95% of people say that they’re self-aware. But only 10-15% of people actually are. As my guest today says, that means “on a good day, 80% of us are lying to ourselves about how much we’re lying to ourselves” and this blind spot can have big repercussions for our success and happiness.
Her name is Tasha Eurich, and she’s an organizational psychologist and the author of Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life. Tasha kicks off our conversation by arguing that our level of self-awareness sets the upper limit of our individual effectiveness and that self-awareness can be developed and is truly the meta skill of the 21st century. She then unpacks what it is you know about yourself when you possess self-awareness, how there are two types of this knowledge, internal and external, and how you can have one without the other. Tasha then outlines the seven pillars of self-awareness, the barriers to getting insights into them — including falling into the cult of self — and how these barriers can be overcome, including asking yourself a daily check-in question. We then discuss how two of the most common methods for gaining self-knowledge — introspection and journaling — can in fact backfire and how to do them more effectively by asking yourself what instead of why, and actually journaling less instead of more. We also get into why you should be an in-former, rather than a me-former on social media, how to become more mindful without meditation, and how to solicit and handle feedback from other people, including holding something called the “Dinner of Truth.”
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM Podcast #112: The Science of Insights
- AoM Podcast #530: How to Get More “Aha” Insights
- AoM Article: Define Your Core Values
- AoM Podcast #607: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
- AoM Article: You Need a Reset Day
- AoM Podcast #614: Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life
- AoM Article: Why I Stopped Journaling
- AoM Article: Questions That Will Crush the Fear of Missing Out
- AoM Podcast #246: How to Get Better at Taking Feedback
- Tasha’s Insight Quiz
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. 95% of people say that they’re self-aware but only 10 to 15% of people actually are. As my guest today says, that means on a good day, 80% of us are lying to ourselves, but how much we’re lying to ourselves, and this blind spot can have big repercussions for our success and happiness.
Her name is Tasha Eurich, she’s an organizational psychologist and the author of, Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life. Tasha kicks off her conversation by arguing that our level of self-awareness sets the upper limit of our individual effectiveness, and that self-awareness can be developed and is truly the meta-skill of the 21st century. She then impacts what it is you know about yourself when you possess self-awareness.
Now there are two types of this knowledge, internal and external, and how you can have one without the other. Tasha then outlines the seven pillars of self-awareness, the barriers to getting insights into them, including falling into the cult of self and how these barriers can be overcome, including asking yourself a daily checking question.
We then discuss how two of the most common methods of gaining self-knowledge, introspection, journaling can in fact backfire, how to do them more effectively by asking yourself what instead of why, and actually journaling less instead of more. We also get into why you should be an informer rather than a me-former social medium, how to become more mindful without meditation and how to solicit and handle feedback from other people, including holding something called a “dinner of truth”. After the show’s over, check at our show notes at aom.is/self-awareness.
Alright, Tasha Eurich, welcome to the show.
Tasha Eurich: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you are the author of a book, you’re a consultant, psychologist and authored this book called, Insight: It’s All About Developing Self-awareness. Let’s talk about your background. How did you end up focusing your career and consulting on helping leaders and just everyone develop more self-awareness?
Tasha Eurich: So I’ve been an organizational psychologist for more than 15 years, but before that, I was the daughter of an entrepreneur. I’m actually a third generation entrepreneur, and so I grew up literally watching my mom run a company. And I’ve always been very passionate about business, I actually think it’s the greatest personal growth tool there is in some sense.
But I fell in love with psychology at the same time, and I was lucky enough when I was kind of ending college to find this field of organizational psychology, where essentially the goal is to help create prosperity, both financially and then just more generally in businesses, by helping leaders be better, by helping companies create better cultures, and so I went all in. I went and got my PhD in the field, and have really never looked back.
So for me, part of what I focus on in my consulting work is I coach, usually the top one or two levels in mid to large sized organizations, so CEOs and their direct reports. And what I kept seeing over and over and over for so many years, was this very distinct pattern.
And it was that the leaders and executives I coached who were willing to question the assumptions they had about themselves, who were willing to get sometimes brutal feedback about how they were showing up and what kind of leader they were, and who were willing to do the work and make changes and really figure out how they can show up in the best possible way, were infinitely more successful. But they weren’t just more successful, they were happier, they were more confidence, they had more sustainable success.
And as I started to think about this, the buzzword of “self-awareness” had emerged, but what I wanted to know, my background is scientific, is, is self-awareness actually as important as I thought it was? Were the common pieces of wisdom out there, you read a Forbes article that says, “Get more feedback,” were those things actually true?
And so I convened a research team, it’s been more than seven years ago now, where we wanted to know, what is self-awareness? Where does it come from? Why do we need it? And then probably most importantly, how do we get more of it? And it’s been such a fascinating ride, we’ve learned that a lot of the most commonly accepted truths about self-awareness, what it means, how to get more of it, are wrong. So there’s a lot there.
Brett McKay: Well, you open the book saying, arguing that self-awareness, you call it the meta-skill of the 21st century. Why do you think it’s such an important skill to have these days, what is it about modern work and just life in general in the 21st century that requires being more self-aware?
