Developing kindness with awareness

Awareness is the gift of competence. When we become an expert tennis player, we develop heightened awareness of every move on the court. When we’re expert presenters, we observe the subtleties of the room and the audience better than others. And, when we’re good at life, we are intensely aware of reality and our ability to shape it.

But, while we all work hard on developing the increased awareness that comes with competence, we don’t often realize that the increased awareness needs to be accompanied with a bigger capacity for kindness. When we lose that ability to be considerate and generous, we develop a fixed mindset and react to any perceived incompetence with arrogance, annoyance, and frustration.

However, if we err on the side of ensuring we always have more kindness for every ounce of awareness, we develop the ability to help others grow.

Of course, what makes this all very interesting is that this needn’t be viewed with the lens of “others.” Kindness starts within. And, our ability to develop a growth mindset, thus, requires us to learn to be kind to ourselves. When we’re able to be that person for ourselves, we’re able to help ourselves grow while also being that person for others.

That is why it is more important to be kind than clever.

The hunter gatherer within

As hunter gatherers, we spent time in jungles facing enemies, predators and diseases. This setting rewarded safety. You were better off staying away from a bush with a suspected snake than veering close to it.

Most of the world’s population hasn’t lived in such an environment since we transitioned to an agrarian society. But, if we compressed 4 million years of human evolution into 24 hours, agriculture made its appearance at 23 hours 55 minutes.

(H/T Seeking Wisdom by Peter Bevelin for this insight)

This dichotomy is what makes understanding human – why, even our own – behavior hard. We assume rationality and logic to be drivers of action when insecurity and fear turn out to be better predictors of action.

Behaving like hunter gatherers is counter productive in a world where the fundamental assumptions are different. However, we cannot change if we don’t understand how entrenched these behaviors are.

Acceptance follows understanding. And, change comes with acceptance.

Luck or skill

It is helpful to distinguish between the effects of luck and skill. Our human bias is generally to attribute most of our success to skill and that of those around us to luck. Of course, that isn’t very helpful.

The ability to seeing things as they are versus how we’d like them to be is a particularly powerful habit. And, yes, it is a habit. In this case, distinguishing between luck and skill helps us in two ways.

First, it helps us make better decisions by virtue of us having the right map. Imagine being stuck in a new city and following the wrong map. That’s how we’d make decisions if we aren’t truly aware of what our skills are. It is a critical component of self awareness.

Second, it helps us learn more from those around us. If we get good at identifying the valuable skills that others possess, we can both learn from them and, in cases where those skills are complementary, make it a point to surround ourselves with people with those skills in the future.

At the end of the day, how we deconstruct success into luck and skill is still just our point of view. But, it is important we attempt to do so periodically and test our assumptions from time to time. The more we can move this from our truth to “the truth,” the better for us and those around us.

What they will tell you

Be focused and they’ll tell you to chill out.
Be structured and they’ll tell you to go with the flow.
Be happy and they’ll find ways to convince you that you aren’t worrying enough.

And, vice versa of course.

At any given time, there’s going to be someone or the other that looks at what you’re doing and says – “Stop. You’re overdoing it.”

no right balance, they won't tell you that(Source)

Maybe you are. It is hard to say. There is no globally right balance between structure and going with the flow, for example. It is what works for you in a given situation. So, instead of worrying about what “they” will tell you, focus on listening to a few people that get you. This is similar to a CEO working with his/her Board of Directors instead of listening to every person on the street with an opinion.

Then, use your board’s feedback to train your gut and self awareness. Just because they are your board doesn’t mean they’re always right. Even they will, on occasion, completely miss the boat. The end objective is to be able to improve your process and approach your life in a way that works for you.

After all, in the final analysis, what they might have told you will matter much less than what you will tell yourself.

Why a belief in the importance of giving and receiving personal feedback is misplaced

I’d like to begin by differentiating between personal and professional feedback. When a manager or friend teaches you how to make a better PowerPoint slide, I term that as professional feedback. Professional feedback is largely useful. It helps us learn to produce output that will be well received in our particular organization. These include learning how to eat, behave and dress in a way that suits our organization’s context.

