The Beginning of All Wisdom: Aristotle, My Dad, and the Art of Self-Awareness

A perhaps surprising confession from the leader of an assessment organization: I was not always a fan of assessments. I have always believed that humans are complex, often paradoxical, frequently evolving and changing. And many of the assessments I encountered early in my career seemed to ignore that fascinating complexity – or worse, attempt to erase it. Rather than try and represent the depth and breadth of people, they seemed to take a reductionist view of people – often with the added disadvantage of making individuals feel misunderstood or even bad about themselves.

The simplistic assessments I came across early on seemed designed to reduce people to letters, colors or mathematical formulas – to give them a handy label that you could glance at to recognize their “type” without needing to dig deeper. They reminded me of the old television show “Name That Tune” where the winner was the contestant who could identify a song with the fewest number of notes.

Staying on the surface? That’s not why I was drawn to the work of developing people. I’ve always relished the complexity that comes with getting to know someone fully – and more importantly, helping them get to know themselves.

My dad was an early adopter of positive psychology and Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). As kids, my siblings and I would often find laminated pieces of paper tucked into our dresser mirrors with sayings like “You can’t control which way the wind is blowing, but you can control which way you set your sails!” Or we might be offered the chance to listen to a cassette tape on some topic of self-discovery and personal development.

As a result, I grew up with a belief in the power of self-awareness as the key to both personal and professional success and satisfaction. There’s a phrase attributed to Aristotle that my dad would have loved (that I now quote so often my colleagues are likely tired of hearing it) “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” I can’t help it – it elegantly encapsulates a philosophy that’s at the heart of my work and MRG’s.

This philosophy was reinforced recently when I read What Self-Awareness Is (and How to Cultivate It) in HBR, detailing the self-awareness research and conclusions drawn by psychologist Tasha Eurich and her colleagues.

Dr. Eurich has a dual definition for self-awareness. The first component is internal self-awareness: our understanding of our emotions, values, motivations, desires, and why we react to the world the way we do. The second component is external self-awareness: our understanding of how we are perceived by others.

Dr. Eurich’s research concluded that while 90-95% of adults believe they are self-aware, in reality only 10-15% are fully self-aware. While it will be interesting to see if other studies show the same startling gap, based on our 39 years of experience at MRG, we agree that a high degree of self-awareness is both rare and can be challenging to achieve.

Why is self-awareness such a challenge? In most societies, families and education systems, we aren’t being taught to be self-reflective. We are rarely encouraged to develop practices that help us fully learn about who we are, what we believe, and why we do what we do.

The challenges continue as we enter the working world. Most of the systems around us, including workplaces, do not cultivate and reinforce open, constructive, direct, frequent forms of feedback. As a result, many adults end up with deficits in both internal and external self-awareness. This leaves us frequently feeling misunderstood, less successful, and less satisfied in both our personal and professional lives.

So how can we help people surmount all of these obstacles to self-awareness? No, I haven’t come around to the idea of sticking simplistic labels on the people we help. But I have come to appreciate – and yes, celebrate – how eye-opening a thoughtfully designed assessment can be. And fortunately, assessments have evolved to create a more complex and authentic picture of the individual. Consider the Individual Directions Inventory™ (IDI), which expands internal self-awareness by acknowledging the complexity and paradox of what drives individuals – and what drains their energy. The results? As one user put it: “I feel like I’m seeing myself for the first time.” Or think of a multi-rater assessment like the LEA 360™, that reveals how others perceive you and specifically illuminate the gaps between your own self-impression and the impression you give to others. While it can be challenging to elicit that kind of candor in conversation, a carefully designed 360 can bring out honest – and actionable – insight into how we’re showing up in our world.

And since these assessments are descriptive rather than evaluative – that is, there are no “good” or “bad” scores – the results are met with openness rather than defensiveness. Where an evaluative assessment can inspire fear and anxiety that might lead people to reject or deny their feedback, descriptive assessments allow people to explore their results with curiosity and an open mind.

Dr. Eurich’s research demonstrates significant personal and professional benefits to increasing self-awareness. And after nearly four decades of helping people develop self-awareness, all of us at MRG certainly concur. The power of assessment insights facilitated through coaching certainly supports Aristotle’s 2000-year-old declaration:  “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Thanks, Dad.

About the author

As president of MRG, Tricia uses her penchant for bursting into song and bringing out the best in people in approximately equal measure.

Connect on LinkedIn

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

One of my favourites!

Andy Selig
Andy Selig
1 year ago

I have effectively used the LEA for over 35 years and continue to believe it is very helpful in many different ways for varied purposes. The biggest question I’ve always had is one you refer to above. The instrument is presented as non evaluative, and the handbook clearly points out that high or low scores can be positive or negative depending on the context. However, the computer analysis always shows the lowest scores to be ones for possible development. I don’t know how to think about the tool being descriptive and at the same time have it suggest developmental possibilities?… Read more »