Tasha Eurich: Sure. Let me give you a couple of scientifically supported outcomes of self-awareness, and then I’ll circle back to your question, ’cause I think it’s really the heart of the matter. Self-aware people empirically, scientifically, are more successful at work. They get more promotions, they’re better communicators, better influencers, better sales people, they’re more effective and motivating leaders.
There’s even a growing body of evidence that shows that self-awareness isn’t just nice to have, it’s a business imperative. Leaders who are self-aware, lead more profitable companies. Companies who are comprised of self-aware people are more profitable. So all these things together, it’s sort of like it’s important already, but the reason I think self-awareness is the foundational skill of the 21st century, even before COVID, but more so now, is that we can only be as effective at all of these 21st century skills as we are self-aware.
So think about this, has anyone ever met an exceptional leader who wasn’t also self-aware? Or a very effective influencer or a relationship builder? And so the way I look at this is essentially our self-awareness is going to set the upper limit of our effectiveness, and that’s why… We’ll talk about this later, but a lot of people have a more room to improve than they think, but the good news is self-awareness, we’ve discovered is one of the most developable skills out there, so it just presents a huge opportunity for so many people.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about what self-awareness is, ’cause you make the case there’s two parts to it. There’s internal and external self-awareness, and we’re gonna dig deep into each of these types. But on high level, what’s the difference between the two, and why can’t you have true or complete self-awareness without both?
Tasha Eurich: When we started this research program, I was pretty naive and I thought, “Oh, it should be pretty easy to come up with a definition of what self-awareness is.” And almost a thousand empirical studies later, we surveyed thousands of people all around the world, we did in-depth interviews, which I’m sure we’ll talk about. We finally, after about a year, were able to distill, what do we know when we’re self-aware?
And just like you said, it’s made up of two types of self-knowledge. The first is something we call internal self-awareness, which is knowing who you are at your core. What do you value? What are you passionate about? What aspirations do you have for the kind of life you wanna live and the type of career you want to lead?
But at the same time, there’s something equally important called external self-awareness, and what that is is, in a nutshell, knowing how other people see us. Fascinatingly, kind of that you alluded to this, is we found that these two types of self-knowledge are completely unrelated, so if there are any stacks nerds listening to this, there is a 0.0 correlation between your level of internal self-awareness and external self-awareness.
But what I think is really important about that is it provides the road map, what does it actually take to become self-aware? It’s an equal focus on internal and external self-awareness, even when those answers are different. [chuckle] You sort of think about the way I see myself is going to be different than the way other people see me. But the most self-aware people we’ve discovered are able to balance both of those types of self-knowledge, not putting one over the other in terms of importance, but being able to live sometimes with that contradiction.
Brett McKay: Well, ’cause I think people can think of examples of people who are internally self-aware but aren’t externally self-aware, so they know what they want in life, but they’re clueless about how other people perceive them. What’s an example of someone who has external self-awareness, but no internal self-awareness?
Tasha Eurich: So the archetype that you talked about, I call “introspectors”. The opposite of that, somebody who has high external self-awareness and low internal self-awareness, I’ve named a “pleaser”. I actually fall into that category. I’m far more comfortable asking someone for feedback about myself, than I am really pondering who I am at my core.
And what we’ve found with pleasers is, first of all, there’s a slightly higher proportion of women in that category, men are just a little bit more likely to be introspectors. But for pleasers, their journey is usually figuring out what do they really want. You think about the classic trope of like, I am, instead of going pre-med in this fully, full-ride scholarship, I’m going to quit school and audition for American Idol [chuckle]
And it’s like, I really want to do that, and I’m doing it because it’s the thing I want at my core. That’s the thing that pleasers really struggle with, is sometimes they can get wrapped up in what other people want them to do and lose sight of… Or not even think about what they really want.
Brett McKay: So internal self-awareness is knowing what you want, external self-awareness is knowing what, how other people perceive you, but then what’s the opposite of that, of being self-aware?
Tasha Eurich: Oh, that’s a big question. So everybody sees this all around us in the world, of late particularly, but just in general. I think the opposite of self-awareness is closer to self-absorption. So sometimes people say, “Can you be too self-aware?” And what I think a lot of people get at with that question is, can you be so focused on yourself that you start to lose confidence? You start to over-think everything you’re doing, or place too much emphasis on how other people see you.
But that’s actually not self-awareness, that’s almost like self-consciousness. So self-awareness is understanding who we are, our strengths and our weaknesses, everything that we are, but also having sort of a sense of self-acceptance. And that’s why to me, self-absorption is the opposite of that.
It’s having the sense that no matter what our objective reality is or where we stand on all the things we want to be and do, we think we’re great anyway. And there’s a lot of research that shows just how dangerous that can be. I get into this in Insight, but there’s a lot of internal barriers to seeing ourselves clearly, there’s a lot of external cultural barriers to that.
So the people that are self-aware are successful at fighting those things, they are able to see the barriers, they’re able to sort of jump over them, whereas most people can get wrapped up in, I call it the “cult of self”, this idea that, “I am special and unique and wonderful no matter what, and nobody really understands me.” That’s the opposite of self-awareness.
