time to write down daily thoughts and experiences will help you memorialize information that may help shape your future decisions. The hard part: consistent self-reflection takes discipline. In an ideal world, you should set aside a few minutes at the end of each day to consider a few questions: Did I learn anything about myself (e.g., strengths, weaknesses, values)? Was I productive (e.g., managing emotions, staying focused)? Long-term self-reflection is also key. Consider sitting down yearly or quarterly to reevaluate your strengths, weaknesses, and values, and revamp your goals.
A vital ingredient for self-awareness is to find people who will give you constructive criticism. Vague or sugarcoated feedback has limited value. Find people who know you well, who understand what it takes to be successful, and who aren’t afraid to give you critical, yet constructive feedback. Ask them to quantify both your hard skills and your soft skills in comparison with others so that you can get an accurate view of where you stand compared with your peers. Be clear and honest when approaching these people; let them know that you are trying to work on your weaknesses because you don’t want to be blindsided when it matters most.
Self-awareness has finally gone mainstream. Research is beginning to quantify its practical and economic utility, and some of the world’s largest and most innovative employers (Apple, Google, and General Mills, to name a few) are embracing self-awareness initiatives. Knowledge, skills, and abilities remain a solid platform for performance, but self-awareness enables you to maximize these talents through artful application and mindful approaches to productivity.