Successful, Not Smart #2, or The Umbrella: Self-awareness

In my November 30 post, there is one item that I didn’t include, both because I didn’t hear it regularly in groups I led, and because it’s not so much a characteristic as an umbrella for all the others in my “top ten” list.

In my last school job, at an independent school near Washington, DC, I often led tours of prospective parents. Almost inevitably, on one of these tours, a parent would ask some variation of, “What is a typical graduate of your school like?”

It was an answer that came easily to me: “The thing that characterizes our graduates, the single most important trait I’d like for each of them, is self-awareness.”

Self-awareness is the necessary underpinning of our other characteristics, the trait that actualizes each of our “top ten.” Self-aware people understand their strengths and weaknesses, their roles in the world, the effects they have on others, the need for compromise. Self-aware people are more likely to ask for help, more likely to understand the causes of failure and seek to address them, more likely to use constructive criticism, well, constructively.

It is nearly impossible to learn from reflecting on our experiences if we do not perceive those experiences more or less as others do. Indeed, the development of self-awareness is a primary developmental task of childhood and adolescence. By developmental task I mean that it must occur at a specific time — the window opens and then later closes, rather than remaining open indefinitely. Think of infant attachment: Babies who do not attach to their primary caregivers between roughly six and twelve months of age cannot just “make it up” later — it is likely those children will have difficulty developing secure relationships for the rest of their lives. That’s what I mean by “developmental.”

Similarly, I have never met an adult sorely lacking in self-awareness who later developed it in any significant measure. (Depressing, but true.) If you make it through adolescence without knowing who you are, it’s unlikely that you’ll suddenly stumble upon that characteristic.

If you doubt either the importance of self-awareness or its developmental nature, consider the people with whom most others find it difficult to work. Almost invariably, those difficult personalities are marked by a lack of self-awareness: They do not perceive their strengths and weaknesses, their effects on others, or their communication skills accurately. They often respond inappropriately to situations — by inflating their own contributions or detractions (“I’m so great!” “I’m so terrible!”), by blaming others, or by finding it difficult to accept their own roles in challenges.

A teacher with whom I worked years ago seemed to find criticism so painful, no matter how gently I tried to phrase it, that I could almost see the wall that came down like an electric garage door between us (only faster) each time I raised a concern about his teaching. After many years and many conversations, many attempts to communicate in different ways, and many attempts to bring others’ skills to bear, I ended up, sadly, firing him. He told me that he didn’t understand why. Right there, I thought — that. That was exactly why.

I’m sure most are familiar with Michael Scott, the bumbling character played by Steve Carrell on “The Office” from 2005 to 2011, and perhaps the most obvious popular example of a well intentioned person with a near-complete lack of self-awareness. Michael assumes an expertise on sensitive topics — romance, human relations, diversity, finance — that leaves others uncomfortable. He sees himself as deeply caring while others recognize his narcissism; he seeks to help in situations that others perceive as inappropriate. He presumes a level of intimacy with others that leaves them uncomfortable. His timing is profoundly awkward. Most people who lack self-awareness don’t show every one of these signs, of course; Michael is the lead in a sitcom, after all.

It is also not to say that the Michael Scotts of the world lack positive characteristics; quite the contrary, they are often sensitive, helpful, and bighearted. But acknowledging people’s good intentions only goes so far in a situation, like a work environment, in which “success” in some measure or another is important.

In a 2008 interview I read with Carrell, he was asked, “Has everybody worked with a Michael Scott at one time or another?” He responded, “If you haven’t worked with a Michael Scott, there’s a good chance you are Michael Scott.”

Luckily, I’ve worked with one or two, so I take pleasure in my exoneration.


Currently in the process of refining the original list of 10, perhaps to expand to 12, with the help of some gracious colleagues. Stay tuned.

Peter BravermanComment