Brett McKay: And we’ll dig into these biases or these roadblocks here in a bit, but through your work and your research, you’ve uncovered, so, okay, we know what self-awareness is kind of knowing what you want in life, but also understanding what how other people perceive you. But you’ve uncovered of what you call “seven pillars of self-awareness”, things about your life that in order to be self-aware, you need to kinda have an understanding about.
And we’ll dig into a few of these, but what are, in your research, what are these seven pillars of insight that you think people need to have in order to be self-aware?
Tasha Eurich: So this is just fascinating. Our research showed this crystal clear distinction between when someone is self-aware, what do they know, and when someone isn’t self-aware, what don’t they know? So I’ll go through them, and this is kind of in order from most core to us to most external. And by the way, you can receive internal and external information about all of them, and I think that will make sense when I say what they are.
So the first is our values, knowing the principles that we want to live our lives by. Number two are our passions, what are the things that we just love to do, make us leap out of bed in the morning, and how can we design our lives so we do them as much as possible?
Another is our aspirations, and that’s not just what we want to accomplish in our life and our work, but also what experience do we want to have when we’re here on this earth? Another one is basically the fit we have, the types of environments and people who give us energy versus taking our energy away. Another is our patterns, and this is basically knowing your personality, knowing, “In this type of situation, I tend to respond this way,” or in general, I tend to be more of an extrovert or an introvert, and so on.
The next one is our reactions, and this gets a lot of play with self-awareness, you think about my in the moment awareness of my thoughts, my feelings, my behaviors. And what’s also part of this reactions component is our underlying strengths and weaknesses. If I have anger management problems, a weakness, I am going to, in the moment, lose my cool more often than not. And so that’s why those two things are linked.
And the last pillar of insight, the seventh pillar, is knowing our impact on others. And the beauty of these seven pillars is you can do your own unique exploration from an internal standpoint, and it’s valuable to get feedback from other people. So that’s where I sort of think about internal and external self-awareness as the two camera angles for how we can see ourselves, and then those seven pillars are, is the what, is the work that we need to do.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I thought that was interesting that you can… It’s possible to have internal… Or not have internal self-awareness about some of these things, but external self-awareness can help you get more insight into that. I was thinking like your triggers. You might not even be aware of the things that cause you to flip for whatever, but other people can see that and if you get their feedback, you can finally figure out, “Okay, well, this sort of thing triggers me for whatever reason.”
Tasha Eurich: Exactly. Yeah, we are notoriously poor judges of particularly how we come across to other people, but like you said, our reactions. Even our values. One thing I do with the CEOS I work with is we work on clarifying their values, but it’s also really helpful to ask other people, based on my behavior and what you know of me, what do you think is most important to me? What are my key values?
I’ve done that exercise so many times that sometimes something unique will come from that conversation, something that maybe that person didn’t even know they were doing. Or even was so core to them that they didn’t think about it because it’s just how they see the world. So that’s why I think those two perspectives are so important.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought that was interesting with the values thing, ’cause like a lot of people go, “I have a mission statement where I value this, this, this, this,” but then you look at how they spend their time, their money, how they treat… And it’s like, that’s really gonna show you what they really value.
Tasha Eurich: It’s keeping you honest. I told a story about this in an article I wrote recently, about how I had lunch with a client and I was really, really worked up about this person who had sent a nasty response to my newsletter that day, and it was consuming all of my thoughts and I was telling him, “I’m gonna respond to this guy, and I’m gonna say this and this and this.”
And he just looked at me and he said, “Tasha, this is not the Tasha I know right now. The Tasha at I know wants to make the world better for as many people as possible, and I’m hearing you talk about how you’re gonna take this poor guy down.” And it was just such an instructive moment, and I think as much as we can have people around us who trust us and love us enough to tell us the truth, that can keep us honest. Like you said, am I really following my mission statement? On a bad day, having someone call me out is really helpful.
Brett McKay: Well, so let’s talk about how do you get these insights into these different pillars of self-awareness? You just mentioned one, you had a colleague say, just tell you, “Hey, this isn’t really you, you’re better than this.” And any other ways that you can find insights about this stuff?
Tasha Eurich: Sure. So there’s a lot to this answer, and I might not be able to give you anything satisfying, but I think part of it are the types of questions we ask ourselves, and then the process we use to get feedback from other people. So values is another example. It’s not uncommon when I talk to organizational leaders, for me to say, “Hey, have you actually sat down and thought about your top three values and how you’re gonna use those to be more effective?”
Sometimes people just look at me blankly [chuckle], and I think that’s the kind of thing that it’s gonna morph and evolve as we go about our lives, but even just to sit down and ask, “What are my values?” Another is to put up processes that help other people give you feedback, especially if you are trying to work on something or get better at something.
Let’s say that someone aspires to be a better public speaker. A good way to continue that journey is to put a few people in place who are gonna watch you speak publicly, and figure out a way to regularly get feedback from them. So I think it’s really, and this is where our research is kind of nuanced because there isn’t one way to get there, but what we’ve discovered is to build self-awareness in all these ways, if you’re strategic and smart about it, it actually doesn’t become like another part-time job, it can be done very efficiently and effectively with not a ton of time.
Brett McKay: And then you also mention in the book, in some ways, they’re just sort of like big, you call them like earthquake moments, maybe you get turned down from a job, or you get fired from a job, or you have a big failure in your life, and you have to sort of have this reckoning, “Maybe this isn’t for me, maybe I’m doing something wrong?” Because the situation forces you to actually introspect and try to get some self-awareness of the situation.
