The famous Irish poet Oscar Wilde once said, “The final mystery is oneself.” But how do you unravel the mystery that is you? This can’t happen without self-awareness, and self-awareness won’t happen without reflection.
Yet what does reflection really mean?
Reflection is different from introspection.
Introspection is simply looking in. Stopping there not only limits your perspective, it can also diffuse it. In fact it can lead some to pessimism, or even depression. Introspection is a one-way street. Reflection goes two ways. Let me explain.
The word, reflect in Latin means to refold. Take the example of your reflection in the mirror. When you look in the mirror the image goes in, refolds, and reflects. In the same way, taking the time to reflect on circumstances or events in your life will bring you new insights. There is no real learning process, sense of discovery, or insight without reflection.
Reflection is looking in so you can look out with a broader, bigger, and more accurate perspective.
Without reflection your life becomes happenstance—activity without insight. Our experiences will not become insights without evaluating where I am, and why am I here? This in turn will help us to get to where we want to go. In other words we become more authentic. Authenticity is about getting closer to our true identity.
As kids we loved going to the carnival. The fun house was particularly exciting. We would run through the maze of mirrors, totally confused as to which way we should go. We would leave with knots on our heads and bruises on our knees from running down what we thought was a hallway into an immovable glass wall. On the way out the tiny lobby was lined with wildly curved mirrors with distorted images of the real us (the iPhone distorted photos app is it’s modern day version). Those mirrors made us look tall and skinny or short and fat. Our faces were totally warped: big ears, bulging eyes, large nose, and fat cheeks. Sometimes our heads were shaped like an hourglass.
We laughed until we cried because we knew what we saw was distorted. It was not the real us—the authentic us.
The point? We all have an internal mirror that reflects how we see ourselves. What you see determines your behavior—often subconsciously. But these distortions are not funny! It actually minimizes who you really are and what you really want. Without honest self-reflection, you can spend a lot of energy trying to find the right image to project to others. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about being honest with who and where you are, and what you really want.
It leads to a more accurate picture, and accuracy leads to authenticity.
Warren Bennis reminds us that the word authentic comes from the word author. The more authentic we become the more we are authoring our lives, and not simply living someone else’s script. And the more authentic you become, the greater is your sense of well-being.
So take some time to reflect. Don’t just start doing. Before doing, knowing, and going, settle the question of What do I truly value and want? This won’t happen without reflection. We are quick to answer What I Do questions. But my identity is not what I do, or who I know, but who I am. What are my values? What do I believe in? What do I hold onto? That truly makes me the person I am.
But you say, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes. It’s too late for me.” ALERT!! Whatever occurred in the past is history, and yes, there is life after failure. The game is not over. Coach Dabo Swinney of Clemson has a sign on his wall—There is nothing less important than the score at halftime.
So as you reflect (with pen and paper in hand), here are 5 questions to help get you started.
- What are five non-negotiable values in my life?
- What would I do if I were guaranteed success?
- What are the experiences I would like to have?
- What’s on my schedule that doesn’t need to be there? What things can be abandoned or at least cut back? What obligations am I creating for six months from now that I will regret then?
- What am I doing that I don’t enjoy doing? What am I doing that I love to do? What are the things that other people want me to do? What are the things that I want to do?
Reflect on the answers to the preceding questions. Your most powerful insights will be generated through reflection without any need for additional information. Your brain already has more information than you can imagine, and reflecting will bring your best ideas to the surface. And those ideas become your action steps.
Reflection without action is passive. Action without reflection is thoughtless. – Henry Mintzberg
How has this worked for you? Share with us your comments and insights.