Wednesday, 5 October 2016

On Self-Awareness


This year I've been focusing on self-awareness, which in my case was really about taking stock of myself in asking searching questions. It started toward the end of last year, when I first began to make sense of a model that I coined as the RAGE model (Reality, Aspirations, Goals, Expectations). In the course of this year, I had applied RAGE to not only a number of my personal & professional situations, but also used it to help guide a few friends and colleagues. I realised that many people find themselves in situations, when faced with different choices, are often conflicted about these choices, find themselves searching, reaching out to me(!). What surprised me most was how I was able to give neutral counsel, often by re-applying the techniques I've come to use on myself - the crux of it is really around asking searching questions. So I decided to use this blog post to capture my learnings to date, as references to the topics I've come across, share them with you...at the very least, I can come back to this post for a refresher when faced with my next dilemma. I myself am still learning...

This post is taking me more than just a few days to write, so I'm releasing it incrementally. There's still some empty sections that will be filled up as I go along. It's broken up as follows, you can read each section independently:

Real-Life Scenarios

Here are some scenarios you might find yourself stuck in (scenarios I either found myself in, or was consulted for counsel):
  • You have a new boss who's decided to make some serious organisational transformations. Your role could disappear, or the seniority you previously enjoyed could be taken away from you by introducing another layer of management control. Your new boss just doesn't get you, doesn't appreciate your accomplishments, and is not open to constructive dialogue. You either get in line, or leave. You feel the years spent being loyal to a company was all for nothing, and despite your efforts at reaching out for a middle-ground, it's of no use.
  • You've been working your butt off and are not seeing the rewards. The situation has become untenable, and you're thinking about leaving your management career and going back to technical. It feels like taking a step back, but at least you feel you'll be happier.
  • You believe you reached a point to be promoted into a senior post, yet your boss doesn't feel like you're ready. There's still some improvements to be made, but you can't get yourself to see past this apparent criticism.
  • Your company has some new management that are set in old traditional ways of measurement that seems to contradict where the rest of the industry is going. 
  • You've been on a journey of agile methods for a few years, and now all this work is being undone, moving to traditional waterfall methods. Do you fight the fight, or walk away?
  • Your workplace has changed, you're not sure where your allegiances lay, although the management changes doesn't impact you directly, you've had friends impacted by the new culture change. Do you stick around?
  • You feel you've reached a ceiling in your career, you've always wanted to go out on your own, but it's always been difficult. Life and commitments always take priority, you put your own aspirations on hold, because it's the responsible thing to do.
  • You are in a relatively comfortable space when it comes to making a money, yet your job isn't motivating or stretching you as you'd like. There is economic uncertainty, so do you keep your easy-paying job or find a new path (even though that path is full of unknowns)?
  • You come to work every day, wishing you could find something else. You operate in survival mode, staying under the radar, avoiding to speak out for fear of getting the chop, the workplace culture has changed from open to authoritarian, dictatorial, top-down approach. The only solace you find is during the evening at the local watering hole.
Most of these scenarios take place in South Africa, a country with a troubled history, current economic & political conditions not the most stable - and most of these scenarios affect people who are challenged with choice (minority race, job opportunities not always forthcoming, senior experienced individuals with families and responsibilities to think of...).

Know Thyself - RAGE Model

I've been studying Socrates & the Socratic Method for a while now, and found in pretty useful in a variety of situations.

I created the RAGE model for myself to help dissect my life into personas. For each persona, I was able to identify my current Reality & desired Aspirations. Once the Reality & Aspirations are established, set about looking at Goals & Expectations to set about a plan of action to reaching my desired state.

Whilst my model may seem like overkill if you read the post that introduced the model, I believe that it will serve as a useful starting point in establishing a baseline of who you are...
to set the scene for asking some deep searching questions:

  • What's of VALUE to you?
  • What would you WALK AWAY from? What would you say NO to?
  • What is it that YOU stand for?
  • What is your END GAME?
  • What are the things that DRIVE YOU?
  • What are your CORE DESIRES & AMBITIONS?
  • How does this fit in with your ASPIRATIONS, EXPECTATIONS & REALITY?
  • What is your BRAND - what do you STAND FOR?
  • Who do YOU want to BE?
If you're on the search for self improvement and awareness, you must begin the journey by asking searching questions. Set about some time to do this, you owe it to yourself to explore your inner being. Use whatever method you find comfortable (speaking to people, writing in a journal, mindmaps, etc.). I find keeping a journal helps with the processing - once things are written down, there's a place of record you can refer back to for further post-processing.

