As experienced readers of my blog know, I’ve been fascinated with improving my emotional and social intelligence for a while. And I’ve made various articles and videos on the topic over the years.
Today, I want to talk about the importance of self-awareness. To set up the explanation, I have to reveal that I’ve been watching a lot of the reality TV show Survivor.
If you’ve never seen the show, you’re not alone. I heard it mentioned as a kid, and I knew it was a popular show about surviving on an island and voting people off, but that was it. I didn’t think it would interest me, but after trying it out during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve found it riveting.
The basic premise is that you’re left on an island with other contestants to fend for yourself as a tribe with a few survival items. The contestants are split into two tribes. Every three days, there is a challenge (usually it’s a mix between an obstacle course and a puzzle) for immunity and the losing tribe has to vote someone off. When there are around a dozen people left, the tribes merge, and it becomes an individual game and fight for immunity.
That video’s pretty accurate except for what is said about the jury. Once it gets to the final three, the last several contestants voted out become a jury who vote for a winner of a million dollars. The jury offers a nice counterbalance sometimes because a player can’t make too many moves that piss off people that end up in the jury since they can harbor resentment and bitterness.
At first, the show started as just entertainment. But I soon realized the game of Survivor, at its core, is a game of social skills, deceit, and politics. You can win physical challenges for immunity a few times in a row, but they’ll just see you as a threat and vote you off the one time you don’t win. The people who stick around usually have strong alliances.
The great social players bond with people emotionally through vulnerability, personalities, and shared experiences. They form voting alliances, they blindside people when there’s an opportunity, they can accurately sense when someone isn’t being as honest with them more than others, and they can more accurately assess how others perceive them (that’s self-awareness) to tell if everyone’s planning to vote them off.
The show has been a great way for me to learn more about improving my social skills and emotional intelligence. One great way you can learn from the show is to compare the great players to poor players. Bad contestants of various seasons make the same mistakes over and over. They’re ignorant of how they come across and how they rub people the wrong way. They sometimes treat other humans like chess pieces, missing the human piece of the game, costing them alliances and friendships. They ally with people they judge to be a lot more mentally stable and trustworthy than they actually end up being.
One particular contestant I want to highlight is Natalie, a woman in her late 50’s from the David vs. Goliath season. This lady was part of the “Goliath” tribe. She started by telling the camera how “everything she touches turns to success in the business world for her.” She had a successful company and was used to ordering people around.
Right out off the gate, something didn’t sit right. She seemed overconfident compared to a great business leaders I studied. Even if you’re successful in business, that doesn’t mean you’ll just keep succeeding. Entrepreneurs have seen lots of failure. They embrace failure, and they’re humble and realistic enough to admit that their next idea may fail — and that’s okay. They’re not going to say that everything they do turns to gold. But that was just a small sign. I could be wrong about her, so I had to learn more.
After I saw her interactions on the island, I saw more evidence that she was obviously not an exceptional leader or manager in her real life. She barked orders when the tribe started constructing a hut on the island. She demanded to have control since she was used to it. And she was oblivious to how it rubbed others the wrong way. One tribe member complained to others how she gave orders and then just stood there, while others did all the work.
Great leaders don’t just assert themselves and bark at others do things without being sensitive of the effects. They’re champions for their people. They lift others up. They help their team reach their potential and eliminate obstacles out of their way.
The nail in the coffin for me was her lack of self-awareness. Natalie’s strategy was to stay under the radar. Yet she did the exact opposite without realizing it. She rubbed a lot of people the wrong way with how she treated others and with the attitude she exuded because she saw people treating their time on the island as a vacation. But she was clueless about it. She didn’t know many of them had her on the top of the list to be voted out.
Then, one of the big buff tribe members tried to form an unlikely, secret alliance with her by revealing to her that many people were trying to vote her out and for her not to tell anyone. (First off, that’s not how you start off an alliance, dude. That’ll freak people out, but that’s not the main point here.) And she immediately betrays him by going up to tons of people asking if they’re going to vote her out and trying to change the vote, only to be turned down by most of them. They don’t want to change their vote, and they don’t have the numbers to make a change.
One tribe member tries to help her out and shore up her social game because he feels a kinship to her since they’re both African American and he’s well-versed in psychology. Out of the goodness of his heart, he chats with her one-on-one and tries to explain the gaps in her social game. He explains that she lacks self-awareness on how she comes across and the effects of her ordering others around.
Instead of showing any open-mindedness, Natalie shuts him down repeatedly. She denies that she lacks any self-awareness and ends the conversation with something like a “Are we done here?” It was clear as day that she was so unaware that she refused to see how she came across even when another person came up to her and gave constructive feedback, something that you don’t always get in real life. Additionally, it was obvious that her ego, beliefs, and typical way of doing things was so set in stone that she refused to accept any suggestions that there were faults with her and any possibility that she wasn’t as socially aware as others claimed.