Tasha Eurich: Right. One would hope. That’s the difference between people who grow their self-awareness in their lives and people who just want to sort of remain blissfully ignorant. I understand the urge. We think… Like, if I get fired, I might think, “Well, nobody understands me. They wouldn’t know a good sales person if they smacked them in the face.”
But I think especially when life hands us an outcome that is dramatically different than what we expect professionally, personally, anything, that is a data point. [chuckle] And if we’re not really doing the work to make sure that there wasn’t something we were missing, or there wasn’t something we did to contribute to that, I think we’re losing that opportunity for greater self-awareness and greater empowerment, and just being able to build the life that we wanna live.
Brett McKay: Right, and you hear people who’ve had near-death experiences or have to go to the hospital for a health situation, that was a moment where they had to be like, “I gotta take care of my health, I gotta figure out what it’s really important to me.” And ideally it wouldn’t take a heart attack for you to do that. Ideally, you would start… You’d be able to be attuned throughout your daily life of… To gain insights about yourself, so that doesn’t have to happen.
Tasha Eurich: Exactly, and that was one thing we found pretty clearly in what highly self-aware people did differently. They did come across those earthquake events for sure. I think that’s what life is about sometimes. But what they did differently is they looked for almost like this incremental daily insight. And it wasn’t spending hours and hours in therapy, it wasn’t writing journals every single day, it was really just having that curiosity on a daily basis.
Pretty much all of our subjects that were highly self-aware, had some form of what I named the “daily check-in”, and basically what you do is you take… At the end of your day, if you’re getting ready for bed or brushing your teeth, you ask yourself, “What went well today? What didn’t go so well today? And then what can I do to be smarter tomorrow?”
And if you think about that, it’s so targeted and focused, it doesn’t take a ton of time, but if it increases your self-awareness by even say 1% a week, if you do that most days, that’s when you’re gonna start to get these really astonishing sort of compounding improvements in your self-awareness.
For me, that’s what I would recommend to someone. You don’t wanna just wait until, like you said, you don’t wanna wait until you land yourself in the hospital because you didn’t see the pattern coming. If you take a little bit more time and be proactive, you can prevent some of those things from happening.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned earlier that gaining self-insight or self-awareness can be hard because we have all these psychological biases working against us. What are some of these biases that are working against us, and after that, how do you overcome some of these blind spots?
Tasha Eurich: Let’s start with the biggest one. In our research, we have found that if you ask people, “Are you self-aware?” About 95% of people believe that they are. And the reality is that only about 10-15% of people actually fit that profile, only 10-15% of us actually are self-aware, and so the delta on that is pretty stunning.
The joke I always make is, on a good day, 80% of us are lying to ourselves about whether we’re lying to ourselves, and there’s a lot of sort of issues about the way humans are wired, that we prefer to see ourselves with rose colored glasses, we aren’t as likely to question our assumptions about ourselves.
And so in my opinion, the biggest barrier there is to be self-aware, is believing that we already are. And our research subjects that I told you about earlier who made these really dramatic improvements in their self-awareness had this, it was almost like a paradox in their mindset. On one hand, they were building their self-knowledge incrementally and strategically, but on the other hand, they had this philosophy that, “No matter what I know about myself, there’s always more to learn.”
There was one gentleman in our study who was a middle school science teacher, and he said, “I kind of think about self-awareness like exploring space, and no matter what I learn, there’s always more to discover, and that’s what makes it so exciting.” And I really love that, because it turns the problem on its head. Instead of saying, “Oh gosh, we all need to be more self-aware and we’re not as self-aware as we think,” I think it’s just a matter of having the right mindset of curiosity, so that’s something that anybody who’s listening to this today can do right now in this moment.
Now, there’s obviously action that has to back us up, and that’s what we have gotten into a little bit. I think the other thing I’d say is there really is a cult of self-movement happening, and it’s not just for us millennials, it’s not just for Americans, it’s been shown all over the world that people are getting more low-level narcissism, or kind of gaining levels of narcissism.
And so part of it is, I never want people to over-correct and go like, “Oh, well, I guess the answer is to say that I suck,” but I think we have to be really careful about… Think about your last social media post. Was it to show people how great you are subconsciously or consciously? Those are the types of things that I think really pull us away from self-awareness if we get into that cult of self. So I think those are two big barriers, there’s a lot more, I’m not sure if you wanna go into them, but that would be my initial response.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’d say that it’s psychological, we don’t wanna feel bad about ourselves, and so we basically engage in cognitive dissonance to make us feel better about ourselves, even though… So we all… If say something bad happens, we’ll, “Well, it wasn’t my fault, it was that guy’s fault.” Maybe, but if you never even considered the fact that you might have some sort of responsibility in the outcome, then you can never become more self-aware.
But I wanted to get into this cult of self you’ve talked about. So it’s sort of a culture, and you’re simply becoming more narcissistic. And narcissism, again, you made this clear, is low-level. We’re not… People aren’t becoming clinical narcissists, where that’s like a psychological disorder, but you’re just talking about people are just so focused on the self that they can’t even take… It’s harder and harder for people to take a third party perspective on things.