Try reading! I've found inspiration in the works by Seth Godin. Seth talks about knowing what you stand for, be conscious of your brand, always do your best work, don't be afraid of the unknown, and make use of the connected economy. His insights often resonate with me, pushing boundaries, making me uncomfortable at times.

Learn about your history. Get to understand how your past, upbringing, situational experiences have led to you being in the place you currently find yourself today. Learn about cognitive biases...

Dreyfus Model

I recently came across the Dreyfus Model on reading Andy Hunt's Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. It certainly was enlightening and got me thinking critically about the reality of my skills and experiences.

If you're looking at career options, deciding to move or deciding that you've reached a certain level of experience or skill, I would say, stop - go back and do some real introspection of the skills you think you have gained over the years, and view them in light of this Dreyfus Model. I would also look at the desired skill-set for the role / position you aspire to (or feel you're ready for and deserve that promotion), and contrast this against the Dreyfus levels.

The Dreyfus model has five levels: Novice, Advanced Beginner, Competent, Proficient, Expert. For each skill or competency you have, check yourself against the levels. Novices generally need to follow detailed rules to be guided, focuses only on the immediate task at hand. At the opposite end of the scale toward Proficient & Expert, one works more on acquired wisdom and instinct and much less on rules, is selective in terms of focus and is very much part of the big picture. Experts tend to frown upon following too much process or rigour, and takes for granted the foundational principles that novices and advanced beginners tend to rely on.

The picture below depicts the rather nicely:
Use rules for novices, intuition for experts. (Courtesy: Andy Hunt)
Another interesting take is that most people confuse themselves with years of experience doing a job and competency skills growth over time. Most of us spend years repeating the same craft over and over, presuming this to be accumulated skills, mistakenly sharpening skills over acquiring new craft, or taking your craft to a finer level of growth or appreciation. Research has shown that the distribution is not a normal bell curve, but instead looks like the following picture - that is, most of us are really just executing at Advanced Beginner level, with very few reaching the expert level:

Skills distribution by Dreyfus levels (courtesy Andy Hunt)
So ask questions:

  • What does YOUR skills distribution look like when you map against the Dreyfus levels?
  • Are YOU not FOOLING YOURSELF into believing your experience counts for much?
  • What do YOU need to do to move to the next level?
  • Could YOU have been PREMATURE in ASSUMING expert competency?
  • Have YOU really acquired PROFICIENCY in your CURRENT ROLE?
  • Think of YOURSELF compared to your Boss / Colleagues?
  • Is YOUR JOURNEY complete or only just beginning?
I encourage you to get a copy of Andy's book and carefully read Chapter 2. I found myself questioning my own assumptions and assertions for my own career as a senior project leader.

Discover Your Generational Archetype

Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the normal order of things.
-- Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt
Here's a few pickings (I've lifted) again from Andy Hunt's Pragmatic Thinking, Chapter 5 Debug Your Mind. You owe it to yourself to stop and ponder about the points that make you, you. It's all part of the learning journey. Once you begin to understand that you're a product of many experiences, you can start taking note of your default tendencies (values and attitudes), and perhaps start seeing other options and opportunities that you wouldn't necessarily have considered.

As Douglas Adams points out, the biases you form change over time, and taken as a whole, the biases that drive any particular generation will be different from the biases that drive you and your peers.

  • Have you ever pondered why you value those things you value? 
  • Are they the values your parents instilled in you? 
  • Did you ever sit down and deliberately decide to be liberal, conservative, libertarian or anarchist? A workaholic or a slacker? Or were you just born that way?

You are a product of your times. The attitudes, philosophies, and values of your parents and cohort (those born about the same time as you; your peers throughout school and in the workplace; members of your generation) have a tremendous impact on your values, attitudes and perceptions.

Check out wikipedia to learn more about generational abstractions (models theorised for group behaviour), the ones relevant today: Boom (1943-1960)Generation X (1961-1981), Millenial (1982-2005). In South Africa we also have the Born Frees (1995-present these are people born after we were freed from Apartheid, the new South Africa).

