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How well do you know yourself?

We’ve all heard of Socrates entreaty to “Know yourself”, but why is it such a good idea? For that matter, how might we go about it? And when we understand ourselves better, what do we do with the knowledge?

For the whole of my school years and the first five or six years of my working life, I had a problem with authority. The people who taught me, or, later, managed me would probably have said I had a bad attitude. In fact my chemistry teacher Mr Cordery once wrote in my end of term report — in the days that teachers could get away with that sort of thing — “Whitehead is the most bloody minded pupil I have met.” Oh dear.

I reminded myself of someone. My dad. For as long as I can remember he had been at loggerheads with management. He could have made something of himself. He had been studying engineering at night school in his early twenties, but one evening he turned up late, revving his motorbike as he parked in the quad. The head opened the window of his study and told my dad to come up and see him. That was it. My dad kick started his bike and never went back.

Thankfully, in my mid-twenties, listening to my dad tell this story, I finally made the connection. I understood where my bad attitude came from, and also that if I wanted to make something of myself, it had to go.

Over the years, understanding just a little of who I am has helped me change my behaviour to the benefit of my work colleagues and myself, make some good career moves, and lead a number of businesses with a degree of success.

Why should we know ourselves better?

Here’s three reasons.

Firstly, when the heat is on, it’s too late to consider what your values and standards are. Exploring these matters in advance will allow you to make decisions that are authentic. Otherwise, you are likely to follow the line of least resistance, which means allowing the system in which you operate to make your decisions for you.

Secondly, Gallup has surveyed more than 10 million people worldwide on the topic of employee engagement, and have found that “people who have the opportunity to focus on their strengths every day are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general.” [1] What if you have never reflected on what your strengths are?

“Values and strengths may change gradually over the course of a lifetime but rarely change overnight. We should look to work with the grain.”

Finally, have you ever considered how your upbringing and environment impose unconscious limits on you? I have a friend Sharon whose father told her she would never amount to anything. At one point in her life she embarked on a course of study to be a social worker. She was getting ‘A’s on every assignment, but then suddenly, she quit for a seemingly trivial reason. No amount of persuasion from her friends could convince her that she had it in her. The only rational explanation was self-sabotage.

The scripts that we take on board (‘introject’ is the technical term) from our early years are powerful, and unless we get in touch with them and break their power they can seriously hinder us.

How do we go about knowing ourselves?

There’s a number of aspects of ourselves that we should be looking to become better acquainted with:

  • Our values — the things that are important to us. Working with a developmental coach can help here. [2]

  • Our strengths — the things we are good at. I am a big fan of the Strengths Finder [1] analytical tool, but there are others. Alternatively, ask people who know you well.

  • Our psychological conditioning — the beliefs and perspectives we hold, normally subconsciously, that can limit us and colour the way we act towards others. This is a lifetime’s work, but exploring our opinions and patterns of behaviour with a coach or therapist is a good way to start.

  • Our standards of behaviour — the norms that we embrace, for example being loyal to persons not present, being punctual, doing what we say we’ll do. If these examples seem obvious to you then you probably have your upbringing to thank. Otherwise observing the standards of successful people around you will help.

  • The space you have on the political stage to act either radically or cautiously. Being well networked in all directions and listening attentively to what people have to say will help you with this.

In support of these investigations, a 360 appraisal, either from work colleagues or close friends and family can be a useful point of departure. Failing this, just asking for and taking note of honest feedback can help.

And then what?

Some aspects of who we are, are less amenable to change than others.

Values and strengths may change gradually over the course of a lifetime but rarely change overnight. We should look to work with the grain. Make life choices that are congruent with your values and strengths wherever possible. I began to flourish in my career when I acted on the realisation that all of my strengths were relevant to a team environment, and lone working really wasn’t my thing.

Once we are consciously aware of the impact of our conditioning on key aspects of our attitude and decisions, we are in a position to change our thinking. My working life became a whole lot easier when I started treating my boss with the same respect that I afforded my team.

It is surprising how many people omit the standards part of the exercise. Why do we make more of values, strengths, and conditioning, when reviewing our standards can have such an impact and be comparatively easy to implement? Think about the people in your business that really stand out. I’ll vouch that they show up to meetings on time, are prepared, do what they say they’ll do, and don’t gossip about their colleagues, among other things.

The good news is that once you have gained one or two insights, the process will snowball. The gains will motivate you to explore yourself further, and to make the desired changes.

David Bowie said “Ageing is an extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been”, and for sure the awareness of our own mortality is a strong motivator to change. But, do you really want to leave it until your 60s?

Self-knowledge is the start of self-transformation, and there’s no better time to start than now.


  1. Rath, T (2007). Strengths Finder 2.0. New York: Gallup Press.

  2. Bachkirova, T (2011). Developmental Coaching: Working with the Self. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

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