Tasha Eurich: That’s exactly right. If you look at some of the studies, there’s one that I think really sums it up. They looked at the percentage of people who agreed with the statement, “I am a very important person.” It’s increased, I think it’s like 30% in the last couple of decades. And if you look around, that’s something that we see everywhere.
Millennials are often blamed for it, and I think some of that has to do with life stage and just growing up and maturing, but at the end of the day, those increases have been documented for pretty much all age groups. And by the way, they started in the 1960s, so this isn’t just something that’s happened in the last 10 years, it’s really been going on for a while, and doesn’t seem to be losing that much steam.
Brett McKay: And also you highlight in this cult of self section in your book, that there’s research that shows that focusing more on yourself, doing more introspection. So that’s what people think, “I need to become more self-aware,” so they think, “I gotta go off to a retreat or out into the woods and just be by myself and with my thoughts and journal.”
They think that’s the key to becoming more self-aware, just doing some really heavy introspection. But you highlighted all this research that shows actually, if you introspect the wrong way or too much, it can actually make you less self-aware.
Tasha Eurich: This was one of the biggest surprises in our research. It was actually so surprising that I almost abandoned this project. I thought, “Well, maybe self-awareness and introspection are bad?” But essentially what we did is we surveyed about 300 people, this was really early on in our project, and I was assuming that if I asked them to say, “How much do you think about yourself, how much do you kind of reflect on your thoughts and feelings and motives?”
Then I wanted to measure their self-awareness, and I also wanted to measure how… How are they feeling about life? Do they feel in control? Do they have depression or anxiety? Were they happy with their relationships at work and at home? And I actually found the exact opposite pattern that I expected.
So the more people introspected, the less self-aware they tended to be, and the worse off in their lives. They were more stressed, more depressed, more anxious. They were less satisfied just with life in general, they felt less in control. And as I started to explore this, what I ended up learning was it’s not that introspection in and of itself doesn’t work, it’s that most of us are making some pretty fundamental mistakes.
Again, common wisdom. Common wisdom says, “Go sit on a mountain top, or go be in the lotus position on a beach, and if you ask yourself these questions, the answers will come.” But as it turns out, there are so many things about ourselves that are basically unknowable. This is very stressful for introspectors, to say, “Wait a minute, if I don’t ask myself the question, I can’t find the answer?”
So I think that’s a piece of it, is we have to understand that a lot of our unconscious thoughts and feelings and motives are not gonna be available to us. And the challenge then is if we don’t know that, and we ask ourselves a question, we find an answer that feels true, but maybe isn’t true.
Like let’s say I’m running a startup and I get in a blow-out fight with one of my partners, and I ask myself, “Why did that happen?” What I might decide is, “Maybe this person and I just don’t know how to work together.” But maybe the actual reason was I didn’t eat breakfast that morning, and my blood sugar was low, and I wasn’t in control of my emotions in the same way I would be otherwise.
So I think that’s just a good example of where if we pounce on the first answer that feels true, sometimes it can lead us away from the truth about ourselves. That’s just one example of the mistakes we can make when we’re introspecting.
Brett McKay: And how do you… What can you do to overcome those introspection mistakes, so you can introspect more effectively?
Tasha Eurich: Thankfully, there is a small change we can make that will make introspection actually work for us. So if I go back to the example I gave, what we found… If I get in a fight with my business partner, and I ask why. “Why did that happen? Why do I feel this way? Why is this other person always starting fights with me?”
When we looked at what do highly self-aware people do differently, we found that they almost never ask themselves “why” questions. So they didn’t ask those questions that I just rattled off. They had a very small kind of change that completely altered the effectiveness of their introspection. And what we found is they tended to ask about 10 times as many “what” questions.
So the example in this situation would be, “What was going on in that conversation?” Or, “What part of that issue do I own?” Or, “What can I do differently in the future to prevent this?” And at first, to me the difference was really subtle, but as I started getting into it, what I discovered was essentially “why” questions make us more emotional, “what” questions keep us more level-headed.
“Why” questions tend to focus us on the problem and just kind of reliving it over and over, “what” questions help us be more solution-focused. “Why” questions tend to trap us in the past, we get stuck in just reliving it over and over, and “what” questions help us move forward. And so the tool that I teach all around the world is called, What Not Why. And it’s been transformational, I think, for so many people, myself included, that if we just make that small change, a lot of amazing things can happen.
Brett McKay: No, I agree, that insight was really powerful because I’ve noticed that in my own life, whenever something bad happens, you typically… You tend to go to why. “Why did this happen?” And as you said, you get emotional. And usually the emotion, it’s you go to a dark place like, “Well, because of this happened a long time ago, and I’ve got this problem,” and blah, blah, blah. But if you just shift the questions to “what”, it keeps… Yeah, you’re right, it keeps you analytical and it allows you to find a solution and move forward.
Tasha Eurich: That’s it. And there’s almost these introspective red herrings that we can get into if we ask why. A very common one usually ends up with, “It was because my mother didn’t love me.” Or you know, what… It goes back into this childhood place almost, that… This might be controversial, but I’m actually not sure how helpful that is.
