Lesson #1: It's easier to see our problems (let's call them behavioral challenges) in others than to see them in ourselves. For instance, often when I become self-righteous or angry about some perceived injustice, I realize that the deeper issue is often not with "it," but in me.
Lesson #2: Although we may deny our behavioral challenges to ourselves, they may be very obvious to the people who observe us. There is often a great discrepancy between the self we think we are and the self the rest of the world sees in us. If we can listen and think about what others see in us, we can compare the self we want to be with the self that we are presenting. Then and only then can we begin to make the real changes that we need to make to align our stated values with our actual behavior.
Let me give you a personal example:
As a Ph.D. student at UCLA in the 70s, I had a self-image of being 'hip.' I believed I was involved in discovering deeper human understanding, self-actualization and profound wisdom. One of my teachers, Dr. Bob Tannenbaum, had invented 'sensitivity training,' published a popular article in the Harvard Business Review and was a full professor. I was impressed!
In Bob's class, we could discuss anything we wanted. So, for three weeks, I did a monologue about how 'screwed up' people in Los Angeles were. "They wear sequined blue jeans; they drive gold Rolls Royces; they are plastic and materialistic; all they care about is impressing others; they don't understand what is important in life." I ranted. (I'm not sure how growing up in a small town Kentucky had made an expert on LA people, but evidently it had.)
After listening to me babble for three weeks, Bob looked at me quizzically and asked, "Who are you talking to?"
"I'm speaking to the group," I said.
"Who in the group are you talking to?"
"I'm talking to everybody," I said, not knowing the treacherous path of self-discovery down which I was being led!
"When you speak, you look at only one person and address your comments toward only one person. You seem interested in the opinion of only one person. Who is that person?"
"That is interesting,'" I replied. After careful consideration, I asked, "You?"
"That's right, me. There are 12 other people in this room. Why aren't you interested in any of them?" he asked.
At this point, I decided that digging my hole deeper was better than admitting defeat, so I said, "Well, Dr. Tannenbaum, you understand the significance of what I am saying. You know how 'screwed-up' it is to try to run around and impress people all the time. You have a deeper understanding of what is really important in life."
"Marshall, is there any chance that for the last three weeks all you've tried to do is impress me?" Bob asked.
I was amazed Bob's lack of insight! "Not at all!" I declared. "You haven't understood one thing I've said! I've told you how screwed up it is to try to impress other people. You've missed my point, and I'm disappointed in your lack of understanding!"
He scratched his beard and concluded, "No. I think I understand." I looked at the group and could see them nod and agree.
For six months, I disliked Dr. Tannenbaum. I devoted a lot of energy into trying to understand why he was so confused. Then one day, it clicked! The person with the issue about impressing other people was me. I was the one who had been trying to impress Dr. Tannenbaum. That day, I looked in the mirror and said, "Dr. Tannenbaum was right."
So, let me ask you: Can you see in yourself what others see in you, or do you see in others what you don't see in yourself? What are you going to do about it?
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Please view the Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog. The next short video in the series Personal Advice: The Person in the Mirror accompanies this article. I'll post these blogs once a week for the next 50 weeks. The series will incorporate learnings from my 38 years of experience with top executives, as well as material from my previous research, articles and books, including What Got You Here Won't Get You There, MOJO, Coaching for Leadership, and Succession: Are You Ready? The blogs will also include material from my exciting new research on engagement and my upcoming book Triggers (to be published by Crown in 2015).