How do I ensure that I'm becoming the best version of myself?

I’ll frame the problem using four questions. Do you know what success means to you? How well do you know yourself? How big is the gap been between your past achievements and your potential? Do you really BELIEVE you can?

My belief is that the answers are almost always inside of us, though sometimes we need help from others to probe and discover what we don’t yet know.

Question 1: Have you defined what success means to you?

Seth Goden has a podcast called Seth Godin’s Startup School, which offers psychological insights into what drives the success of entrepreneurs.  Paraphrasing, Seth says that the most successful ventures are impossible to predict. Not even professional investors can pick the winners in advance: they simply don’t know startups will succeed. 

So the lesson for us is simple. When you’re deciding which business, job or passion project to pursue, just pick the one that you most want to do. Then do it to the best of your ability. 

Seth shares his early experiences of corporate life at Yahoo, and how he came to a conscious decision that he didn’t like managing people.  So he chose to leave.  He wanted to take a different path, because he wasn’t motivated to do what he was doing. 

I think this raises an important principle:

There are some things that you are capable of doing well,
and yet do not enjoy. So don’t do them for too long.

How do you know what sort of work makes you fulfilled and happy?

In a nutshell: by paying attention to your energy levels. 

In my Vodafone days, I worked with Hay Management Consultants on a global leadership programme, and their leadership model had a component they called leadership “drives” or motives.  The idea was simple: some activities energise us, whilst others drain us. 

On a daily basis, we need to have enough energising work to sustain us and ensure our success (regardless of any objective judgments about capability).  There are three things that they assess as drives: achievement/mastery, affiliation/relationships and power/influence. 

We typically have one or two drives that serve as our dominant sources of energy. All activities related to these drives leave us energised. 

Personally speaking, my strongest drive is achievement and mastery. I love the process of acquiring mastery, deepening skills, and getting results.  I would do it whether I was paid to or not. For example, I routinely dive deep into challenging hobbies and interests, and I read voraciously on subjects that interest me. 

Affiliation is the mark of people like me who enjoy the close bond and sense of belonging that comes with working with others. We enjoy being part of a team and making a contribution. 

Power, or influence, is the drive to dominate and get our way, and is the one associated with successfully navigating politics and leading large organisations.  This is the one that drains me: I have learned to do it, and got quite good at it. But it was out of necessity rather than passion and drive, and trying to “be powerful” leaves me exhausted.

Question 2: How well do you really know yourself?

Jadgip Parikh was born in India, and inherited his family business.  He went to Harvard to learn Western business practices and know-how, and was extremely successful when he returned to India. But at a certain point, he realised that he wasn’t happy.

He’d abandoned his Eastern philosophical and spiritual roots in the pursuit of wealth, and his ruthless execution of MBO (Management By Objectives).  His search for answers led him to teach at the IMD business school as a professor, where he developed a programme for executives to learn all they needed to know about “Managing Your Self: Management by Detached Involvement” (the title of his book).  As he says:

“Success is getting what you want.
Happiness is wanting what you get."

There is no end to the path of learning and growth. Self knowledge is a continuous process: the ‘answers’ reveal themselves, when you ask the right questions and reflect.

In my own personal experience, I have always known - in my gut and in my heart - what was the right thing to do. But my head would often rule over my heart. And I would make career choices to prove - to myself or others - what I could do and achieve, rather than because these choices would be fulfilling.

As a kid, I was homeless for 18 months at the age of 15, and so I am acutely aware that I have an irrational fear of failure. And over time it turned into an over-powering need for financial security.  Holding fears like these inside, it means that it takes great strength to follow what I already know deep inside. 

But I was surrounded (luckily) with great mentors at the right time, who knew me better than I knew myself.  Whenever I didn’t follow their advice, I would learn some time later that I could not escape who I am.

If you are emotionally aware, or an introspective type of person, then you may feel you know yourself well.  But if you are what I would describe as a “head” person (in Myers Briggs Type Indicator jargon, I'm an INTP) then it might pay dividends to invest in some learning excursions that tax your emotional intelligence rather than indulging your intellectual curiosity. 

NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) study and practice has provided a fruitful learning journey for me, for many years.  But volunteering, learning counselling or psychotherapy would teach you a great deal. Or indeed any other activities that surround you with emotionally wise and experienced guides


Question 3: How big is the gap between your past achievements and your potential?

Startup School anecdotes told by Seth Godin give fascinating insights into the stories of successful businesses, and Seth’s own experiences. It’s a free podcast series, and worth listening to. Reflecting on it, I think these discussions reveal a universal truth that we touched upon earlier:

We never know what is the path that is right for us, until we’ve travelled down it. 

I forget his name, but one professor that left a strong impression on me defined this difference as outcome versus process thinking.  Focusing on outcomes sets us up to fail, since usually the outcomes we aspire to are not wholly in our control.  Sportsmen and women know this, and so they set themselves both outcome goals (like win a gold medal) and performance/training goals that lay out a path that they are wholly in control of.

So if we leave aside outcomes that are outside of your control, the only relevant question to ask retrospectively is:

What could you have done that you didn’t?  And why didn’t you? 

Honesty here is like your challenging, awkward and sometimes offensive best friend. 

Personally, I think everyone has gaps between what they know and are capable of doing, and what they actually do: our know-do gaps.  The key is identifying which gaps leave you under-achieving against the goals and values that mean the most to you. 

Again, there is a watch-out: if you are an externally referenced - rather than internally referenced - person then you will probably worry more about what you think other people are thinking, than about what you really want. Your self talk might be full of “oughts” and “shoulds” which raise the question of:

“Who are 'they'? And who are they to say that you ought or shouldn’t do anything?”

The other tricky part of judging this potential gap is that you don’t know what you don’t know. 

Talking to the right people, and knowing whose advice is worth listening to, is invaluable.  And seeking feedback. And then listening to it.

Question 4: Do you believe you can?

Larry Smith on “why you will fail to have a great career”

I love this TED talk, it provides a humorous challenge to our self doubt. 

Brene Brown’s book “Daring Greatly” is a good place to take this further if you have the inclination.  Suffice to say, as the adage goes:

"if you believe you can’t you are right."

Article originally posted on Quora - 36,000 views as of May 2019

The is a lightly edited version of an answer I wrote on Quora. You can follow the link to the original article by clicking the title. Please note that book links are Amazon Affiliate links. So please purchase via the link if you wish to support NeuroJitsu with a small commission, at no cost to you.