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Posts Tagged ‘self-awareness’

Figuring It Out

copyright 2012 Michael SchubertWith President Obama’s recent push for accelerated investment in brain research, we can expect the coming years to deliver a steady flow of discoveries about how we process information. This is welcome news for me, because I’m always up for a good story about mirror neurons or brain plasticity.

You can’t imagine how delighted I was when Daniel Pink published A Whole New Mind a few years back and proclaimed that “right-brainers would rule the future.” But I’m afraid the revolution may be slow in coming. The more we learn about our brain’s astonishing range and capacity, the more I am struck by our tenacious allegiance to “reason” and “logic” as the go-to tools for workplace problem solving. Regardless of the nature of the problem, we seem to think we can think our way out of it.

My heart goes out to the leader or change agent who, when confronted with a relationship challenge, or when puzzling over a question of vision or values, frowns and confesses, “I can’t figure it out.” Could it be—I might gently suggest—that not every problem lends itself to quantitative analysis? Rather than figure it out, could you…

  • Draw it out?
  • Dream it out?
  • Dance it out?
  • Sing it out?
  • Swim it out?
  • Bake it out?
  • Breathe it out?

Next time you’re struggling to make sense of something…what would happen if you turned to some of your other senses for insight? Maybe that’s what they’re there for?

Beeline or Meander

January 25, 2013 2 comments

tree rings

During yesterday’s confirmation hearing to consider whether John Kerry should be the next US Secretary of State, Senator Bob Corker commented to the nominee, “I think you have led a life that has brought you to this moment.”

Well, of course he has. Haven’t we each led a life that has brought us to this moment? No doubt, Corker’s observation was intended to highlight the internal logic of Kerry’s journey. As the son of a diplomat, a war hero and protester, a senator with long service on the foreign relations committee, Kerry’s life, in hindsight, seems to point specifically to this position.

But it probably didn’t always seem that way to him. In the bitterness of a lost presidential bid, for example, don’t you think he might have had moments when he bemoaned his life’s failure to add up? For most of us, life is more of a meander than a beeline. But with and without our help, our experience continues to accrue, endlessly shaping us and the moment we are in.

Even when the logic of our life’s trajectory isn’t so apparent, you can be sure it’s there. It is energizing and clarifying to make a conscious effort to discern that unbroken thread of purpose.

When you look back on the life you have led that has brought you to this moment, what would you say it’s pointing you to?

Go First

October 9, 2012 3 comments

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.   — Lao Tzu

First Turning LeavesThis inspiring thought from Lao Tzu is often quoted, and I think, is often true. A leader succeeds best when her followers have adopted her vision as their own; embracing it so fully they don’t even recognize that it came from outside them.

It’s also true, though, that sometimes a leader has to be visible in her willingness to go first, literally to lead—and I am not only referring to “hero leaders” in positions of formal authority. Each of us, from time to time, has the option to go first from the middle of the pack. When all the other leaves are green, one leaf has to say, “Well, it’s time to turn orange now.”

“But,” you may object, “I don’t want to be the first leaf to turn. That leaf is dying!” Yes, it’s dying, and leadership often involves a kind of dying. We have to acknowledge the death of the system or the process or the product or the relationship that until now was the way we knew. We have to trust in the rightness of what’s next. (I’m aware, by the way, that leaves don’t actually have a choice in the matter…but you get my point.)

We go first when we become aware of something that the others aren’t aware of yet, when we get unhooked from something that is still getting in the others’ way, when we love the others enough to take the risk.

Where is your opportunity to go first right now?

Powerful Questions in Action

apple picking“I always have a question that I can’t answer just by thinking about it.”

That’s how Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison recently responded to an interviewer’s question about how she decides what to write about.

As befits her status as an international treasure, Morrison captured in this simple comment not just an insight into her own creative process, but something broader about the very nature of learning. She models for us the essence of action learning.

Many theorists have explored the inextricable connection between action and reflection in human learning processes. Kurt Lewin, David Kolb, and W. Edwards Deming are noted for their contributions to our understanding of this dynamic. And I often point to their cyclical models in encouraging my coaching clients to make room for reflection in their busy lives. “Reflect so that your next actions incorporate the wisdom you’ve gained.”

But what Toni Morrison hints at is an organic learning process in which action and reflection happen simultaneously; something closer to Bill Torbert’s theory of action inquiry. When we enter into action with awareness and the intention to absorb the learning it has to offer, it enhances the quality of the action we take. We not only find the answers we set out to find, but we expand our capacity for learning and leadership. We discover the creative power of inquiry itself.

