Tasha Eurich
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Tennessee Williams once told us, "There comes a time when you look into the mirror and you realize that what you see is all you'll ever be, and then you accept it or you kill yourself, (Laughter) or you stop looking in mirrors." (Laughter) And speaking of mirrors, someone else once said, "If we spend too much time scrutinizing what's in our rearview mirror, we're certain to crash into a light post.'' I've spent the last four years of my life studying people who look in mirrors, rearview and otherwise in their search for self-awareness. I wanted to know what self-awareness really is, where it comes from, why we need it, and how to get more of it. My research team surveyed quantitatively thousands of people. We analyzed nearly 800 scientific studies. And we conducted dozens of in-depth interviews with people who made dramatic improvements in their self-awareness. Now, initially, we were actually so worried that we wouldn't find any of these people that we called them self-awareness unicorns. (Laughter) True. But thank goodness, we did find them. Because what these unicorns taught me would create a ground-breaking revelation for how all of us can find genuine self-awareness. And that's what I want to share with you. Today, I want you to reflect on how you're reflecting. I know that's a mouthful. And to get there, we're going to need to shatter one of the most widely held beliefs about finding self-awareness. But first things first. What is this thing we call self-awareness anyway? It's the ability to see ourselves clearly, to understand who we are, how others see us and how we fit into the world. Self-awareness gives us power. We might not always like what we see, but there's a comfort in knowing ourselves. And there's actually a ton of research showing that people who are self-aware are more fulfilled. They have stronger relationships. They're more creative. They're more confident and better communicators. They are less likely to lie, cheat, and steal. They perform better at work and are more promotable. And they're more effective leaders with more profitable companies. In the world of self-awareness, there are two types of people: those who think they're self-aware, (Laughter) and those who actually are. It's true. My team has found that 95% of people think they're self-aware, (Laughter) but the real number is closer to 10 to 15%. You know what this means, don't you? (Laughter) It means that on a good day - on a good day - 80% of us are lying to ourselves (Laughter) about whether we're lying to ourselves. (Laughter) Pretty scary, right? So you can imagine the challenge we had in figuring out who was truly self-aware. What do you think would've happened if I had said, "Hey! How self-aware are you?" Exactly. So to be part of our research, our unicorns had to clear four hurdles. They had to believe they were self-aware as measured by an assessment my team developed and validated. Using that same assessment, someone who knew them well had to agree. They had to believe that they'd increased their self-awareness in their life, and the person rating them had to agree. We found 50 people out of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds who met our criteria. They were professionals, entrepreneurs, artists, students, stay-at-home parents. And we didn't find any patterns by industry, age, gender or any other demographic characteristic. These unicorns helped my team discover a most surprising truth. That approach you're using to examine your thoughts, your feelings, and your motives, you know, introspection. Well, you're probably doing it - there's no easy way to say this - you're probably doing it totally wrong. Yes, there is a reason so few of us are self-aware. So let me tell you about the evening that I first discovered the ugly truth about introspection. It was about 10 p.m. on a beautiful Colorado spring evening. And I was in my office, hopped up on Diet Coke and Smartfood popcorn. (Laughter) And I just analyzed a set of data, and to say that I was surprised would be an understatement. My team and I had just run a simple study looking at the relationship between introspection and things like happiness, stress and job satisfaction. Naturally, the people who introspected would be better off. Wouldn't you think so? Our data told the exact opposite story. People who introspected were more stressed and depressed, less satisfied with their jobs and their relationships, less in control of their lives. I had no idea what was going on. And it got worse. These negative consequences increased the more they introspected. (Laughter) So I was quite confused. Later that week, I ended up coming across a 20-year-old study that looked at how widowers adjusted to life without their partners. The researchers found that those who try to understand the meaning of their loss were happier, less depressed one month later, but one year later, were more depressed. They were fixated on what happened instead of moving forward. Have you been there? I have. Self-analysis can trap us in a mental hell of our own making. So things were starting to make sense. Now, you Die Hard self-awareness fans and particularly introspection fans in the audience might be thinking, "Sure, introspection may be depressing, but it's worth it because of the insight it produces." And you're right. I'm not here today to tell you that the pursuit of self-awareness is a waste of time. Not at all. I am here to tell you that the way you're pursuing it doesn't work. Here is the surprising reality: Thinking about ourselves isn't related to knowing ourselves. So to understand this, let's look at the most common introspective question: "Why?" We might be searching for the cause of a bad mood. Why am I so upset after that fight with my friend? Or we might be questioning our beliefs. Why don't I believe in the death penalty? Or we might be trying to understand a negative outcome. "Why did I choke in that meeting?" Unfortunately, when we ask "Why?" it doesn't lead us towards the truth about ourselves. It leads us