Self-improvement at a whole new level

 In Business, Leadership

The nostalgic schoolboy in me observes the start of the month of September as the commencement of a new year.  A new beginning.  A new chance to be my very best. The desire to be one’s best is innate to almost all of us. It’s what motivates us to go to work each day and what gives us strength when we encounter brutish challenges.

The Two Levels of Self-improvement

If you think about it, there are two distinct levels or depths of self-improvement. On the one hand, there is the self-improvement of known shortcomings; the kind where you decide to cut out carbohydrates, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or make provisions to ensure you are not interrupted at work.  I call that Level I self-improvement.  On the other hand, there is a second level where we can take measures to consider the unknown shortcomings hidden by our cognitive bias of not knowing what we don’t know about ourselves, better known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

All of us have Level II challenges – no matter how astute or perceptive we might be. Most of us however, don’t enlist others to help us tackle Level II issues, which is a great shame considering the fact that it means we can go through our entire lives blind to unconscious flaws that, if we were aware of them, we might fix. In other words, our potential to be our very best is limited by our inability to see ourselves as others see us, or as we objectively are.

As one might imagine, improvement at this second level can have far greater implications than Level I because once the veil that has hidden unattractive or self-limiting obstacles is abruptly lifted, behaviors that were once considered determinate (that’s the way I roll) are suddenly choices that don’t have to be your default settings. Now that your ignorance has been shed, you have the opportunity to change a fundamental quality that currently conflicts with your core values – should you dare to come to terms with it. I say that the veil is abruptly lifted because, while you may be slightly aware of the Level II issues you have, being confronted with it head-on can be off-putting, confusing, or even dumfounding.

How to raise your consciousness to see Level II issues — should you dare to?

Well, imagine if you could film yourself as you work and interact with people each day and then play back each scene when you go home at night. There would be no doubt that what you were reviewing was how you are in reality. This is actually what novice symphony orchestra conductors do when they rehearse with an orchestra. They film the rehearsal and then review the result afterwards. (Athletes do this as well.) I can tell you from first-hand experience that it’s incredibly agonizing to watch these recordings because the recording is nothing at all like how you performed on the podium. Somehow your actions are exaggerated in the filming process (probably a distortion of light and sound) and… Ha! Of course, the recording doesn’t lie. You are witnessing the you that you are otherwise blind to – and it’s almost always discomforting because when we actually see ourselves, we almost always focus on what can be improved, which, if we are not too obsessive, is a good thing because it removes our ignorance and presents new choices. These choices, then, can be worked in Level I.

I distinctly remember what went on in my head upon reviewing these recordings in my green-horn days:  Do I really move my hands like that? Did I really stare down at the score that much? How could I have explained that passage so poorly to the concertmaster? Oh my god, I completely missed the cello cue!.. and on and on. But what those videos offered me, was nothing less than a completely unbiased perspective of how I appeared in front of the musicians. Viewing those videos, as painful as it was, catalyzed my technical and interpersonal development.

I imagine that the reader is conscious that this challenge is not specific to conductors and orchestras. We all experience this challenge of not seeing Level II areas of potential improvement – in others.

You cannot tackle Level II challenges without outside assistance

This is why Level II challenges are called blind spots – not difficult-to-see spots. You also need quite a lot of experience with Level I challenges before you are ready for those in Level II. Think high school vs. graduate school. The point I want to make with the plight of young conductors desiring to improve is that the very best way to see your blind spots, as impractical as this will sound, is to have someone record you as you go about your daily business.  There is no interpreter – just the bare facts. (Although, if you think about it, it might be a great idea to record your meetings and ask everyone to spot-check themselves in a meeting every once in a while, to get a glimpse of themselves in unadulterated action. Moreover, what if a leader asked a colleague to film her as she interacted with her direct reports for a day or so? Hmmm.)

Since having someone film you is impractical for 99.99% of us, what then is the next best way to capture our behavior? What would help us to see our blind spots instead of just our weaknesses in a manner that would be undeniable to our stubborn egos?

What about 360’s?

Most organizations turn to 360-feeback surveys.  While 360-feedback does serve a function for employees and their companies, it can come up short when the objective is Level II self-improvement, mainly because 360’s can be more overwhelming than helpful.

