Self-awareness: Why is it important for success

Self-awareness is the "meta-skill" of our current times as it underlies many skills that are deemed essential for success in today’s world

Man contemplating | Concept for self-awareness
Representational photo | Credit to Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Most people would attest that they know someone who lacks self-awareness. The perpetually irritable boss who thinks he is a paragon of patience. The stressed-out parent who thinks her kids are oblivious to her worries as she doesn’t talk about them. The burnt-out colleague who thinks he is performing as well as his peers. Or, the eager-to-please friend who constantly strives to keep others happy but often sacrifices her own wellbeing in the process.

What about you? How well do you know yourself? Before you give yourself a congratulatory pat, remember that self-awareness is a multi-faceted construct. According to Tasha Eurich, organisational psychologist and New York Times best-selling author, it involves understanding “who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world.” In fact, she argues that self-awareness is the “meta-skill” of our current times as it underlies many skills that are deemed essential for success in today’s world. From emotional intelligence to empathy to cooperation and communication, self-awareness lies at the root of these competencies. Further, self-awareness is linked to greater wellbeing and more robust relationships.

Self-awareness is a scarce attribute

Contradictory to what we might believe about ourselves, self-awareness is not as abundant as it should be. Though we may readily point to others who lack this skill, how often do we examine our own self-awareness?

Eurich holds that self-assessments regarding this quality are both limiting and often downright wrong. To gain a more holistic and robust view, she breaks down self-awareness into internal and external dimensions. Internal self-awareness refers to “an inward understanding” of yourself—your thoughts, feelings, passions, preferences, predilections, purpose, reactions etc. On the other hand, external self-awareness involves “knowing how other people see you.”

Those who are high in both aspects are aware of their inner world while being cognizant of how others perceive them. However, research suggests that people can be low on either or both dimensions, with barely no correlation between the two facets. But the good news is that both aspects of self-awareness can be cultivated. In fact, Eurich has a made a career of studying people who have made significant gains in their self-awareness. She refers to them as unicorns.

According to Eurich’s research, those who score well on both dimensions of self-awareness usually display seven characteristics, which she calls the “seven pillars of insight.” First, self-aware unicorns are clear about the values and principles that steer their lives. Values serve as guideposts for our actions and help us define ourselves in terms of what really matters to us. Self-aware people are also able to identify their passions, the things they would do even if they weren’t paid for it. They are also able to articulate their aspirations, or the vision they have for themselves regarding life experiences and accomplishments without necessarily succumbing to conventional views of “success“.

Spotting patterns in self and others

As contextual factors play a significant role in our experiences, self-aware people gauge whether their environment fits into the larger scheme they have envisioned for themselves. Do you more often feel energised or drained in your current setting? Self-aware people also try to understand patterns, be it in their thoughts, emotions or actions, and assess their reactions in various situations. Especially under duress, we tend to react impetuously instead of responding in more measured and mature ways. Finally, unicorns try to fathom the impact they have on others by attempting to view the world from the perspective of others.

According to Eurich, the seven pillars espouse both internal and external aspects. While our “values, passions, aspirations and fit” may benefit more from self-reflection, other people will probably be able to comment on our “patterns, reactions, and impact.” However, for all seven features of self-awareness, it is best if we “gain both an internal and external perspective.”

Self-awareness is an ongoing phenomenon

At times, when we are in toxic or hostile environments, external feedback may be biased against us. While we may seek information from both internal and external sources, ultimately, we need to evaluate the validity of these judgments, almost as if we are a third party. Sometimes, our understanding of ourselves can be out of sync with reality, while in other situations, other people may not be motivated by our best interests. Many of us have blind spots or weaknesses that we don’t wish to acknowledge even to ourselves.

Thus, self-awareness is a fairly complex dance wherein we need to balance cues from multiple channels. Finally, self-awareness is a continual journey, wherein we have to keep adjusting our internal compass while gauging external situations.

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Aruna Sankaranarayanan
Aruna Sankaranarayanan, Ph.D. is a psychologist and author. She writes articles on teaching, learning, work, relationships and well-being for leading newspapers; she blogs at arunasankaranarayanan.com. Her first book, Zero Limits: Things Every 20 Something Should Know, will be published by Rupa.

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