Monday, October 16, 2017

Self-Awareness as a Soft Skill

Is it possible to teach self-awareness?  Especially to adults?

Admittedly, it’s a bear to assess.  But I’m looking for incremental improvements.  I don’t anticipate giving certificates in it.  “You’re officially self-aware!” seems hard to stand behind, and would probably have a quick expiration date anyway.

My training wasn’t in psychology, so I’m not up to speed on the scholarly literature.  But as a practical matter, this tough-to-assess trait is monumentally important.

It comes in different flavors, of course.  I’m not referring to it in any religious sense; that seems far beyond the scope of what a public employer should address, and I certainly don’t claim any superior wisdom there.  That, I will happily cede to others.

One form that I’d love to see more widespread involves emotional self-control.  That means knowing your own triggers and limits.  In my own case, I know that I get snippy when I’m overly tired, and that any alcohol at all at night -- even one drink -- will mess up my sleep.  So although I’m not much of a drinker anyway, I’ve learned to avoid it entirely when I know I’ll have to be around people the next day.  And I’ve learned that when I’m really exhausted, it’s best just to live with the Fear of Missing Out and go to bed.  When I try to force myself, it doesn’t end well.

This stuff matters because both administrative and teaching jobs involve working with people.  Knowing your own habits, limitations, and quirks can make it easier to be at your best in working with people.  

There’s a slightly different form of self-awareness that involves understanding your own role in a given situation.  We all know the person who has to be the corpse at every funeral.  The version of self-awareness I’m getting at here is something closer to role awareness.  In the context of a career, though, it’s some of both.  A few years ago The Girl asked me if I regretted not doing something -- I don’t even remember what -- when I was younger.  I thought about it, and replied that in order to do that, I would have had to be a different person.  

This is the stuff that career profiles sometimes help people figure out; you just have to read them correctly.  For example, introverts often make excellent leaders, but they have to lead in a different style than committed extroverts.  Some people have trouble recognizing that style, or it doesn’t leap to mind when they think of leadership, but it’s there.  I think of that as a variation on what I told my son when he pitched in Little League.  He didn’t have great velocity, but he was good at getting batters out because he could get them looking for one pitch when he’s throw another.  His coach didn’t like his lack of velocity.  I told him that the job of the pitcher is to get batters out; if you do that with a steady diet of change-ups and sinkers, good for you.  You’re doing your job.

The actor Judy Greer did an interview recently in which she admitted having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that her career had settled into “character actor” mode, when she would have preferred to play leads.  But the audience doesn’t seem to want her in leads; it wants her in supporting roles.  To her credit, she noticed, and adjusted.

I’ve seen some folks come to grief due to remarkable lapses in this kind of self-awareness, but I’m not really sure how we can prepare our students to avoid it.  So I have to ask.  Wise and worldly readers, is there a relatively graceful and effective way to help students see themselves more clearly?