What I found really interesting was the concept of Four Archetypes by researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss. According to them, looking back through history of western civilisation, you'll find only four prototypical generational archetypes.  These four types repeat over and over again, in a continuing cycle. These generalisations help shed basic understanding as why people value the things they do and remind us that not everyone shares your core values or your view of the world.

The four archetypes and their dominant characteristics summarised as:
Prophet: Vision, values
Nomad: Liberty, survival, honour
Hero: Community, affluence
Artist: Pluralism, expertise, due process

Their research explores how each archetypal generation can create the next: archetypes create opposing archetypes in a typical example of the "generation gap". But that generation then creates one that opposes it, and so on. For the current generations in play, Andy illustrates the picture:
From Pragmatic Thinking by Andy Hunt: How/Strauss generational archetypes
Not everyone shares your deep-seated values, and that doesn't mean you're right or they're wrong. It is likely you will naturally prefer the approach and values favoured by your generation. But realise where this influence is coming from. Perhaps your fierce individualism isn't a trait unique to yourself. Perhaps many characteristics you admire in other people and aspire to attain in yourself don't come from any deep reasoning or logical basis bust instead from the times in which you were born.

Bear that in mind as you passionately argue for or against a topic. Are you making a logical argument, an emotional one, or just a familiar one? Is it the right argument in this particular context? Have you considered other points of view? Rationality is often in the eye of the beholder, so you want to hedge your bets with diversity. Embrace diversity.
  • Which generation were YOU born into?
  • Do those characteristics RESONATE with YOU? Does a different generation resonate better?
  • Which generations does your BOSS, CO-WORKERS, FRIENDS belong?
  • Can you SEE how THEY may be in CONFLICT (OR SYNC) with YOUR values?

Having knowledge of these archetypes can definitely help with your perceptions, and decision-making. Discover why you feel the way you do, and what internal motivations are causing you to experience this inner conflict.

Cognitive Biases

TODO: Watch this space!

Socrates Questions / Socratic Method

TODO: Watch this space!

Ego is the Enemy

Ryan Holiday's Ego is the Enemy is a book you should read (it's on my wishlist, but I've seen a few videos of his talks, and listened to podcasts). Following from your experiments with assessing yourself with the Dreyfus Model, consider keeping your ego in check. Often we feel that our successes are due to our own efforts alone, for example - take a look at how you word your CV: is it a true reflection of your real accomplishments? Did you overplay or overstate your role in the project? 

When engaging in constructive dialogue and debate, do you really listen to what the other party is saying, or are you waiting for your chance to land the death blow? When people hold contradicting views, do you presume your knowledge & experience is better? Why do you act like that? Could it be your EGO is getting in the way?

The theme of asking questions becomes an endless stream, interwoven in all aspects of your life/work. Try to stop and ponder about this:
  • How certain are YOU that the FEELINGS you're experiencing are GENUINE and not a FALSE manifestation of your EGO?
  • Are you sure your NEXT MOVE is the RIGHT one for you?
  • Have you given the other party the BENEFIT of DOUBT?
  • Are you unjustifiably PROUD of YOUR ACCOMPLISHMENTS?
  • What would be the result if you acted AGAINST your EGO? Would there be more OBSTACLES or OPPORTUNITIES? 
  • Can YOU think LESS of YOURSELF?
  • Did YOU ever PULL RANK in a group forum, on someone? How did that make you FEEL? How often do you find yourself being insulted, challenged or threatened by views from other people - could this perhaps be your EGO being hurt? Have you stopped to consider why you react the way you do? 
According to Holiday, Ego is the Enemy is a philosophical exploration of difficulties we create for ourselves in life. Early in our careers, ego impedes learning and the cultivation of talent. With success, ego can blind us to our faults and sow future problems. In failure, ego magnifies each blow and makes recovery more difficult. At every stage, ego holds us back.

Here is a great animation of the prologue to the book.


Here is a good summary of the book, with a link to download the pdf.

Here is Ryan Holiday's talk at Google.


And here is a link audio reading of a chapter: What's Important to You?