If you are in focus therapy with a trained professional who’s helping you work through those issues, I think that’s different, but when it comes to just these everyday insights and understanding ourselves, as much as we can focus on looking at the present, figuring out what we’re gonna do in the future. And then sometimes we might look at the past to look at patterns, but I think that helps us stay away, I call it the “rabbit hole of rumination” that you just described.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and this kind of leads to my next question because you had this section about journaling, because people often think of journaling as a really great tool to self-reflect and get new insights about themselves. And I read this chapter and I felt vindicated, because early on in my life when I was a teenager and in my early adulthood, I was like a religious journalist, I just journaled all the time.
But then I think a couple of years ago, I just, it wasn’t doing anything for me, and I just realized, it’s like I just ruminate over the same things. I read through my journals from years ago, and it’s the same issues come up over and over again, and I was like, “Nothing’s getting better.” And it just made me feel bad. And so I just stopped.
And I felt kinda bad because according to the internet, self-improvement internet, you’re supposed to journal, it’s the best thing ever. And I just thought I didn’t really… It felt bad, but it made me feel better. But you highlight research that journaling can actually not be that useful in gaining new insights about yourself.
Tasha Eurich: It’s the same kind of example as with introspection. If we do it the right way, it can be really effective. But if we make mistakes, again, if we trust what we read on the internet, sometimes it can lead us astray. So what we and others have found is journaling can be very helpful if, like you said, we don’t religiously write in it. I know that’s kinda mind-blowing. It was mind-blowing for me actually. I have spent my life in perpetual guilt that I didn’t journal more.
But what our self-awareness kind of research subject taught us was they turned to journaling when they were facing something important in their lives. Maybe it was they were at a turning point or they were facing a big decision, or something really surprising had happened that they wanted to better understand. But they sort of had an event-based model to journaling versus this daily habit. I think there’s a lot of power in that.
There are other pieces to this research that have shown that if we focus too much on emotion, or too much on the logic of what happened, that can derail us. And so, as much as we can have a balanced view of journaling, where we talk about how we feel and kind of what was happening, that can be another way to make sure that we get insight from it.
‘Cause if you focus too much on emotions, it… What you said is gonna happen, you kinda get sucked in in this negative way. If you focus too much on the rational part of what, “Here’s what I ate for lunch today,” you’re probably not gonna get that same level of insight. So it’s like anything, there’s a middle ground, there’s a middle ground between what you write about and how often you write, that’s gonna give I think the most value.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s what I think I found out. Whenever I have a problem, I’ll go to my journal, just to write, start writing things out. And I try to avoid the emotion stuff and just focus on, “Here’s the issue, here are the problems, what are potential solutions?” And I find that helpful, but the daily thing, I just, I don’t care anymore.
Tasha Eurich: Good for you. No, I think that’s the perfect approach.
Brett McKay: So going back to this idea of the cult of self, you talk about how we share things on the internet. ‘Cause the internet, it’s so… It exacerbates, it promotes the cult of self. And I like this idea, you have this… Well, you’re told you gotta develop your personal brand, share about yourself, ’cause that’s the only way you can move forward in life, but you highlight research that makes you feel terrible, or it can make you feel terrible, and it also just doesn’t help you gain any more insight about yourself. So you offer an alternative to social media sharing that can be more useful. Talk us through that research.
Tasha Eurich: This was another big surprise in our research. We found that the most self-aware people, counter to everything I just said about the cult of self, actually spent about 30% more time on social media than the average person. And that was another moment where I was like, “Wait a minute, that makes no sense.”
But then when we started looking at what they were posting, it was dramatically different from most people. So whereas, like you said, social media almost teaches us to… Other researchers have called it to be a “me former”. “Here’s what I ate for breakfast, here’s this amazing award that I won, it’s my child’s two and a half year birthday.” All these things that are just about me, me, me.
But our highly self-aware people that we studied, they use social media, not as a me megaphone, but as an opportunity to enrich other people’s lives. So they gave us examples of, “I love to do nature photography, and if I find something really beautiful, I post it because I want other people to feel calm and grounded.” Or, “I read this hilarious article and I wanted to share it with others because it would make them laugh.”
So it’s this idea that instead of thinking about what we’re trying to accomplish for ourselves, if we can flip the question and say, “First of all, why… What’s the reason I’m posting this? What am I hoping to gain? And is it making other people’s lives better?” And I think if you’re trying to build a brand, it’s not about getting 100% there.
For me, I try to do about 10% posts talking about myself and 90% posts trying to make other people feel better, do better, be better. Because we can’t just completely neglect the self-focus piece, but I think most of our… We just have to change the percentages a little bit.
Brett McKay: I should be an informer and not a me former?
Tasha Eurich: Yeah, be an informer. Sorry. Yes, exactly. Thank you.
Brett McKay: Now it’s be an informer not a…
Tasha Eurich: Informer not a me former.
Brett McKay: Not a me former. So any other tools… So introspection, if you ask what instead of why that can help you gain some internal self-awareness. Any other tools you’ve found effective that really self-aware people use to gain internal self-awareness?
Tasha Eurich: So we talked about “what not why”, the daily question. Another thing to think about, there’s this obviously big social force on meditation, and meditation is primarily about kind of understanding and noticing what we’re thinking, feeling, what’s happening around, us without judgment. But the beauty of this for any fellow type A people who are listening to this, is that we don’t have to meditate to be mindful, to get those same effects.
