by Heidi Grant Halvorson
If you want to be more successful — at anything — than you are right now, you need to know yourself and your skills. And when you fall short of your goals, you need to know why. This should be no problem; after all, who knows you better than you do?
And yet your own ratings of your personality traits — for instance, how open-minded, conscientious, or impulsive you are — correlate with the impressions of other people (who know you well) at around .40. In other words, how you see yourself and how other people see you are only very modestly correlated.
Who’s right? Who knows you best? Well, the research suggests that they do — other people’s assessment of your personality predicts your behaviour, on average, better than your assessment does. The truth is, we don’t know ourselves nearly as well as we think we do. When it comes to performance, our surprising self-ignorance makes understanding where we went right and where we went wrong difficult, to say the least.
At the root of the problem is the human brain itself. There’s a lot going on in there, but just because it’s your brain doesn’t mean you know what it’s doing.
In his fascinating book Strangers to Ourselves, psychologist Timothy Wilson summarises decades of research on what he calls our adaptive unconscious, showing us just how much of what we do during every moment of every day — what we think, how we feel, the goals we pursue and the actions we take — is happening below our conscious awareness. Some of it we can notice if we engage in a little self-reflection, but much of it we simply cannot — it’s not directly accessible to us at all.
Why would our brains work this way?
For the most part, the answer seems to be because it’s wildly efficient. I’ve often made the analogy that if our nonconscious mind’s processing power is like that of a NASA super-computer, then by comparison, our conscious mind can handle roughly the contents of a Post-it note. It’s limited and slow, and when too much is asked of it, it starts dropping things. If we had to do everything we do consciously, then we’d be so busy remembering to breathe and not fall over that we couldn’t get much else accomplished. By handing operations over to the nonconscious mind — including high-level, complex operations like pursuing goals — we make productivity possible.
The downside, of course, is that when things go wrong we have an understandably difficult time figuring out why, given that we weren’t completely conscious of what we were doing in the first place. It’s like an old-fashioned murder mystery — there’s a dead body on the floor, and it’s the detective’s job to figure out what happened, even though he was miles away when the murder occurred. He rounds up the suspects and weighs the evidence, and thereby discovers who’s to blame.
When you fail to reach a goal — say, for instance, you give an important presentation and it doesn’t go well — you become the detective (once again, largely unconsciously). You gather up the usual suspects to see who is responsible for your failure: lack of innate ability, lack of effort, poor preparation, using the wrong strategy, bad luck, etc. Of all of these possible culprits, it’s lack of innate ability we most frequently hold responsible, like the much-maligned butler in an Agatha Christie novel. In Western countries — and nowhere more so than in the U.S. — innate ability is the go-to explanation for all of our successes and our failures.
The problem is that the evidence — the kind gathered by scientists over the last thirty years of study of motivation and achievement — suggests that innate ability is rarely to blame for either succeeding or falling short. (If you’ve blamed your poor performances in the past on a lack of ability, don’t feel bad. We’ve all done it. The butler seems guilty. Just please don’t do it anymore.)
If we are going to ever improve performance, we need to place blame where it belongs. We need solid evidence about where we went wrong. Unfortunately, that’s the kind of evidence that usually doesn’t make it to our consciousness on its own, making self-diagnosis practically impossible. We need help getting the right answers.
The good news is that this is basically what research psychologists (particularly those working in social, cognitive, and consumer psychology) do for a living — we figure out what questions we can ask you to get at what’s really going on underneath the surface. Because if we ask you flat out why you didn’t get that promotion, or why you can’t get along with your coworkers, or why you can’t seem to lose that last 15 pounds, you’ll probably say something like “I just don’t have what it takes,” and we already know that’s wrong.
But what if you’re not working with a psychologist, or doing a 360 review, or getting enough feedback from your boss or your coworkers? Then what do you do?
I wrote a blog post (that became a Harvard Business Press e-book) called Nine Things Successful People Do Differently. In the time since it was first published, I’ve received more than a few emails from readers asking how they can know if they are doing enough of each thing. How do I know if I am really a realistic optimist? Am I being specific enough? Have I built up enough willpower? Good questions. And once again, very difficult to self-diagnose — and improvement is impossible without good answers. This is why I recently created the Nine Things Diagnostic. It’s a set of questions you can answer online and get immediate feedback (for free) that tells you which of the Nine Things you need to work on, and which ones you have already mastered.
You certainly don’t need to take my diagnostic to figure out how where your weaknesses lie. The point is that you will absolutely need feedback — the kind you can trust — because trying to figure it all out on your own is close to impossible. Relying on our intuitions alone for self-knowledge is dangerous, because thanks to the nature of the adaptive unconscious, they are often no more accurate than a shot in the dark.