Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Self-Awareness and Its Discontents

Self-awareness isn’t evenly distributed.  It’s hard to look at our politics now and not notice that.

The Times just ran a piece citing a particular kind of self-awareness as a major element of career success.  It’s the kind that responds to external failure or disappointment by making a change in oneself, because that’s the thing you partially control.  That’s the fading fastball pitcher who develops a knuckleball halfway through his career when the old tricks aren’t working as well anymore.  It’s Steve Martin making the transition from standup to acting and writing when the standup is starting to get stale.  

That kind of self-awareness is real, and it often emerges accidentally.  It happens when you try something more or less on a “what the hell” basis, and the world responds much more strongly than it ever did before.  I read once that Elvis Costello wrote “radio radio” seriously; he was surprised when the world took it as sarcasm.  But it did, so he went with it.  His delivery registers as sardonic even when he doesn’t mean it.  He has built a pretty good career on that.

My own kind of self-awareness shows in who I like to hire.  When I can hire people who report directly to me -- deans, not faculty -- I try to hire people whose strengths cover my weaknesses.  If they can shore up my weak flanks, I can spend more time playing to my strengths.  That strategy involves the self-awareness to know what your weak flanks are, and the confidence to surround yourself with people who are better at certain things than you are.  But it pays off in always having someone at the table who can do something smart with any given situation.  

Admittedly, not everyone subscribes to that theory of management.  Some like the “Team of Rivals” approach, which I consider barbarism.  Some like to hire mini-me’s.  Some treat direct reports like toys, always favoring the newest one.  Some like cheering sections.  Most of those approaches, though, fail the self-awareness test.  They make it all too easy for the one in charge to fall for his own illusions.

Aristotle claimed that the opposite of a friend isn’t an enemy, as most would have it.  It’s a flatterer.  That’s because an enemy can make you stronger, unintentionally, but a flatterer makes you weaker.  A friend can tell you the truth, even when it isn’t flattering.  

By that standard, jobs like these come with a lot of friends.

Powerful people (or large personalities) without self-awareness can be exhausting.  They’re often inconsistent, because they can’t get enough cognitive distance on themselves to notice.  (They excuse it by some variation on “I go with my gut.”)  Without a clear sense of boundaries, they can’t always distinguish their impulses from the external world.  To someone like that, reasoned disagreement registers as personal betrayal: “I thought you were on my side!”  Their perspectives can change as quickly as their moods, because the two overlap so much.  They can be charming, at first, but at some level, they don’t recognize other people as full human beings.  When they get angry, you discover the truth of that.

It can be hard to screen for self-awareness when hiring.  One method that can work is to ask the staff later how the candidate treated them.  That can reveal a “kiss up, kick down” personality, which is toxic.  Conversely, a too-strong aura of victimhood is narcissism by another name.  (If everyone is conspiring against you, you must be pretty important!)  

Self-awareness is no guarantee of career success, of course, just as narcissism isn’t necessarily a barrier to it.  But if I have to choose between someone secure enough to respond like an adult to constructive critique, and someone who interprets anything less than glowing praise as the latest in a long string of grievances, I’m choosing the former.  And if she’s good at something at which I’m not, all the better.