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Self-Awareness in Your Career

The Faux Independence of Steven Slater
By Peter Weddle
Courtesy Weddle's Newsletter

He pulled off the ultimate pop culture feat by turning his name into a verb. "To slaterize" now means to execute your own revolt on the job. JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater took his career into his own hands when he announced his departure from a recent flight, grabbed a beer and hit the evacuation slide. The rest, as they say, is history. But if you follow his example, you won't be striking a blow for your own workplace independence, you'll be making the ultimate career management mistake.

As Tony Kushner points out in "Angels in America," the author of our national anthem set the word "free" to a note so high only the most fervent and capable singers can reach it. Similarly, achieving true independence in the workplace requires a lot more than a tantrum and a flashy exit. If you want to set yourself free from an oppressive boss or a stultifying employer, you have to know what you're doing, develop an effective plan and execute it meticulously. If you don't, you may not end up in jail as Slater did, but you will certainly not pass "Go" in your career.

While all three of those actions are important, the first — knowing what you're doing — is the foundation for success. As I point out in my new book, "The Career Activist Republic," self-awareness is the ink with which you write your "Emancipation Proclamation." It enables you to make smart choices in your career because you've introduced yourself to the person you were meant to be.

To put it another way, self-awareness takes off the blindfold so many of us wear in our careers. It empowers us to see the bullseyes that are important to us and to figure out how close we are getting to them with each move in our career. There are multiple bull's-eyes because there are, thank goodness, many different venues and ways in which we can perform fulfilling work. To be employed at any one of them, however, requires that we see ourselves clearly and honestly.

And, there's the rub: self-awareness doesn't come easy. At least for most of us, it takes hard work to acquire such intimate knowledge. In fact, investing the time and making the effort to figure yourself out is the first and most important action in career activism.

Burt, what does that mean? What is self-awareness? What, exactly, are we trying to learn about ourselves?

The Secret of Yourself

There are, without question, many different facets to self-awareness. The most important for a successful career, however, is the recognition of your talent. You see, despite what our societal norms may suggest, talent is not reserved for exceptional people or for those who perform exceptional deeds. It's not something that only LeBron James or Lady GaGa have. Quite the contrary — you and every other human being are talented. It is a natural attribute of our species.

How can that be?

Talent is the capacity for excellence, and happily, every single one of us is endowed with that gift. It is the intersection of what we love to do and do best. Now, some of us are lucky. Our talent is visible from our earliest days, so all we have to do is acknowledge and respect it.

For example, LeBron James's talent is athleticism. He knew he was a natural athlete from the time he could walk. However, to work with his athleticism — to have a career with it — he had to figure out which sport his talent would perform best in, and then he had to teach it how to excel at that sport so he was good enough to earn a living doing it. He invested the time and made the effort to accomplish that level of expertise, but his success began with his self-awareness. He knew just what his talent was.
Most of us, unfortunately, aren't that lucky. Our talent hides within us. In fact, it's often so deeply tucked away that many of us assume it's missing. We think we were born without it. So, we subject ourselves to careers that leave us feeling unchallenged, unengaged and unfulfilled. And, that's a tragedy. Because not only do we all possess a talent, but we all also possess the ability to discover it.

Some can use structured self exploration to figure it out, while others may be more comfortable trying on different kinds of work to find the one that fits best. The outcome is same, if we stay true to our goal: to achieve a deep and honest understanding of ourselves. That's the definition of self-awareness; it is our willingness to accept both the gift with which we've been endowed and the responsibility to experience and express it in our work.