Why You Need Self-Awareness

Image of Man Meditating

By Josh O’Leary

Recently, I completed an online psychometric personality test created by clinical psychologist – and now controversial figure – Jordan Peterson and his colleagues. The test measures where you lie on a scale from 0-100 on each of the ‘Big Five’ personality traits: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and openness to experience.

This particular test is more detailed than many you can find online because it splits each of the five traits into a further two traits: agreeableness becomes compassion and politeness; conscientiousness is made up of industriousness and orderliness; extraversion is split into enthusiasm and assertiveness; neuroticism is withdrawal and volatility; and openness to experience is both intellect (or interest in ideas) and openness (creativity).

This gives a far more granular look at the results and can offer much more clarity. For example, I scored average (41st percentile) for openness to experience, and the generated report described this result with terms such as, “sometimes interested in learning”, “not overwhelmingly curious” and “not strikingly interested in abstract thinking” – none of which resonated with me, as I am someone who spends the vast majority of my time learning for learning’s sake.

But when you consider my results for intellect (72%) and openness (17%), it starts to make more sense. My high score on intellect (not to be confused with general intelligence or IQ) suggests I am highly interested in ideas and abstract thinking; I am very curious and likely read a lot of non-fiction – this is true.

I enjoy learning new things and enjoy complex and rapidly changing working environments. My low score on openness suggests I am not at all creative and don’t crave a creative outlet like art or music; I am not much of a collector and am not overly entrepreneurial….all on point. So, combine these two polarised scores and you end up with a middle of the road, and slightly misleading, result for ‘openness to experience’ – a long way of saying that I am glad I chose to complete a more detailed test!

My life has not been characterised by a high level of self-awareness. When I was a child, I decided from a very early age that I wanted to be a doctor – a plan that actually fits well with my test score (93% compassion and 72% intellect) but was heavily informed by my love of American TV show ‘E.R.’ more than anything else. I told all my friends and family this plan and it quickly became a given – “Josh is going to be a doctor when he grows up” – to such an extent that when I reached the point of apply to university, I really didn’t give it much consideration. The only question was, where?

When I wasn’t offered an interview anywhere, the lack of overwhelming disappointment should have been a clear signal that perhaps I was heading in the wrong direction, and that maybe I had changed somewhat between the ages of 12 and 18, and should think long and hard about my next step. Instead, I simply accepted an offer I had received (to study biology) and moved on.

To be fair to my younger self, I do love biology; I’m fascinated by the human body and now spend much of my time studying different aspects of it. But my decision at the time was actually based on a vague awareness that I found biology easy and a strong desire to be at university, having fun. In hindsight, I would have gained so much more from taking at least one year out of formal education, doing some growing up, and applying some time later with a greater awareness of what life is like after school, and most likely a greater appreciation of the incredible opportunities that university can offer. Lack of self-awareness mistake number 1.

University sort of happened without me noticing. I stumbled my way through it barely conscious, working hard enough to achieve average grades, attending an average number of seminars, and having probably an average amount of fun. Before I knew it, it was time to pick an Honours course – one that would be the primary focus of my final, critical year. It was a toss up between Neuroscience (which I found very interesting) and Pharmacology (which I found difficult but which offered the highest salaries post-graduation and which my best friend had picked)…I chose Pharmacology.

This decision becomes almost funny in its lunacy when you take into account my current thinking – that nutrition is often the best medicine – and my aversion to pharmaceuticals in most non-emergency situations. Lack of self-awareness mistake number 2.

It’s now 2011; I’ve graduated university with a 2:1 in a subject I have little interest in, which sets me up to work in an industry I have moral issues with – excellent work, Josh.

This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt the overwhelming paralysis that comes with too much choice. I understand the privilege of this position – many people have too little choice and the idea that ‘the world is your oyster’ could be a bad thing may seem ungrateful and pathetic. But for me it was an honest issue.

How on earth are you supposed to pick a career – something you could potentially spend the vast majority of the next 40 years doing – when faced with countless options, most of which you do not even know exist? Are your job prospects limited to roles that you can already name and can therefore enter into the search bar of a recruitment site? As we can see from my 17% creativity score, imagination is not my strong suit, so my job hunt consisted of only applying to large, well known corporations in obvious sectors like finance, which was strongly driven by my desire to be able to afford to live in London with my friends. I ended up with a role in investment banking at HSBC, despite my left-leaning politics and complete lack of interest in economics. Lack of self-awareness mistake number 3.