I want to make it clear that Level II insights are nothing short of learning something surprising about yourself (not an entire check-list) that you would never have dreamed of changing or thought of improving simply because you didn’t know that: your irony was a problem for most of your staff; or your aftershave gave off an alcohol scent half way through the day, so people think you have a drinking problem; or that you tend to choose men for the most important projects.

The right question to ask

Tapping into Level II self-improvement requires an immense level of trust of both your source and your method, so you will need to prepare yourself before trying it. Luckily, the method by which you will gain access to Level II insights is deceivingly straightforward. Without further adieu, here it is: You ask your friend, family member or colleague: How can I do better?

That’s it.  It’s vital not to put a lot of flourishes around the question such as, I’ve been thinking about my performance last week at the Calgary meeting… How could I have done better? You should avoid being specific and not impose limitations on scope. Likewise, don’t optimize it to: How can I improve? Improve is an adult word whereas a child would more naturally use do better. When we want to tap into emotional responses, we have a better chance of succeeding if we use the language of our childhood, which in turn gives us better access to our inner child – the subconscious source of our emotional responses.

Upon receiving your Level II data from your confidant, you should reply with these two words: Thank you or five words: Thank you for your help. Also, quite uncomplicated – if you let it be. You will be tempted to explain why you prefer to occasionally interrupt, (but only when it’s really important – according to you), or why meetings really should start on timeI mean, don’t you agree?!  But don’t, as it is equally important to not justify your actions. (Why did you ask for my opinion?) You should also respond with heartfelt gratitude. If you can’t muster the gratitude from a sincere place of curiosity and humility, don’t ask at all.

Once you receive the answer (which, almost by definition, might astound you), ponder what that person shared with you like you would savor a 1964 Margeaux. Give it some real contemplation, and take the time you need to let it settle. If that person was as intimate friend, colleague, or family member (all good choices), then that one thing is most likely to be true or at least not far from being true about you (even confidants have biases). The more shocking or inconvenient it is for you to digest, the more time you should give it to settle within you. You may be tempted to start working on the issue right away or start asking other people if they recognize that attribute in you (desperately hoping that your colleague was completely off base), but that would mean that you were missing the whole point of the exercise. Also, there is no contract between you and the person who told you that you should speak up more in meetings or that you constantly pull on your beard. You’re not promising him that you will change; you’re just that you are interested in his opinion, which is, in of itself, a huge compliment.

Step one to Level II

The first concrete step to self-improvement at Level II is acceptance. You need to recognize the behavior or characteristic in yourself, which means looking for it in future situations. If you do get a whiff of it, rather than minimizing its importance, exaggerate the experience in your mind until you can admit, Yeah, I can see how someone might get that opinion of me when they see me act that way. It could be when you leave a tip for a waiter, smell your shirt half way through the day or when you next advise a direct report. Notice your behavior as if you were outside yourself. See it through another persons’ eyes or hear it as they might hear it without your personal context. It may, over time, correct itself simply by you now having an awareness of something that was once clandestine to your consciousness.  Often, though, it will take some serious effort to change. Just knowing, however, allows you to work on it in Level I, which means it is now a choice instead of a secret that was hidden from you because, for whatever reasons, you never asked.

Why it works

The reason How can I do better? works resides in its elegance and pureness of purpose. There is no hint to your potential facilitator of where YOU see your faults, rather, it allows them to offer the first thing that comes to their mind – which is probably the most accurate. It’s also short, just two to five words, which sets an expectation that the answer will not overwhelm with an inappropriately exceedingly detailed response. Just think of the people that you know. What would you say to each one if they asked you the same? It’s probably on the tip of your tongue, but if they don’t directly ask you for your feedback, how likely are they going to appreciate your analysis? The chances are slim because one needs mental preparation, vulnerability, and a willingness to accept something that is almost always disturbing about themselves.

How can I do better?  Ask five people – you emphatically trust — to give you an honest answer.

And by the way, don’t let them off the hook when they say you’re great as you are (You are! – but that’s not the point.  You want to improve.). If you mean it, insist like you would when you reach for the check at the end of a meal.

Your rebuttal to someone unsure of your sincerity could be: We can all improve. How can I do better?


Full disclosure, I discovered this technique of asking “What can I do better” from reading Marshall Goldsmith’s best-seller: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How successful people become even more successful.

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