In 2008, a 22-year old went to law school, full of vim and vigour. His path was long preordained by three Fs: Friends, family, and most memorably, fortune cookies (two in a row read “you will make a great lawyer.”)
He sleepwalked through law school, generally distraught, but not conscious enough to see what was staring him in the face: That this was not the path for him.
There were signs he should have recognized. As a student, he avoided the law library like the plague and got away with it. Some part of him knew that would change, once he joined one of the country’s largest law firms, and could no longer cut corners. But he persisted.
It wasn’t that that I didn’t know what kind of work awaited me. It was that I lacked the self-awareness to appreciate that it wasn’t the right work, for me. If you’ve ever had an experience like this, odds are, insufficient self-awareness was part of the problem.
What is Self-Awareness?
To understand self-awareness, know that though humans are capable of improvement, you’re hardwired with very different strengths from most people. You will never be the best at everything.
This can be hard to admit, since our pride is at stake. There are still times where I think I could be a great lawyer. When I’m honest with myself, I know it’s not the best use of my strengths.
The single most important thing you can do for your career is to focus on determining your strengths and finding a way to get paid for them. This is self-evident when you think of your strengths as the abilities that come naturally to you, while work that mostly leverages your weaknesses feels like an uphill battle.
This is not to say that you don’t need to consciously practice your greatest strengths, but it will take you much less time to improve them than it will to get your worst weaknesses to a stage where someone will pay you for them.
You know you’re using your strengths when you’re in a flow state. A flow state is when “people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it ”. If you’re bored, disengaged, or generally upset with your job’s day-to-day grind, you’re not in flow which means you’re not using your strengths. You walk the path of self-awareness when you leave behind the idealized version of who you are and get closer and closer to the real you.
That Sounds Great… Can I Get More Of It?
Even those who preach self-awareness often say that it is hard to acquire. As an example, read this excerpt from a Larry King interview of entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk:
Larry King: “You’re big on self-awareness, right?”
Gary Vaynerchuk: “Huge.”
Larry: “How does one get to be… self-aware?”
Gary: “I don’t know.”
Larry: “So how do you teach it?”
Gary: “I don’t know… but I know it’s damn important. ”
Luckily, I can tell you what worked for me. I can’t guarantee these techniques will work for you, but my hunch is that they will and if they don’t, they will at least lead you to other techniques. You can try all of these approaches, for free.
Psychometrics is the branch of psychology concerned with measuring personality traits. There are many psychometric tests. The Big Five is probably the most scientifically rigorous . It measures five key personality traits. A great approach is to take the test and do some basic research on the types of careers that work well for others with your combination of traits. I’ll write more about the Big Five soon.
The Myers-Briggs is probably the best-known personality test. It’s generally considered less evidence-based than the Big Five . I’m not a psychologist but having worked with plenty of career coaching clients, I’ve found it to be useful for getting a general idea of someone’s natural strengths.
I also really like Plum , a tool for employers to predict how successful a candidate will be in a role. Most personality tests focus on either personality traits or cognitive intelligence, but Plum assesses both in an evidence-based fashion. If you’re looking to make a career change, you can get a free Plum profile of your strengths.
If you’re deeply excited about delving into the self-awareness rabbit hole, you may want to pay for a certified professional to administer one or more of these tests. Most tests are self-administered, diminishing their reliability. You can do simple, less-scientific online versions of the tests but just be aware that the results are less likely to be accurate and you may want to supplement the data through other self-awareness techniques like talking to your closest friends.
Talk to Friends
Those who know you best can help you get clear on your strengths. But they might not want to hurt your feelings, so you should give them permission to be honest with you. Try not to ask too many leading questions as you want their thoughts to be as organic as possible, otherwise, you risk acquiring bad data. To mitigate that risk, pick friends that are straight-shooters.
Our lives move quickly so we rarely find the time to reflect. If we experience a great deal but don’t process what it means, we’re losing learning opportunities. When something significant happens or you’re on the verge of making a big decision, you won’t regret carving out 15-20 minutes to quietly write about what you’re thinking and feeling. Try not to force the process, though – if you consciously expect great insights to fall from the sky, you’ll be disappointed. Let things unfold naturally and in time, your journals will produce more and more insight about who you are.
Create A Self-Awareness Cheat Sheet
Employers know that candidates are wired differently. This is one reason why they’re so selective. I recommend clarifying your three most significant strengths and adding them to a one-page document called a “Self-Awareness Cheat Sheet”. It can be used in conjunction with, or instead of, a traditional resume, so people immediately know whether they should hire you. You can use also it when considering a new freelance project or creating a new company by honestly asking yourself whether your new responsibilities will leverage your strengths. Though there are desperate moments where you need to be pragmatic and pay the bills, most of the time, you should only work on projects that leverage your strengths. That’s what will fill your life with meaning and money.
I’ll write more about this in future. If you’re keen to get started immediately, we go over the process, in detail, in our Attract More Interviews course and if you want one on one help, a good coach can ask you challenging questions to help clarify your strengths.
Have a great day!
 Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row: 1st edition.