And there’s sort of a lot to this, but I’m just gonna give one example. One way to practice mindfulness that isn’t about mantras and meditation is something that I call “comparing and contrasting”. So comparing and contrasting is basically, if you find yourself in a situation that feels familiar, so the example I give in the book is actually, I spent about five years working in the corporate world before I went out on my own about 10 years ago.
And I found that almost every time I had a new job, I would enjoy it for two years, and then after two years, I would start to get bored and restless. And one day my husband actually pointed it out, he said, “Have you noticed this pattern?” So what I started to do was compare and contrast, what is similar about each of those moments where I started to not like my job as much anymore?
And what I did is I looked back in my life and I thought, and I realized that every time I had worked for someone else, there was a two-year ticking time bomb. But whenever I was working for myself, like when I was doing my own research, or when I was teaching at a university, when I was in grad school, I didn’t feel that way.
So by comparing and contrasting, I was able to notice, again, without judgment, it just was what it was, that I might have been… That I know that I’m better off working for myself. And people don’t think about mindfulness in that more general form, and I think it’s just really helpful for people that if you’re meditating, more power to you, and there are more options if there’s anybody who wants to increase their insight and be mindful, but they don’t wanna meditate.
Brett McKay: Alright, so we talked about gaining internal self-awareness. Let’s move to external self-awareness. This is how people… An understanding of how people perceive us. And this is where insight or self-awareness can get scary, ’cause it’s always scary to think about what other people think of us. And also, people don’t like to give… People don’t like to tell you what they really think about you. It’s the idea of the white lie, right?
So what can we do? What are some tools that you’ve found to help people get constructive, useful, external self-awareness without being destroyed emotionally in the process?
Tasha Eurich: That’s right. You have to keep your mojo in the process. What we found was, again, some surprising findings. People who are highly self-aware did not in fact go to everybody they knew and ask for feedback. They kept their circle very, very small. Most people told us it was between three and five people that they regularly asked for feedback from. And these weren’t just randomly selected people either. There seem to be two main criteria that they used to select this handful of people.
So the first criteria was, “Do I believe this person is on my side?” In other words, “Are they rooting for me? Are they supporting me? Or are they like a secret frenemy that is gunning against me?” And I think most of us know that intuitively. If we feel in our gut that that person supports us, even if we’re not incredibly close, that usually checks that box.
The second thing is, “Do I feel like that person is going to tell me the truth?” I think if everybody thinks about your life and your work, there’s a lot of people that fit one of those criteria. For me, my mom is the most supportive, wonderful person who’s always on my side, but is she gonna be critical about an article I’m writing? Maybe not. Or there’re people who just love to be critical, who don’t actually want you to be successful.
So the magic of picking the right people to give us feedback is to choose these, I call them “loving critics”. And I think the beauty of this is, again, you don’t have to spend all of your time finding 20 people that you rotate through. It’s a matter of saying, “Okay, who are,” even to start with, two or three people that I can go to and sort of formalize this relationship and say, “Here’s why I’m doing this, here’s what I’m working on. Would you be willing to let me talk to you for five minutes once a month to just get your feedback?”
So let’s say, going back to the example I gave earlier, somebody who wants to be a better public speaker. If I had my two or three loving critics, I would want them to be people who saw me speak publicly, and I would ask them once a month, very quickly, “Hey, as you know, I’m trying to be a better public speaker. First question, what feedback do you have for me from the last 30 days? Second question is, what ideas do you have for me in the next 30 days?” And the reason the conversation is five minutes is, what I would say is very simply, “Thank you.”
I don’t justify, I don’t tell them why they’re wrong, I don’t give excuses, I just say thank you. So I think that’s really powerful, is again, being focused and strategic about how we’re getting that feedback. The second tool I would offer is… This one’s a little scarier, I’d actually be curious what you think about it. This is from a communications professor named Josh Meissner, and I’ve named it the “dinner of truth”.
So basically what it entails is you find someone in your life or your work who you have a good relationship with, who you wanna have an even better relationship with. You take them out to dinner, virtually or in person, depending on your comfort level. You ask them the very simple question, “What do I do that is most annoying to you?”
And then once again, just like the loving critics, you listen to the answer and you say thank you. And what I’ve discovered, I would never share a tool like this with any listeners, readers, clients, if I haven’t done it multiple times myself, and I have been shocked at actually what a positive experience every dinner of truth I’ve had has been.
Brett McKay: No, so I read that. Remind me, I have some… We have some… My wife and I have some friends, and in their family, they have this tradition similar to this, it’s on your birthday, someone… The people in your family have to tell something they admire about you in that year of your life, and then also something you gotta work on. [chuckle] And…
Tasha Eurich: I love that.
Brett McKay: And some of the stories out of it are really hilarious, [chuckle] because people learn things that they finally… Sort of the truth is uncovered. But I think it’s similar to that dinner idea.
Tasha Eurich: That’s, I love that idea, actually, ’cause then it becomes a ritual, and, “Oh, it’s your birthday, it’s time to do that.” It doesn’t let you off the hook.