What’s a question that you’re living with right now that you can’t answer just by thinking about it?

Braving the Discomfort Zone

April 10, 2012 7 comments

Waiting to singOne person’s fear is another person’s fun, right? A friend of mine is totally unfazed by donning 50 pounds of scuba diving gear and breathing apparatus to plunge into 75 or 100 feet of water, but when she is faced with the prospect of walking into a room full of strangers her heart races, her breath gets shallow, her palms sweat.

For me, singing in front of an audience can drive my anxiety up to acute levels. What sets off your fight or flight alarms? Regardless of what your particular challenge looks like, the fact that it feels risky is a solid clue to tell you that there might be something of substance for you to learn from it.

Oh, sure, we might wish to hang out endlessly in our comfort zones, those cozy, familiar, not too challenging places where we feel safe and self-assured.

Or we might crave more time in the flow zone that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has identified as the state in which people experience their greatest capacity for happiness and creativity. When you are absorbed in a “flow experience” he says, “…your sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”

These two inner-directed zones are absolutely vital to a balanced, joyful, healthy life, representing a spectrum of unconscious feeling that ranges from serenity to ecstasy. But even if we could choose to spend all of our time there, we’d be cheating ourselves out of something critical, wouldn’t we?

Just as important is that discomfort zone in which we get conscious about what scares us and what matters to us most. It’s there that we identify the gaps in our life and define our opportunities for growth and understanding. In short, it’s there that we learn.

It’s only in the discomfort zone that you can gather valuable data by asking, “What makes this experience so difficult for me? What would it take to convert these feelings of vulnerability, inadequacy, stupidity, frustration, or uncertainty into feelings of comfort and flow?” Your discomfort zone is a practice field where you can acknowledge and challenge your biggest fears and declare your intention to disarm them in pursuit of what you really care about.

When you choose to enter the discomfort zone with intention and curiosity—walking into that room full of strangers, standing up there to sing—you build your muscles for navigating this challenging zone the next time you find yourself there unexpectedly. Will you give it a try?

Self-Absorbed or Self-Aware?

December 14, 2011 Leave a comment

distorted reflectionWhat label would you use to describe your most common stance toward “self?”

Self-conscious? (cringe)  Self-absorbed? (preen)  Self-preserving?  (shields engaged!)

How often is your self-regard constructed from distorted assumptions about how others perceive you? We all do it. Not being privy to the thoughts of others, we make assumptions about what they must be thinking based on our own deepest fears. They are judging us. They are competing with us. They are out to get us in one way or another.

Here’s a radical trick to help you reduce the distortion in your self-awareness. Instead of making everyone else a judge, or a competitor, or a predator, imagine that we are your children. How are you taking care of us?

Daniel Goleman wrote, “Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection—or compassionate action.”

To be self-aware is to humbly and joyfully accept our gifts and imperfections as the instruments we’ve been given with which to serve others. In self-awareness lies clarity about capacity and purpose.

The amusing paradox in your journey toward self-awareness is that it’s not about you. It’s about us.

Seeing Yourself Whole

Flower mandalaWhat is the source of your greatest contribution to the world?

a) My remarkable brain
b) My big, generous heart
c) My beautiful body
d) My enlightened soul

You’re one step ahead of me, aren’t you? Of course, the answer is e) All of the above! As a complex, dynamic human system, your ability to live with purpose and impact here on earth comes not from any one dimension of your being, but from the continuous interoperation of all of them.

It’s easy to forget this fundamental truth when we get caught up in the expectations of a system—work, family, church, community—that seems only to want a piece of us. But when we collapse our sense of self to accommodate the perceived preferences of others, we forfeit much of the creative energy that comes with full self-awareness.

Conversely, when we maintain our awareness of self as a complex, dynamic whole, the rewards that accrue to us and those around us are immeasurable: We expand our options for intervening when we’re stuck or off-track; we gain clarity about the values that enliven us and the purpose that drives us forward; we gain confidence in our capacity for sustained contribution.

That’s why it’s important and courageous work to assert our wholeness on behalf of our own fulfillment and in service to others. In a feature article in this month’s issue of The Systems Thinker newsletter from Pegasus Communications, I offer a few ideas and tools, such as The Round Resume, to help you awaken and sustain your awareness of self as a whole system of power and purpose.