Humble Yourself

Related to keeping your ego in check, having humility follows naturally. I recently came across a Google Talks video of Tim Ferris, on How to Cage the Monkey Mind. Toward the tailend of the conversation a question was asked of Tim on How to maintain your humbleness that I found quite interesting especially because it is a way that is pretty much aligned Muslim spirituality. Here are the snippets of the core message from Tim, who pretty much follows Stoich (Seneca) philosophy

Memento mori
  • Remembering that you’re going to die.
  • Forces a broader perspective.
Memento homo
  • Remembering that you’re just a man.
  • Always try to be the weakest person in the room, in some aspect.
  • As long as you’re going in the right direction, it doesn’t matter if you are losing.
Try being the weakest person in the room, in the next meeting or workshop you have. If you're in disagreement with people, allow yourself to let go - see what happens.
  • When was the last time you consciously maintained humility?
  • In the current situation you face right now (bad boss, immature colleagues, uneasiness with work or temptations to quit), how would allowing yourself be the weakest person in the room change things?
  • Has your limit really been reached?
  • Why do you have to be so defensive all the time?
Here is the video of the talk, it's packed with some insightful topics that may just help you reflect on how to get better control of your life:


Create Your Own Prime Directive

In terms of knowing yourself, have you considered describing the way to live, work, your values, as a simple set of rules? I call these rules your own Prime Directive: basically the rules you live by, your guard-rails.
  • How would YOU describe YOURSELF as a SET OF SIMPLE RULES?
  • What rules are CORE?
  • What conditions would you use as a GUIDING light?
There's a book on Simple Rules, written by Stanford Researchers which I found quite useful in not only working as a professional (leading projects), but also in my personal life as well as my life currently as a consultant.

Here are my simple rules for my current work environment (a management consultant):


  1. Respect the Client, Respect the Engagement - Always.
  2. Mind Your Place - know your Zorro Circle. Focus on your formal engagements only, do not exceed the limits, overstepping your boundaries.
  3. Remember you do NOT know everything, you can never know everything, your ideas are NOT always the best ideas. There is far greater strength in the collective than the individual. Get off your ivory tower and humble yourself!
  4. The group is always smarter than the individual - build authentic and sincere relationships, cemented by layers of trust. People Matter.
  5. Be mindful of your biases & your own personal bias for action / change. Think back to Star Trek's Prime Directive & Cargo Cults - Limit your Interference, work with the rightful owners.
  6. Always sharpen your toolset & keep adding to your toolbox, even if the people you're currently engaged with, are not ready to use these tools - avoid mediocrity as best as you can, don't get complacent [which fits in with my Persona Rankings].
  7. If the work does not feel right, if the organisation / culture conflicts with your Design | Engineer | Innovate | Lead | Empower principles, then walk away! Find another gig, the Client isn't worth your time & energy.
  8. Keep Showing Up, Do Your Best Work, regardless of praise, acknowledgement or seeking anything in return - no matter how mundane you think the job is. You owe it to yourself to always show up and do your best work...if not, and your energy & passion are gone, go to rule 7.
  9. Maintain your authenticity, sincerity & courageousness. There is always potential to "boldly go where no-one has gone before", but not alone...
  10. GoTo Rule 1.
Once you've mapped out your simple rules, try to keep track of them - are you living each day by these rules? Which rules aren't currently working out for you? Which ones need to be changed? Do they need to change? Or do YOU need to make a change - that is, change your environment perhaps??

Antifragile & Black Swan Events

TODO: Watch this space!

Happiness Criteria (Updated 12/10)

Click here to break out to a separate post on Happiness! 

Circle of Control / Influence

People often worry about a hundred and one things, clogging up their mind-space with things that really shouldn't be there.

Try this for an exercise:
Write down all the things that are bugging you, annoying you, or causing you to stress over.

Then carefully look at each item moving each one to one of two lists:

1) Within my circle of control
2) Outside my circle of control

When you sorted your list out into these two columns:
  • Col 1) Ignore and send all those outside your control to the trash!! And...Feel the relief!
  • Col 2) Work on the things within your control, set priorities, and try to focus on one small win at a time.

Your circle of control is basically the things you have direct responsibility for, that you have the power to change, and improve.

Outside your circle of
control are basically stuff that is outside your hands, someone else's responsibility, nothing you can do to change it - i.e. you cannot influence, or effect change in any way, shape or form, so why bother??

Stephen Covey, in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, introduced the concept of Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence. The circle of Concern is the area that we have NO CONTROL over. Proactive people focus on the circle of Influence, which is the area we have Control over and we can act upon.
  • Are YOU really SURE the things CONCERNING you are indeed RELEVANT?
  • How would YOUR LIFE CHANGE if you STOPPED focusing on things beyond your control?
  • How does NOT ACTING out conflict with YOUR VALUES?

