“How do I get started with personal development? Do I read a book? Get a coach? Go to a workshop? What?” It’s a common question. And it is an important one because personal development often doesn’t go anywhere.
I have a bias for having a plan. A framework. W. Edmunds Deming said, “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.” I’ve written about the power of a framework here. (Expect to see more on this, soon. Very soon.)
Given you have a workable framework, one of the first practical steps is to learn self-observation. That’s what you and I will talk about here. I also have put together a whopper of a free, downloadable how-to guide for you called How to Do Self-Observation. Let’s do this.
Because I spent hours on that How to Do Self-Observation guide and so much is in there, I’ll keep this post short and sweet. But, as always, I like for you to have a little backdrop, some context.
I write these articles real-time each week based on what is coming up in my life and with my clients. This energizes me. Because I’m sharing what’s nascent. What I’m learning. From what is emerging.
Self-Observation is front and center for me personally right now. If you read the Afterword in my prior article, you know I have my own growing edge right now and that I’m surfing that growing edge. Self-observation allows me to see myself and what I’m doing more clearly and objectively and creates a gap where I can better see where I’m stuck, why I’m stuck, and to sense a new way forward. It’s powerful that way.
Self-observation is front and center right now for 46 people on-boarding into my client’s organizational personal development program. In the past, I’ve not focused on self-observation with my clients. I’ve focused more on it personally. I learned it from a mentor, and from also reading and studying Gurdjieff’s work a bit via the book In Search of the Miraculous by P.D. Ouspensky. (I’m not recommending these sources, just sharing what has informed me along with my personal experience.)
What I’ve focused my clients on in the past was aimed at being quick and was very goal-oriented:
- Identify their behavioral change goal,
- ‘Map out’ why they do the opposite behavior, and
- “Not-do” the old behavior so they can learn about the system that gives rise to the behavior they want to change (‘testing’).
The intention of this three-part process is not to force a change to the behavior, but to gain self-knowledge. When self-knowledge increases, behavior changes follow naturally. (If you want to know more about this, see Chapters Two and Six of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s excellent and highly recommended book, An Everyone Culture.)
Not long ago, my good friend and fellow cohort facilitator Ken T. said, “Otis, I think we move people too quickly into the ‘map’ and ‘testing’.” That was one of those times where the words sort of hang there in the air for a moment. Something in my mind shifted. Ken is that kind of guy. He says things like that. It’s part of his gift. His boss, Cindy C., who has given an incubator for all this… ditto.
Ken’s point and Cindy’s feeling was that we needed to give people more time before we push them into the deep end of the pool. They felt we should give people a little more time to learn about themselves via the personality style assessments we use (DISC and Enneagram). Then they could create a stronger ‘map’ of the system that drives their old behavior and they’d have a much clearer sense of the purpose of ‘testing.’
By slowing down, they could go farther, faster… and be more self-powered and less dependent on consultants and facilitators. Beautiful!
So… we pivoted in the on-boarding process for these 46 folks. We dropped ‘maps’ and ‘testing’ from the on-boarding. (Those will come, later, in time.) Instead, we focused on going deeper into the personality style assessments, teaching them about the system driving behavior, and assigning self-observation as a next step.
We gave them the assignment of self-observation in order to help them convert the insight they gained from the personality assessments into true understanding. Understanding is much more powerful than insight. Insight, to me, is a mental revelation.
Understanding is embodied knowledge. It is only available experientially.
Last week, these 46 people reported on their self-observations. Their observations blew me away. I think some of them blew themselves away. Ken’s thought and Cindy’s feeling were right. This is better.
With that bit of context, let’s move to the what and the why. Game?
On the surface, defining self-observation is quite straightforward. I can describe it in five words (or three, depending on what hyphens do).
Observe yourself in-the-moment.
“Wait, what? Aren’t I already doing that? But, wait, I don’t know that I’m doing that if I’m doing that. So then how could I being doing that if I’m not aware that I’m doing that?” I can understand if questions like this are coming up for you, or if this makes your head itch. All normal first reactions.
What, exactly, is self-observation?
Self-observation is watching one’s own behaviors and the inner impulses, instincts, emotions, and thoughts that are giving rise to those behaviors in-the-moment.
As my mentor once told me, “Self-observation is one key to waking up in the dream of life.” It is a very powerful tool. It isn’t the end-all-be-all. But it is a powerful personal development tool and a skill that anyone can cultivate.
Even a little understanding of the what implies the why, doesn’t it? After all, doesn’t it seem that being aware of what we are doing, why we are doing it, while we are doing it would be a very good idea? If that isn’t enough for you, here are the five key reasons why you should learn to do self-observation… and why you should start with it.
1. To change see the behavior that holds you back. Most of us have at best a niggling feeling about what holds us back. Self-observation is like turning your awareness into a flashlight so you can shine some inner light on it and see what holds you back with clarity.
2. To overcome self-deception. As Stephen Covey said, “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions.” In other words, we do not see ourselves straightforwardly. So we end up pinning our problems and our suffering and our bad behaviors on other people and our life situation. In the process, we lose any chance of freedom. We are stuck.
3. To see the system that gives rise to the behavior we want to change. As Sara once said to me, “We cannot change what we cannot observe.” The reason so many people will never change the behavior that most holds them back is they have no understanding of — and no strategy for working with — the system giving rise to the behavior they want to change.
4. To do more good and less harm. Self-observation creates a gap between stimulus and reaction. In that gap is choice. In that gap is freedom. In that gap, a higher intelligence can descend upon us or, more accurately, arise from within us. The creation of this gap is intentional and it creates the opportunity for an intelligent response to arise instead of an unconscious reaction to pop up.
5. Because it brings joy and hope. Know what I most love about my work? It is that as people start getting good at this stuff, they feel hope they didn’t even know they’d lost. And they feel joy in realizing that, yes, they can change. In fact, they can transform. When someone gets that in their bones and coursing through their veins, the higher part of them kicks in to guide them and there’s no turning them back. They are marching to a different drum.
You probably already know how. In fact, in what I’ve shared above, you likely have enough. But, because you may be like so many people I know, you doubt you know enough to start. And if that is the case, and you think you need to know more before you can start practicing self-observation, I’ve got an excellent free guide for you.
The how is here. I hope you download it. I hope you share it. And, most importantly, I hope you use it. If you do, and you give it your all, I am confident that you will start seeing yourself, others, our common humanity, our beloved Earth, and perhaps even all of creation in a very different light. Maybe like seeing in full color, when in the past you’ve only seen black and white… whilst thinking you’d been seeing in full color.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” — Marcel Proust
Self-observation is like having new eyes. And, between you and I, if you take it towards its full breadth and depth, it can help activate a third one. That’s the difference between looking and seeing. Sound intriguing? Go get ’em, tiger. The how is here, your life is the place, and there’s nothing — not really — in your way.