By Ben Sands – For additional insights, tools, and leadership resources, click here
For most of us, learning who we “really” are is a life-long process.
For the lucky, that journey is marked by some discomfort – the growing pains common as our comfort zone is expanded.
For those less fortunate, it could be described as pure hell…almost like drinking 16 ounces of Tabasco sauce.
I say this with confidence…because that’s exactly what I did.
I was 21 years old and traveling, with some college buddies, through Colorado on a winter ski trip. Short of cash towards the end of the trip, I casually suggested to a friend over dinner that “some” amount of money might entice me to drink the large bottle of Tabasco sitting in the middle of our table. To my surprise – and subsequent horror – my friend called my bluff.
This ski trip was one we had been planning for a while: 7 guys, 7 days of skiing in Colorado. In search of “free” beds, we’d spent the first few days in Vail at the home of one friend, then moved on to Aspen to crash at the home of another. Despite the cheap lodging, the skiing (and the drinking that accompanied it) was expensive. And by the last night, I was down to my final $100. I had just enough for dinner that night and a lift ticket the next day, and a credit card to cover the final costs of getting home…not great planning. So, needless to say, when the 20 dollar bills started flying in – from both my friends as well as from the small crowd that was gathered around the table – the reality quickly set in: I was going to do this.
For some, chugging 16 ounces of Tabasco might not seem like a big deal. I however, was being asked to stare down some serious demons that night… When I was a precocious 10 year old, my mother had effectively used Tabasco to quickly break me of my appetite for certain “four-letter” words…just a drop on the tongue for each swear did the trick. Ever since, I could hardly stand the smell, not to mention the taste, of the stuff.
I know, I was asking the same question you are right now: Why the hell would I ever volunteer for something like this? More on that in a moment. But first, back to the story…
Committed now – $170 on the table and an audience of 20 surrounding it – I took the bottle and popped off the small plastic safety top (in place, specifically to prevent over-consumption) and poured it slowly into an empty pint glass (provided by the bartender who, incidentally, had also tossed in $10). I held the glass up – agonizing over what I was about to do – and somehow came to lock eyes with an old ski bum sitting at the bar. With a big smile he suggested that it was “just a big glass of V-8…” Well, that seemed good enough for me and, before I knew it, I was bottoms up.
I had 2 minutes to finish the glass, but I knew that if it took me any longer than 5 seconds, I wouldn’t have a chance… As it turned out, it took me only 2. And, for a moment, I thought I was going to be OK. The bar did too. It erupted with delight…cheering, fist-pumping, back-slapping…and then, the party came to a screeching halt. My body erupted in violent protest – every pore opening up to scream in unison. My face, I was told, turned a deep burnt orange, my eyes streamed, my nose ran and the cheers of delight turned quickly to anxious words of encouragement… “Hang on, Ben!” “Hold it down!” and finally “Hold the door – he’s got to get out of here!”
So, back to the question: what the hell was I thinking? Why would an otherwise reasonable and rational twenty-something do something like this? Where do “bad” decisions like this even come from?
Everyone’s got a different definition of “bad” decision. Mine: any decision that ends with you vomiting liquid fire on the snowy streets of downtown Aspen. But what does this have to do with our search for self-awareness?
Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century intellectual, believed that human beings always acted in their own self-interest – we do things that maximize the value (or “utility”) we receive. Based upon my limited understanding of why people do what they do, I would agree. Self-awareness, is different. It comes before self-interest. It is our ability to know what we value, by how much, and why.
What I learned the night of the Tabasco Challenge is that I didn’t know myself as well as I thought I did. To the independent observer, I either over-estimated the value of such a stunt (the money + the significance) or I under-estimated the cost (the physical pain). My take: I did both. I clearly didn’t know myself as well as I thought I did.
While this is an extreme example, everyone has swallowed their own metaphorical Tabasco… We’ve spent good years in jobs that never catalyzed our career as we hoped they would. We’ve gone to (and paid for) graduate degrees that we never really used. We’ve moved across the country to invest in a relationship that never panned out. And the list goes on… Fortunately, assuming we live through them (which I did; barely) we grow through these experiences. We make decisions – some good, some bad – and do our best to learn from each. We integrate this data into our understanding of who we are and what we want, and drive our self-awareness in the process.
So, what’s the lesson here? The lesson, is that this process is taking us too long. The sooner we elevate the level of self-awareness in our lives, the less likely we are to willingly drink fire from a bottle.
