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The Number One Career and Life Skill You Need to Develop

Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

A man at a boardwalk looks out at a body of water.

Self-awareness is frequently cited as the top skill needed to succeed in work and in life. But what does it mean to have self-awareness—and how do you get it?

In his highly respected Harvard Business Review article “What Makes a Leader,” psychologist Daniel Goleman defines self-awareness as “having a deep understanding of one’s own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs, and drives,” as well as their effects on others.

Goleman identifies self-awareness as one of five components of emotional intelligence, a set of skills which, he argues, distinguishes great leaders from good leaders.

“Without [emotional intelligence], a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader,” Goleman writes.

Why is self-awareness so important?

The answer may seem simple, but it’s also quite powerful: Self-aware people make good decisions.

Take these examples in Goleman’s seminal article on emotional intelligence:

Deciding how to spend one’s time

“A self-aware person who knows that tight deadlines bring out the worst in him plans his time carefully and gets his work done well in advance.”

Deciding how to handle emotions at work

“Another person with high self-awareness will be able to work with a demanding client. She will understand the client’s impact on her moods and the deeper reasons for her frustration… and she will go one step further and turn her anger into something constructive.”

Deciding the next career step

“Someone who is highly self-aware knows where he is headed and why; so, for example, he will be able to be firm in turning down a job offer that is tempting financially but does not fit with his principles or long-term goals.”

Because self-aware people recognize what often goes unseen or unsaid—emotions, moods, goals, strengths, and weaknesses—they can make the best decisions with all the relevant information.

That’s why developing your self-awareness skills can help you find the right career, figure out when to leave your current job, or become a strong leader at work.

How can I develop self-awareness?

Self-awareness can be learned, and it tends to grow over time as you gain maturity and experience. These practices and exercises can help you maximize that natural growth in self-awareness.

Assess your starting point

Consider an emotional intelligence assessment to learn more about your current level of self-awareness. Other assessments can help you learn more about your strengths, your tendency toward extroversion or introversion, or your personality.

These tests aren’t always 100% accurate, but it can be helpful to have an objective assessment of yourself to consider alongside more subjective information, such as self-reflection.

Reflect on your own and with trusted friends

Talking to trusted friends and colleagues can help you uncover the things about you that may live in your blind spot. The blind spot is a component of the Johari window, which is designed to help you develop self-awareness by visually representing what you know and don’t know about yourself along with what others know and don’t about you.

Questions to ask yourself and your friends to gauge your current level of self-awareness include:

  • What are my strengths?
  • What are my weaknesses?
  • What triggers cause stress for me, and how do I cope with these stresses?
  • How do I manage conflict?
  • What inspires me?
  • What derails me?
  • How do I respond to authority?
  • How do I deal with criticism?
  • What is my communication style?

Another tool to try is a SWOT analysis: S for strengths, W for weaknesses, O for opportunities, and T for threats.

Opportunities could be things that are happening in your life (such as networking events, conferences, or a new project) or things that you can make happen by playing to your strengths or addressing one of your weaknesses. For example, if one of your strengths is explaining complex subjects and processes, that could create an opportunity to take on responsibility for training new interns at your organization.

Write things down

Keeping a journal can help you notice patterns over time. It can also help you accurately reflect on and learn from past experiences, since you’ll have a record of how you felt at the time, why you made a certain decision, and what else was going on that may have influenced your decision.

Writing things down can still be powerful even if you’re not doing it regularly. Executive Coach Gideon Culman says he uses a whiteboard when he’s working with clients because seeing what they’re talking about makes it more real.

Culman also recommends making a list of the things that truly matter to you—whether that’s family, financial security, living an ethical life, or other factors—and referring to that list when making a decision so you can stay focused on what matters.

Practice meditation

The goal of meditation is to improve your awareness of the moment in whatever way works for you. Traditional meditation may involve sitting in a certain position, focusing on your breathing, and possibly repeating a refrain. But walking in nature, gardening, or listening to music are also meditative acts.

Because meditation pulls you away from the hustle and bustle, you can use that time to reflect on what’s happening in the moment, with questions such as:

  • What am I trying to achieve?
  • What am I doing that is working?
  • What am I doing that is slowing me down?
  • What can I do to change?

You can also apply the principles of meditation to your daily life, such as taking a deep breath before you act in an emotional situation. That pause can help you avoid knee-jerk reactions and instead focus on your awareness of the situation, how you’re feeling, and how best to respond.

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Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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