• Eve Arnold

Win at Work? Capitalise on Self-Awareness

Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

Self-awareness is vital in work.

“Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid — Alan Watts”

We are all born with a set of unique gifts. That might be in what you see your looks, height. Or it might be in what you don’t see so obviously i.e. the ability to be consistent, have a positive mindset, creativity. Whatever it might be, we all have a set of skills that would be wonderfully suited to a certain career. I really believe that. Somewhere in the world there is a beautiful poet who is working a job in retail, hugely unhappy. Somewhere in the world there is a Data Scientist on £60,000 a year that hates her job that would be way happier working as a Maths teacher.

Like Watts said, if you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree it’ll live it’s whole life believing that it’s stupid. Our job, so I believe, is to figure out who we are and what environment we thrive in.


Winning by the way in this story is finding happiness. I am a true believer that happiness is worth x10 the amount of money you get paid. If you like what you do you will naturally work quite hard at it, which increases your chances of making money from it.

It’s an odd concept — self-awareness. You could be fooled into thinking it’s fairly pointless because surely we all know ourselves, don’t we? We know what we stand for, what we want out of this world, what makes us happy?

Well, perhaps not. At least not fully.

Self awareness is not only being conscious of your goals it’s much more about understanding your own character, feelings, desires and motivations.

What is Self-Awareness?

Self-awareness is the ability to see yourself for who you really are. It’s the ability to not deceive you into wishful thinking. A self-aware person will recognise why they are getting angry for example. They will know where their strengths lie and they know how to plug their weaknesses. The self-awareness that I want to talk about is the self-awareness that can be applied to choosing a career.

There are a million and one career choices out there. The traditional ones: Teacher, Lawyer, Doctor, Banker, and the not so traditional ones: Freelancer, author, Vlogger. Anyone of the million jobs out there could be the perfect fit for you. Welcome to the tyranny of choice (cue dramatic music).

The trouble is, how do you pick? How do you improve your self-awareness?

What we all want is to find a career that suits us. One that meets our needs and fulfils us. The hope that is that if we find something that does all of those things, well, we’d be pretty flipping good at that job and we’d also be successful.

How do you know what career is going to be the right one for you and how do you know which career path is going to lead to the most happiness?

Having so much choice can lead to that horrible feeling of choice overload. This term was first introduced by Alvin Toffler in 1970 in his book Future Shock. Essentially the tyranny of choice or choice overload happens when we have many options on the table that are equivalent and to be able to weigh up the potential benefits and risks becomes overwhelming.

Buridan’s Ass

Interestingly, the tyranny of choice can be dated back to 1300–1358 when a Frence Philosopher by the rather cool name of Jean Buridan stated that when an organism is faced with a choice between two similar options they stall. He noted that a donkey presented with two similar piles of hay paused before choosing. Comically this is referred to as ‘the problem with Buridan’s ass”.

Necessary Pre-conditions The Tyranny of Choice

A paper by Scheibehenne T and Grifender P stated that the negative effects of choices is predicated on ‘necessary preconditions’ i.e. there are things that exist before a choice is presented to someone that will determine whether they feel overwhelmed by having too many options and whether they can make a satisfactory choice if at all.

These preconditions were namely familiarity and preference. I.e. if an individual was aware of the choice to be made and they were familiar with their preference, they weren’t negatively affected by lots of choices. However, if an individual was unaware i.e. had never had to make this choice before or didn’t know their preference i.e. were unsure what they liked and didn’t like, they found choice overwhelming.

This happened to me often at University. At lunch, I would stroll over to the shop to grab a sandwich, I liked the cheese sandwiches there, they were cheap and they were tasty. However, if they didn’t have the sandwich I liked, I wandered over to the bakery. Now I didn’t go to the bakery often so I wasn’t aware of all the choices on offer.

I also hadn’t tried many of the options at the bakery. Unsure of what I preferred, I knew what kind of sandwiches I liked but all of a sudden I was presented with toasties, pastries, baguettes. I was stuck. Paralysed by the choice. After 15 minutes of overthinking and getting wound up with myself for making this into some big deal, I decided to grab the first thing I saw and bought that. Needless to say I was unsatisfied with my decision and it had pretty much ruined my day.

That’s fine. It was just a sandwich.

In Our Careers – Self-Awareness

But what about our careers?

It’s similar right? You’ve not had to make this decision before, sure you’ve had jobs in the past but they weren’t full time jobs. A part-time job when you’re 17 wouldn’t decide the path and the prosperity of your life. This decision though, the decision of what to do after University and what career to go into, that probably will.

Tyranny of Choice

And that’s where the tyranny of choice and a lack of self-awareness bites us in the butt. It’s really quite hard to make a decision on what to do with your life if you haven’t tried every career out there. It’s like the sandwich right? How do you know which one is your favourite if you’ve only tried a few. You can stick with the safe option (the mighty cheese) i.e. the career you know will give you a steady income and people say are kind of okay.

Or you can go rogue and pick something totally out there but you might be going backwards in a few years time. I guess that’s life right… we make choices, we weigh up the risks and the benefits and we take a stab and what we think is going to get us to the outcome we want. With career though, I do feel we are at a significant disadvantage.

Being 22 and just out of University is a scary time. It’s likely that you have only had part-time jobs or done a handful of work experience placements. Whilst work experience placements in the main are fairly good, it doesn’t give you a proper feel for what it’s like to live the day in the life of the career you think you want to pursue. Added to that, how would we be able to test every career out there. Say there are a very conservative one million jobs in the world. To be able to spend a day testing all those jobs would equate to 7 million hours, we live for 692,040 hours. So we’d have to live ten times as long to just test out all the careers on offer… not possible.