Of course, it’s not surprising that it takes so long. Like my experience, self-awareness can be painful; and therefore not something that many 20 and 30-somethings run to. For many, it is far easier to simply “go with the flow;” carried along by the external forces in our lives and never really asking ourselves: Is this really who I am? Is this really what I want? We engage in optimistic denial – believing that we will, eventually, “figure it all out” for the best.
But be warned: as any mid-life crisis will illustrate, this kind of naïvete comes at a price. It is far easier to this hard work today, rather than put it off for the moment in the future when you will have more time, more money and more space to do the thinking required.
Not sure where to start? Here’s a few ideas to get your going…
Regret Free Life Strategy | Building Self-Awareness
1. Put yourself in a position for good things to happen. What do you love? What do you do best? What kinds of environments do you thrive in? What kinds of environments have led to the greatest joys in your life? Ask yourself these questions and try to recreate these experiences. Learn from your success in the past and put yourself in a position to experience that feeling again. For example, absent a clear calling to a particular job or industry, pick you city first instead; a place where the culture most accurately reflects the person you want to be and the life you want to live.
2. Meet your “best self.” When faced with decisions large and small, a close friend always asks himself: “what would my ‘best self’ do in this situation?” What does your ‘best’ self look like? How do they handle conflict, difficulties, stress, victory… If you’re having trouble envisioning this best self, think about your favorite movie or literary characters; how would they react in this situation? Personally, I’ve always admired the Dalai Lama…and, when I get frustrated or angry, I remember his focus on treating everyone with tolerance and compassion. It helps. [Full disclosure: I also find myself channeling my inner James Bond, Indiana Jones and Rocky Balboa when I need to].
3. Ask for help. True self-awareness and understanding is nearly impossible to achieve by oneself; especially if we are aspiring to expedite the process. Employ friends, bosses, mentors and coaches to help you better understand what you do and why. Why does Tiger Woods, for example, the best golfer in the world, have a swing coach? Because he can’t see his own swing… The same applies for your life. Funny, smart young men and women often tell me that they had to overcome a deep insecurity to come and work with me…as if they were too “weak” to do it on their own. Bullshit. It shows strength, clarity of purpose and conviction to know what you want and reach out to people who can help you get there.
As always, below, a few more great words of wisdom from some other smart 30-somethings…
- Know who you want to be, and who you want others to see you being. Being grounded in that will allow you to hear the opportunities that come at you every day. You may think that you need to keep full focus on the goal you have of getting a certain job or making a certain amount of money. What helps you get there is: knowing your values, empathy for others, saying yes to opportunities that will help you grow personally and professionally.
- We all have different destinations and therefore different ways of getting from “here” to “there.” Don’t be bullied into thinking that your destination or journey is the same as others.
- Remember that everyone is human – complete with strengths and weaknesses. No matter how successful, experienced, rich, good-looking someone may be, we are all subject to insecurities and frailties.
- Run to feedback; in both your personal and professional lives
- Know yourself well—be aware of what is important to you as person, and as a member of society. If you follow your dreams and remain true to yourself—you will be a better citizen and you will be capable of giving back to others at a higher level.
- When surrounded by the 99.9th percentile don’t lose perspective of how blessed you are and let that make you feel insignificant or insecure.
- Trust your instincts. Emotions will steer you wrong, but your instincts rarely do. Most people ignore their instincts and follow the status quo.
- Your 20s are for figuring things out. Try things out, and don’t make the mistake of thinking that whatever choice you make sets you on a path that stretches out in front of you in some unalterable way. If you’ve got a good education and you are genuine about the search, it’s easy enough to start out doing one thing, find it doesn’t suit you, and switch to something else.
- Follow your heart—it is a cliché but there are not words to replace the saying. We spend enough time dealing with the daily grind—if you play at work, you will love more days.
- At the end of every day ask yourself: ‘what did I do well today?’ This simple practice keeps you focused on growth, as well as how to enjoy both what you have, and where you are in your life, today.
- Stay true to yourself, but push the boundaries. You spend the early part of your life following certain unwritten rules and patterns set by your family and friends. It a great time to try things, succeed, fail, and develop your own set of beliefs. To borrow a NASCAR phrase, you’ve got to “rub up against the wall.”
- Build good habits when you’re young, because they’re harder to change when you’re old. Spend time in your early professional career making time for workouts and a healthy lifestyle. That only becomes more challenging as life gets more demanding.