The other tribe member ended up feeling exasperating and giving up trying to talk to her. He remarks that this woman has been married for over twenty years, so someone likes her as she is, so she likely sees no reason to change. Needless to say, she didn’t win that season.
This was upsetting to me because while there are people like my doing as much as they can to improve, their are others who are their own enemy, stunting their own progress and making life miserable for other people. It was frustrating to see Natalie cut others off in a disrespectful, oblivious way when that person was trying to help and give real feedback that could improve her social game.
So all that was a round-about, long but fun way of saying that improving self-awareness is a core part of improving your emotional intelligence and social skills. We know it in the real world. There’s plenty of successful entrepreneurs (like Gary Vaynerchuk), socially skilled popular kids, and emotional intelligence researchers and consultants who will tell you that self-awareness is important.
How to Improve Self-Awareness
As mentioned, before you can even begin improving self-awareness, you have to choose to be open to potentially difficult feedback. You have to put your ego aside so that you aren’t so offended or against any criticism you hear that you block it off and deny that it’s true.
Then, you have to get accurate feedback.
I like to routinely ask for feedback from managers, friends, and coworkers I can trust. Sometimes, they’ll tell you about yourself without even asking for it. Friends tend to mention the embarrassing (“your nose hairs and breath stink”) because they know you won’t be too outraged or you both trust each other. Managers tend to step in when a lack of awareness becomes job-threatening.
If you don’t get feedback from somewhere, it can be a Catch-22. How can you improve something you’re oblivious to?
By first explaining why I’m asking for feedback and giving some context while choosing people that really want me to grow and know it’s for the better, I open the door for some honest, helpful feedback. Part of that includes exhibiting open-mindedness to actually accept the feedback and demonstrating that you won’t flip out, get offended, or reject the feedback.
You have to put your ego aside. It’s human nature to not like criticism. But part of getting better involves a form of intaking criticism on what you’re not doing as well as you can. You can’t be like Natalie and let your ego, habits, or whatever else is stopping you from getting in your own way.
I hope to continue a level of open-mindedness and growth, even into old age. It does seem, when looking at Natalie, that as you get older, you get more set in your routines, beliefs, and behaviors. It may get harder over time to stay open. But I know it’s possible. I know open-minded seniors. I think it’s a mindset that you can choose to adopt and build into your standard behaviors.
Self-awareness no longer sounds abstract, indiscernable, or as hokey-pokey as it once did to me. It’s about knowing who you are and how you come across to others in various situations. And it applies to various social situations, not just for TV or for some high-profile business meeting. When you’re on a date, if you’re coming off as more of a misogynist than you like, you need to notice it. If the girl is showing signs of distress or discomfort at some sexist statements you make and you’re not picking that up and you’re leaning into it, you’re not getting a second date and self-awareness was part of the cause.
If you’re at a job interview or trying to make a new friend at the gym, if you’re unaware that your stinky stench (from not showering for three days) is putting people off or that your comments on religion and politics weren’t good conversational topics to start off on — well, that’s another lapse in self-awareness. The examples are endless. You get the gist.
Self-awareness is as much about gauging feedback from others accurately through body language and communication as it is about having an accurate understanding of your communication style, personality, appearance, and perception, so you know how you may rub different types of personalities.
There are different areas of self-awareness to improve, not just the times you piss people off without knowing it. It’s also about understanding your personality type and communication style versus who you’re compatible and incompatible with. Then, you must work on the communication styles, especially the ones that are naturally incompatible and rough off the bat.
Just like how there are different types of Pokemon, humans have different personality types. But having one over another doesn’t mean you’re better or worse, just different. I’ve found that I’m an analytical, data-driven, (mostly) rule-abiding, efficiency-focused individual. Thanks to personal experience and info from the DISC personality test, I’ve learned that I will clash with certain personalities, such as ones who are more free-willed, more focused on bonding and socializing, and less particular about rules, planning, or productivity.
Rather than just continue to clash and experience communication and collaboration that is far from ideal, I’ve worked a lot on changing how I approach these personality types. If I’m lucky, the other person is aware enough to tweak their behavior once they sense something, but you can’t count on that.
Instead, through reflection, feedback, and practice, I’ve gotten better at allowing them to be more of themselves and allowing myself to not be so stringent and particular about goals or specific methods around them. That’s allowed for smoother collaboration and harmonious communication.
If you follow these tips, you’ll be way ahead of the pack. Most people never make it to step one. They’re stuck in their ways and unwilling or unable to improve.
So best of luck to you on improving, and I hope you learned something that can help you and make the world a better place!