Brett McKay: Okay, this is great. So this is a way you can get controlled, very fine-tuned feedback about a specific in your life, but a lot of the feedback we get in life, external, or that can give us external self-awareness is like, it’s unsolicited, it’s just some random guy on the internet, or it could be a family member or a friend just saying, “Hey, you need to do this.”
And oftentimes it’s very jarring, it can be really uncomfortable. How do you… Any tips on how to handle that unsolicited, often hard feedback that we get throughout our daily lives?
Tasha Eurich: I think we have to be very careful, to be honest, with unsolicited feedback. You never know someone’s motives when they’re doing that, unless you’re 100% sure it’s your best friend and you know they love you. But usually it’s not. It’s like you said, that random person on the internet or that random co-worker.
So that would be my first piece of advice, is just be really careful that you don’t accept what they’re saying as face value immediately. The second piece of advice I’d give is actually probably counter-intuitive, which is, don’t do anything about it for a while. Just put it in the back of your mind and let it be.
The urge we have to, “Oh my gosh, I’m gonna figure this out,” a lot of times we’re still reeling from this feedback, especially if it was difficult to hear, and even if we try to do that, it’s not often going to result in what we think it will. We might just get more upset or we might feel depressed.
So take a week or two. Just put it in the back of your mind and say, “Okay, that person gave me that data point. I’m gonna look into it, but only when I’m ready.” And there’s no magical timeline for this. I think it’s whenever you feel like, “Okay, it stings a little bit less, and now I’m gonna learn more about it.”
The third piece of advice I’d give is, again, to go back to your loving critics. You want to vet this feedback. If this is a one-off person, obviously you’ve gotta decide how important that person is, like if it’s your boss, maybe you might wanna take it a little more seriously.
But if you ask your loving critics, “Hey, I got this feedback. If somebody says that I’m constantly interrupting people, have you experienced that? Or is that something that you’ve seen as well?” And if you ask a couple of your loving critics, the beauty of this is you’re getting a wider sample of people. So it may be that they see it too, and then you can talk to them in a supportive, safe way about like, “Okay, let’s figure this out. What’s this about? What can I do differently? Can you help me?” And then you’re more empowered.
So at the end of the day, it’s kind of a stupid analogy, but we are the captain of our feedback ship [chuckle], and we can’t let other people climb onboard and start steering it. So I think as much as we can do that and remember that we’re in charge, we get to decide what we do with this. We might say “Thank you very much for that feedback,” and never think about it again, or that might lead to a transformational growth experience. But the point is, we’re in charge.
Brett McKay: Well, here’s the question, we’ve talked about internal and external self-awareness separately. Are there practices that you found that are useful to sort of synthesize the two so you can actually develop a holistic picture of self-awareness? Or is it something that just happens naturally as you’re doing these, using these different tools for internal and external self-awareness?
Tasha Eurich: That’s a great question. I think it’s more the second statement that if we build in daily practices that keep us curious, that give us more information, some days we’re gonna have a conflict between the way we see ourselves, the way other people see us. Some days they’re gonna be additive.
I think one classic example is when other people see a strength that we didn’t know we had, and that’s like, “Oh my God,” and then all of a sudden I’m more in charge and I can be more intentional about it, and I know that they’re seeing me in that way, and that gives me confidence. So I do think it is a little bit more of a give and take, but the important thing is, what are those habits you’re gonna put in place? And my suggestion would be, don’t try to go big right out the door.
When I’m working with CEOs, as an example, we work on one behavioral goal at a time. No more, no less. And the reason for that is, if we sort of over-promise to ourselves, we’re not going to be able to sustain it. So if somebody’s listening to this and you say, “I wanna improve my external self-awareness,” maybe the number one thing you do for the next month or two is put those two to three loving critics in place.
And once you’ve done that, maybe it’s time to think about, “Okay, do I want an internal self-awareness habit that I’m gonna build?” But if you don’t build them as habits, that’s when we start to get these fits and starts of, “Oh, this is helpful, but I haven’t done it. Like my journal, I haven’t written in my journal for a year.” That’s probably not gonna be as helpful.
Brett McKay: Well, Tasha, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and the work that you’re doing now?
Tasha Eurich: So the first thing is, I found that it’s not about me, it’s about everyone else, and so we put together a… It’s a great resource. If anybody’s wondering how self-aware they are and they want more than just their gut reaction, we put together something called the Insight Quiz, which is a 14-item subset of our longer validated assessment.
And what you do is it takes about five minutes, you fill it out and then you put in the email address of someone else who knows you well, they fill it out, and once the system has both of those types of information, you get a report with your high-level self-awareness, internally and externally, and then a couple of things you can do, starting now, to improve if you choose to.
So if anybody wants to take that, you can find it at insight-quiz.com. I’m also at tashaeurich.com. We actually just launched a really exciting new virtual course called the Future Ready Leader, so there’s a lot of information there. But I am fortunately or unfortunately, very findable on the internet.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Tasha Eurich, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Tasha Eurich: Thank you so much. Me too.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Tasha Eurich, she’s the author of the book, Insight. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about her work at her website, tashaeurich.com. Also check out her show notes at aom.is/selfawareness, where you find links to resources and we can delve deeper into this topic.
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