away from it. There are so many reasons this is the case. Today I'll give you two. Here is the first reason we shouldn't ask why: Researchers have found that no matter how hard we try, we can't excavate our unconscious thoughts, feelings and motives. And because so much is hidden from our conscious awareness, we end up inventing answers that feel true but are often very wrong. Let me give you an example. Psychologists Timothy Wilson and Richard Nisbett set up a card table outside their local Meijers thrifty store in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And on that card table, they laid out four identical pairs of pantyhose. And they asked the people walking by to pick their favorite. (Laughter) Now, consumer research shows that people tend to prefer products on the right. And that's exactly what happened. Even though every pair was identical, people chose pair D at a rate of four to one. And when asked why they have chosen the pair they had, they confidently declared that pair D was just better. (Laughter) And even - get this - even when the researchers told them about the effect of positioning, they refused to believe it. The second reason asking "Why?" is a bad idea is that it leads us away from our true nature. We like to think of our brains as supercomputers rationally analyzing information and arriving at accurate conclusions. Unfortunately, that's not what happens. Let's do a quick exercise that's based on another classic psychology study. So if I were to ask you to make a list of all the reasons your romantic relationship was going the way it was, what would you say? Let's say that in general your relationship is pretty awesome. But let's just pretend that yesterday you happened to get in a huge fight about the proper way to load the dishwasher. (Laughter) Really bad. Now, because of something called "the recency effect," this is going to carry an unfair amount of weight. You might start thinking of things like, "I am so sick of his mansplaining!" (Laughter) Or you might think, "Why the hell does it matter so much how I load the dishwasher?" And before you know it, you're thinking your relationship isn't going so well. (Laughter) Asking "Why?" created "alternative facts." (Laughter) And over time, this leads us away from who we really are. It clouds our self-perceptions. So you might be wondering if asking "Why?" makes us depressed, over-confident and wrong; it's probably not going to increase our self-awareness. But don't worry. I'm not here today to tell you to stop thinking about yourselves. I am here to tell you to start doing it just a little bit differently. So if we shouldn't ask "Why?" then, what should we ask? Do you remember our self-awareness unicorns? When we looked at how they approached introspection, we found the answer. We analyzed literally hundreds of pages of transcripts, and we saw a very clear pattern. Although the word "why" appeared less than 150 times, the word "what" appeared more than 1000 times. Let me give you a few examples. Nathan, a brand manager, got a terrible performance review from his new boss. Instead of asking, "Why are we like oil and water?" he asked, "What can I do to show her I'm the best person for this job?" It changed everything. People now point to Nathan and his boss as proof that polar opposites can work together. Sarah, an education leader, was diagnosed with breast cancer in her late 40s. And when she asked, "Why me?" she said it felt like a death sentence. So then she asked, "What's most important to me?" This helped her define what she wanted her life to look like in whatever time she had left. She's now cancer free and more focused on the relationships that mean the most to her. Jose, an entertainment industry veteran, hated his job. And instead of getting stuck, what most of us would do, and ask, "Why do I feel so terrible?" he asked, "What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?" He quickly realized that he would never be happy in this job, and it gave him the courage to pursue a new and far more fulfilling career path as a wealth manager. So these are just three examples of dozens of unicorns that asked "What?" instead of "Why?" Do I have any Nathans or Sarahs, or Joses in the room? I'll add one more: Tasha. So earlier this year, I published a book about all of this, which I am so proud of. But one day, for some unknown reason, I did what every author is never supposed to do. I read my Amazon reviews. (Laughter) And, you guys, it was devastating. I asked, "Why are people being so mean to me about a book that I spent thousands of hours researching and wrote to make their lives better?" Right? I fell into a spiral of self-loathing. It was honestly one of the low points of my life. A couple of weeks went by, and it dawned on me that maybe I should take my own advice. (Laughter) So I tried a different question. I asked, "What about all those people who were telling me that my book has helped them change their lives." What a different outcome. So no, I wasn't doing it right either. This is not an easy world, is it? Not at all. (Laughter) She knows, we all know. But I have seen so much evidence that self-awareness gives us a much better shot at finding happiness and success in this crazy world. To start, we just need to change one simple word. Change "why" to "what." Why-questions trap us in that rearview mirror. What-questions move us forward to our future. As human beings, we are blessed with the ability to understand who we are, what we want to contribute, and the kind of life we want to lead. Remember, our self-awareness unicorns had nothing in common except a belief in the importance of self-awareness and a daily commitment to developing it. That means we can all be unicorns. The search for self-awareness never ever stops. Life goes on. It's up to us to choose to learn and grow from our mistakes and our tragedies, and our successes. One of the best quotes I've ever heard on this subject is from Rumi. He said, "Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I'm wise, so I am changing myself." Thank you very much. (Applause)