Personal feedback is, well, more personal. You know exactly what I’m talking about because you have probably received personal feedback at some point in your career. And, I’ve come to believe that most personal feedback is useless. Here’s why –

1. It is impossible to give great feedback without adequate self-awareness on the part of the giver. It is hard for the receiver to take and use feedback without adequate self-awareness as well.

2. Even assuming you have two self-aware people having a conversation about feedback, there needs to be a level of trust, intimacy and vulnerability in the relationship. This takes time and isn’t easily achieved even in teams that work together for long periods of time.

3. The more self-aware you become, the more you understand 3 truths. First, your biases significantly color your feedback. Second, it is easy to give bad feedback and very hard to say something insightful. Third, it is better to show people the way than to tell them how it should be done.

4. Once you realize this, you realize that your time is best spent role modelling what you term as exemplary behavior – based on your value system since it’s all relative and since your values won’t resonate with everyone else. Over time, you’ll attract people who share similar values. When you attract and work with people with similar values, it is easier to build trusting relationships. And, once you build trusting relationships, feedback becomes a normal conversation. It isn’t a big deal. It is just part of the natural candor and vulnerability that you bring to the table every time you sit down.

Most professional organizations and schools today focus on the importance of giving and receiving feedback. I think that focus is misplaced. The focus needs to be on improving self-awareness. But, therein lies the problem. Self-awareness is incredibly hard to get to. It is a journey you commit to for the long term and it is hard to measure success simply because, the further you are on the path, the more you become aware of how long there is to go. On the other hand, it is easy to measure if you are improving on metrics that track giving and receiving feedback. All you need to do is to set up feedback meetings and enjoy that feeling of progress being made.

But, just because something is easy to measure doesn’t mean it is right. And, just because something is hard to do doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem worth solving.

The most powerful force on earth

A few years back, I argued spiritedly with a wiser friend about the most powerful force on earth. I believed it was love and he believed it was fear. In the years that have passed, I have come to totally agree with him. If anything, I am tempted to get more specific and say that the most powerful force on earth is the fear of failure.

The power and ubiquity of this emotion never ceases to amaze me. It shows itself in literally every aspect of our lives –

– At home, we see it with parents who put enormous pressure on their children, with parents who always need to be right, and with parents who refuse to share their own failures with their kids. As a consequence, we see kids grow up with similar traits and insecurities – they constantly worry about whether their projects will work, they feel the need to seek approval for every decision they make, and they shy away from responsibility for the outcomes of the decision. And, we see both parents and children abhor risk and steer clear of projects that might not work.

– At work, we see it in colleagues who refuse to share credit, who bully each other and display passive aggressiveness, who would rather see someone else’s project fail than take up responsibility for a project themselves, who would rather criticize than cheer, who would rather play the politics rather than play on merit, who maximize a short term gain, and who refuse to worry about the collective and the cause. Work becomes about self preservation – “networking” with the right people, staying clear of projects that are risky, and attempting to latch onto projects that are going well so they get a share of the credit.

– In society, we see the fear of failure in community leaders and politicians who refuse to accept anything but the status quo, who fear everything they don’t understand, who fall prey to lobbyists and bribes also keen to preserve the status quo, who wage wars and seek to divide on the pretext of religion, creed, nationality, and color, and who refuse to let anyone outside their circle access to privilege.

I am convinced that the very worst in human nature has everything to do with the fear of failure. When I put together a 2×2 on how insecurity and self awareness drive behavior, I realize I made a mistake.

Fear of failure pervades the insecurity zone. With increasing self awareness, we just become aware of the fear of failure – aware enough to hopefully do something about it. With increasing self awareness, we will perhaps realize that our fears are just irrational, that we ought to exist for causes bigger than self preservation, that we do make the world better when we put ourselves out there, try, and fail.

Self awareness is our only hope..

The hard thing about self awareness

If you are completely oblivious, you wouldn’t know it.

So, how do you get better at self awareness? By surrounding yourself with people who are self aware and asking them to help you become less oblivious. The first step (ironically) is still awareness.

You can’t stop being the sucker on the table if you didn’t know you were the sucker in the first place.