Conversation Transformation

TODO: Watch this space!

My Own Situational History

TODO: Watch this space!

Failure Resume

Over five years ago, in 2011, I shared my failure resume on this blog, being inspired by Tina Seelig's What I Wish I Knew When I was 20.  That post is one of the highest ranking posts on this blog, and the subject is quite popular amongst Stanford students. I still find this notion of a Failure Resume,
quite a powerful one - and is key in my overall journey into self-awareness.

The usual CV / Resume focuses on highlighting our best and greatest achievements, the ultimate tool in selling our brand to the outside world. Yet, ask yourself this - how often do you reflect on your failures?

Failures are just as important, if not more important in shaping you life together, try these:
  • Do you believe your current state is the result of ONLY SUCCESSES and NO failures??
  • Looking back on your past: Personal & Professional, what would you highlight as YOUR Failures?
  • How / Would you do anything different NOW compared to what your experienced THEN?
  • What are your KEY LEARNINGS?
  • Given these failures, do you think you could apply the RAGE model to set about some changes? Give it a try!
Take a look at my example failure resume in the 2011 post. Try to make your own, and share it with a few people. It would be really cool if you could reply on my blog, linking to your own Failure Resume :-)

Revisiting my Failure Resume from 2011
When I attempted my first failure resume in 2011, I'd just over ten years of "work experience", now in 2016, with 16+ years of working, lets see how I fare:

[Professional] Jumping ship too early. I have maintained at least two years in a role before leaping to the new one. It looks like I've paid attention to the lessons learnt. Still though, I do experience the tendency of jumping ship once I've reached a point of mastery that makes the role no longer challenging or appealing. Since April 2011, I had decided to relocate to South Africa, hired for Scrum Master Role, then elevated quickly to Project Manager then Program Manager. In July 2013, just after two years, I decided to branch out on my own - into consulting. So far, so good - no more failures in this topic (although life as a consultant varies according to work engagements).

[Professional] Falsely assuming manager understood my expectations, selling myself short. This is a tricky one - in my last role as a permanent employee, I made it quite clear what my expectations were - which resulted in me becoming a consultant because the company at the time, could not provide the path I had in mind. In terms of selling myself short I fear that in that very same role, there was an incident where senior management decided to change tact and direction for a project I was running, which I allowed to happen, without an fierce objections to the change - the side effect being a less prominent role on the project, providing guidance & stewardship but no immediate responsibility for delivery. I took one for the team, wanted to show maturity in character, that I appreciated the bigger picture, and did not want to let emotions ruin a good thing that was going. So it seems I still have some work to do in selling myself better.

[Professional] Refusing to play the corporate game. When I wrote this back in 2011, it seemed to make sense, although in the subsequent five years, I've grown as a person in terms of building sincere relationships. However, I still refuse to play the corporate game, perhaps to my own detriment. I still believe that your actions, reputation to get the job done (and now your network relationships) are what matter -- and thus try to keep away from corporate politicking and empire building. Working as a consultant makes this somewhat easier, although still, am often caught in the middle having to provide objective feedback in matters of organisational structures, people issues, etc. I have a keen nose now, to smell corporate games happening in the background (it's so much more prevalent in South Africa, in the UK it was quite subtle and very hard to detect).

[Personal] Not executing my ideas, not taking enough risks. I have made some progress from when I last had this introspective. I took the leap of branching out on my own, as an independent consultant. It's been three years and counting, I've generated leads and created a stream of work. Still, I am conflicted with my goals of starting a product, but I've not yet reached the state of entrepreneurship. My current challenge is in making time for this pursuit, not networking enough or finding partnerships to execute on my ideas. Am currently working on a concept I call Personametry, a niche area that is steadily growing. In another two years or so, and the opportunity will have been lost.

[Personal] Not Rewarding myself enough. I have made some progress in this area, my RAGE model has helped in steering me along. I've taken up new hobbies, but not fully consistent - my overall state of general well-being has however improved since 2011. I still maintain my duties & obligations to family and friends when it comes to helping out, but I do set some time & money aside just for my own personal pursuits.

[Personal] Relationship Management. This is still a work in progress, again supported by my RAGE model, I make a conscious effort to dedicate time to people important to me. I still have to improve my overall social interactions - investing in relationships takes effort, energy, patience and time.

Concluding Remarks

TODO: Watch this space!

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