Now, I could continue with this trip down memory lane but by now we are only at 2011; there are many more mistakes to come and I think you get the point. Importantly, I don’t think that I am alone in this regard. How many people stumble through life, making the decisions that most people make (the decisions that we are told will make us happy: study hard, go to university, get a good job, buy a house, find a partner, have a family) and then wake up in their 50s with a mortgage they will never pay off; insane credit-card debt; a job that’s dull at best and soul-destroying at worst; a marriage that’s on the ropes; and the overwhelming realisation that their best years are over?

It’s not surprising to me that the ‘mid-life crisis’ is such a common phenomenon in western society, and I don’t judge the poor souls who have to face it. Our society does not place high value on the sort of internal work needed to truly know oneself. At school we are taught algebra and the reproductive biology of a flower but not: how to live a meaningful life; how to handle relationships; how to build resilience.

University – traditionally a place to expose yourself to new ideas; hone your ability to think; speak and write critically – has become a very expensive trade school where you choose your subject based primarily on the career it will give you when you graduate, so that you can pay back the loan you needed to go to university in the first place. Travel – stereotypically viewed as an opportunity to ‘find yourself’ – has become so easily accessible, with the places commonly visited so heavily westernised, that taking the time out to travel has become more akin to an extended holiday than an adventurous journey of self-discovery. All the while we are inundated with a constant stream of distractions from social media, 24/7 news cycles and on-demand infinite content to fill our minds and drag our attention outside of ourselves. Have you tried simply sitting down alone with your thoughts for more than 10 minutes recently? It’s very difficult.

This year, I came to the realisation that my life path will not magically reveal itself to me as I wander aimlessly. I cannot expect new and exciting opportunities to land in my lap for no reason. I need to wake up. I need to look internally, find out who I really am, discover my deepest desires, my most strongly held principles, and my most powerful motivations, then use that knowledge to formulate a plan.

Which brings me back to the personality test. One simple test, which took 15 minutes to complete, has already offered great insight into myself and my past decisions. As I have already said, my high score on compassion suggests I have a strong desire to help people, combined with high score on intellect explains why I spend all my free time researching new concepts to help people. I score low on extraversion, which explains why the sales component of personal training was so difficult and unappealing to me, and why recruitment was also such a poor choice. I scored low on conscientiousness, which suggests that I work better under supervision and this, combined with my lack of creativity, implies that starting a business on my own could be a disaster.

The results are complicated – it will take time for me to process them fully. Also, personality testing is only one avenue to greater self-awareness; I clearly have a long way to go. But here is what I have gleaned from this experience so far: I understand more clearly why I have found my involvement in Fit To Lead so fulfilling, as it ticks a lot of boxes. First, it allows me to fulfill my desire to help people (compassion) – I truly believe the information we offer is hugely beneficially and most likely life-changing. It provides me with the opportunity to spend much of my time working alone (introversion); researching abstract and challenging ideas (intellect); and delivering those ideas in the format of an online course. I am not fully introverted, so the workshops allow me the chance to interact and teach in person, which I enjoy, but which also push me far out of my comfort zone and challenge me to step up – it’s helpful that our workshops are infrequent. Working with Sean and Daryl counteracts my lack of conscientiousness by keeping me accountable and allowing me to work to deadlines for the sake of the team (agreeable people work well in teams; agreeable and introverted people work well in small teams).

So it seems like right now, for once in my life, I find myself in the right place – working in a manner well suited to my personality. However, my journey of self-discovery has really only just begun. I have no doubt over the coming years that my needs and wants, strengths and weakness, and beliefs and principles, will evolve. I just hope that next time I find myself needing to make a big, life-changing decision, I will have developed the self-awareness needed to make the right choice.

Enough about me; let’s talk about you. I believe the story I have just told should act as a warning. Refuse to commit to developing a deeper understanding of yourself and you risk living a life without meaning and purpose. Without these, life’s toughest challenges can often seem too much to bear. Knowing yourself – your motivations, desires and fears – is not easy. You may uncover aspects of your psyche that scare you and come to realisations that have significant impacts on all areas of your life. But if the result is a life filled with meaning, a career that excites you, and relationships that enrich you…well, the choice seems an easy one to me.

Here are three steps you can take right now to begin your self-awareness journey:

  1. Take the psychometric test I took: https://understandmyself.com/
  2. Begin a daily meditation practice – download ‘headspace’ or ‘calm’ and start with 10 minutes a day.
  3. Sign up to the Fit to Lead online course and start with the module on ‘Purpose’.

Good Luck

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