Why Self-Awareness Is the Most Important Skill to Develop

How self-aware are you? Do you know how others feel around you? Are you aware of all your tendencies?

Most people believe they are quite self-aware, but we are all delusional. We can all think of people in our lives who are unaware of their impact on others. They make bad choices, obvious to everyone around them: the friend that always picks the wrong guy, the boss that gets in your way of doing great work. Now imagine, how different their lives would be if they could see what you can see so clearly. All of us are that person.

Walking in life with fragile egos, trapped knee deep in the patterns we’ve picked up since childhood. The best part though, is that we can step out and see ourselves; self-awareness is just another skill that could be developed.

Passionate about the work of Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, I read 21 Lessons for the 21st Century in September. Yuval believes humanity is faced with 3 challenges in the coming decades: nuclear war, climate change, and technological disruption. He seems to have 2 aims writing this book. Firstly, he wants to inspire a minority of the readers to tackle these issues in their field of work. Secondly, he wants to spark an interest in the reader to become mindful and self-aware, to at least be more prepared for the third challenge.

As the book came to an end, I was faced with the reality that I hadn’t taken my own self knowledge seriously enough. I was aware of the discrepancy between reality and my perception of it based on the feedback I had received. So I dove in and came across the book Insight by Tasha Eurich who claims “Self-awareness is the secret ingredient for success in the 21st century.”

Insight book cover

She coined the term self-awareness unicorns - alluding to the rareness of such characters. Importantly, her research is only based on individuals who acquired the skill later in life, exempting the individuals who happened to have the skill naturally. Such individuals were unable to unpack their techniques, making them difficult to study. This is good news for those of us who don’t have this skill naturally.

In her research, she found that there are two types of self-awareness. Internal self-awareness and external self-awareness:

Internally self-aware people know their:

  • Values
  • Passions
  • Patterns
  • Reactions
  • Strengths and Weaknesses
  • Ideal Environment
  • Impact on Others

Their hallmark? they make choices that are compatible with the above.

Externally self-aware people know:

  • How Others See Them

Their hallmark? they build stronger and more trusting relationships.

Interestingly, there is no correlation between the two, meaning being self-aware in one type doesn’t mean you are necessarily aware in the other. In fact, being both internally and externally self-aware is quite rare. Though Tasha’s unicorns had elements of both.

“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” ― C.G. Jung

Combine self-awareness with mindfulness, and you have a super power. If you recognise an emotion as it happens, the emotion looses its grip on you. The next time you are wrapped up in anger, take a moment to observe the feeling. It’s not easy, but doing it once can be a powerful experience that will encourage you to do it again. Just try it next time. The person that communicates this best, is Sam Harris. Listen to this episode to learn more: Sam Harris, Ph.D.: The transformative power of mindfulness (EP.34) - Peter Attia. Tasha also explores this in her book.

Strong people have a strong sense of self-worth and self-awareness; they don’t need the approval of others.” ― Roy T. Bennett,

Perhaps the most powerful insight is the moment you come to the realisation that you are unique and have your own set of strengths. You can stop comparing yourself to others and carve out your own path. Personally, this has helped reduce my anxiety, and lessen the murmurs of self doubt and imposter syndrome.

Tips for developing self-awareness, borrowed from the book Insight:

  • “Think about what gives you and takes away your energy”: This is a compelling way to help reflect and amend your environment accordingly. This will help you determine which type of people to keep in your life and which types to avoid. Which type of situations to go into and which to avoid. Which type of activities to do and which to avoid. Since time is one of our most important assets, the implications are profound.

  • “Ask what, not why questions”: If you said something to a friend that you later regret, you may find yourself saying things like: why did I say that? Why do I always make a fool out of myself? Why didn’t I just think before I opened my month? Ruminating on a past behaviour by asking why you did X is never that productive. In fact, research has shown that it negatively impacts our well-being and weakens our immune system. So instead if you ask, what questions, such as, what can I do to make her feel better, what can I do to avoid finding myself in this situation again? you will come up with solutions to improve the situation.

  • Asking for feedback: Tasha recommends finding a ‘loving critic’ such as a friend, family member, mentor etc, who is willing to give you honest feedback. Watch out though as some loved ones will only tell you what you want to hear, while others such as a competitive colleague might have a hidden motive. Once you find the right individual, plan a dinner with them and ask them what is the thing that annoys them most about you. For this to work well, you can’t get defensive, instead name the emotion and listen. They are giving you a gift and getting defensive will prevent them from telling you the full story, the parts that you desperately need to know.

I highly recommend reading the book if you’d like to learn more.

“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” ― Marcus Aurelius

One of the delightful side effects of developing self-awareness is empathy. As you become aware of your own shortfalls first and foremost, you learn that people’s wrongdoings are not a product of planned malevolence, but a product of absentmindedness or incompetence. In other words, you know that when you make errors, it’s due to forgetfulness or lack of knowhow, rather than some elaborate plan to hurt others. It might seem obvious but many relationships are harmed when we fail to acknowledge this simple fact. Recognising your own weaknesses, makes you empathic towards the weaknesses of others.

In the end, everything improves with self-awareness, health, work, relationships, and more. I’ll leave you with a quote from Yuval’s book:

“If you really know the truth about yourself and the world, nothing can make you miserable”. ― Yuval Noah Harari

Tweet me your thoughts and let me know if you consider another skill more important to develop, I’d love to learn.

28 December 2018