French novelist Marcel Proust once wrote that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.”
He was calling all of us to greater self-awareness – a clearer understanding of our own strengths, weaknesses, emotions, and motivations. Without that knowledge, we can’t fully unleash our talent in any sphere of our lives. And that kind of mature perspective is needed more than ever in our nation, as we struggle mightily with the political polarization, racial tensions, violence, and socio-economic upheaval that have already defined this summer.
The good news: self-awareness can be enhanced greatly if we make time to work on it.
There are plenty of ways to get started. We can take assessments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or FIRO-B to gain greater insight into our personalities and preferences. We can solicit insights from family, friends and colleagues on what we do well and where we can improve. We can also perform what management guru Peter Drucker called “feedback analysis.” Any time we move ahead with an important decision or action, Drucker suggests, we should write down our expected outcomes. About a year later, we log the results and compare them to our expectations.
We can also pick up a book, and there are plenty of good, recent ones on the theme of self-awareness by authors with local ties.
For a starting place, try “Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World” by Leigh Ann Henion. The author, who lives in western North Carolina, journeyed around the globe on a pilgrimage to some of the world’s most breathtaking sites. She captured the experience in a memoir about parenting, spirituality, and the struggles of coming to terms with her own identity as a travel writer and new mother.
If you’re in an irreverent mood, consider “Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t: Why That Is and What You Can Do About It” by Duke alum Steven Pressfield. The best-selling author of “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and “The War of Art” offers a nonfiction primer in empathy. By starting with the assumption that people are too busy to worry about our work, he writes, “You acquire the skill that is indispensable to all artists and entrepreneurs—the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your reader/gallery-goer/customer.”
An article published three years ago in the prestigious journal Science reported that reading literary fiction can help build our capacity for empathy, which is closely linked with self-awareness. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of first-rate fiction in North Carolina.
Press 53, an independent publisher in Winston-Salem, is in the midst of reissuing an acclaimed, seven-novel series set in the North Carolina mountains by John Ehle, a member of the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame. Press 53 most recently released “Lion on the Hearth,” which chronicles life in Depression-era Asheville as the sixth book in Ehle’s series.
Lee Smith, who taught at N.C. State for nearly 20 years, stands among our state’s most recognized novelists and short story writers. Her novel “Guests on Earth” recounts the disaster at a mental hospital in Asheville that killed Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of the legendary author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Smith turned to nonfiction for her newest book “Dimestore,” a memoir that recalls her years growing up in the Appalachian South. Then there’s Anne Tyler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who attended Duke University, who just released a novel as part of a series in which authors do adaptations of Shakespeare’s work. Her book “Vinegar Girl” offers a modern take on The Taming of the Shrew.
As fathers of school-age children, we also know that kids can benefit just as much from good fiction as adults. They might like the work of Asheville author Robert Beatty, who hit best-seller lists with “Serafina and the Black Cloak.” Now he’s back with a second novel, “Serafina and the Twisted Staff,” about a girl who lives in the basement of the Biltmore estate a century ago. Both are more likely to help kids build empathy than another summer evening spent on their phones.
There’s plenty of research showing that very few of us can get very far in our careers or personal lives without some degree of self-awareness. If that’s the case, we’re never too young or too old to work on developing it.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.