Logical Solutions

So what do we do? Well the first thing we might want to explore is categorising careers. It’s likely that out of the million careers out there, a lot of them have things in common. Things that link them together, themes if you like. For example teaching is done in a school but there is also a good dose of teaching in any coaching career, as a Personal Trainer you are often teaching, Guidance Counsellors, Careers Consultants — they all have elements of teaching in. Here are some more career themes:

  1. Data focused — Data Engineer, Data Scientist, Analyst.

  2. Customer focused i.e. you are providing a service or product to someone else — Sales, Customer Management, Call Centre Manager.

  3. Change focused — Project Manager, Programme Manager, PMO.

  4. Continuous Improvement i.e. marginal gains, getting better incrementally — Performance Improvement Manager, Coaching, Management.

  5. Leading I.e. having direct reports — Manager.

Those are just a few. Others include caring, non-people stuff (animal care), problem solving.

The point is that many careers can be categorised. It may be helpful and more manageable to understand what you enjoy and what you don’t enjoy by categorisation. By categorising them it helps you make the choices seem less varied and it makes the tyranny of choice less daunting. Instead of having a million options, you’ve now got maybe a 100. Still a lot and you won’t be able to test them all out but it’s way better than the million you started out with.

The Application of Self-Awareness

So what next? How do you manage 100 choices? It’s probably just as useful as having a million because you can’t possibly test all 100 out. Well, that’s where a little bit of self-awareness comes in. We can start by looking at our past. Our past often helps us understand what we like and what we don’t like. As kids we were less bothered about what choices would lead to both financial stability, career satisfaction and decision fatigue. We were more bothered about having fun. And to be honest, I don’t think that is a bad strategy for picking a career.

Look into your past and get an understanding of what hobbies you were drawn towards. What did you do religiously for years on end and which ones did you pick up, try for a bit and then get bored of? Which subjects at school were you naturally gifted at?

Did you spend a lot of time in the library consuming books or were you in the lab dissecting mice? On top of that, what TV were you drawn towards, it’s a bit of an odd question but I loved documentaries as a kid. I was always watching something to do with people’s lives and their stories. Which is what I love so much about writing now.

Knowing what we were drawn to when we were really young and not thinking too much is helpful because it gives us a sense of where to focus our efforts. Not exclusively of course but if you always liked writing as a kid it’s likely that if you pick up a pen and start writing now you’d probably enjoy it. Not for definite but I bet they’re a good percentage of people that still enjoy the things they did as a kid.

Schooling Days

The other thing to have a go at is thinking back to your childhood, particularly when you were at school. Cast your mind back and think about your most prominent childhood memory. Now ask yourself one simple question. What class were you in? When I do this, I go back to two different classes. One was where the teacher started the lesson by reading out a story from the previous day’s homework. It was my story. She was reading it as an example of how to start a story well (I’m not showboating, although I am a literary genius, however I have just struggled to spell literary). The second memory is that of science studying the heart.

Unsurprisingly, I like both writing (I write on Medium and my website as my ‘side hustle’) and I love science, I did Biomedical Science at University.

At school there was considerably less pressure to get it right, it was just about figuring out the things you like and identifying the things you were good at. You can easily tell what you were good at by looking at what grades you got or thinking about what teachers said about you in certain classes.

Think Differently – Self-Awareness

If you’re sitting behind the screen thinking “I wasn’t good at anything”:

  1. I doubt that very much.

  2. Think about what you did outside of school.

Although I don’t necessarily subscribe to this idea that all the great entrepreneurs were rubbish at school because they were defiant and thus don’t subscribe to society’s norms and can’t work for someone else so end up working for themselves. I do think that if you found yourself selling things as a kid or swapping cards to try and get the best ones or playing games that were based on acquiring more valuable stuff than the other kids, there might be reason to suggest that starting your own business is a good idea.

Now you’ve got your areas of interest, the next step is to use those to pick 3–5 careers / themes you think you might like and test those out before you get to the point where you are graduating or you can do it after if you feel like you need to do some in-house testing.

Spend time on work experience, message people on LinkedIn about their careers, talk to family friends that have those careers and ask them for an honest opinion.

A Realistic View

Now, once we’ve done all that self-awareness stuff, there are a couple of things to note. There are probably between 10–15 careers that would give you 90% job satisfaction. I think the idea that there is only one perfect career on this planet that is good for you is a little bit ludicrous. The likelihood is that there are many careers that would make you really happy. The goal is to find the one that gives you 90% happiness or rather 90% job satisfaction. 90% is a huge number and a great achievement.

If you spend all your time looking for the small 1–2% gains, which is the equivalent of maybe an hours more enjoyment each week you’ll be missing out on another important aspect of career fulfilment — mastery.

We all love to be good at things, it’s just human nature. To get good though, we need to put the hours in. The general rule of thumb is about 10,000 hours to master anything, which equates to about 4–5 years of full-time work. If you can get the 1–2% or perhaps up to 5% by mastering your career so don’t waste time chasing 1–2% in career options, chase the 5% in career mastery.

So in summary, don’t sweat the small numbers because you’ll get that improvement from being in your job for a little while. If you can focus your energy to working hard in the job you are at that’s much better.

How to Become More Self-Aware

When you’re new to work there are several zillion things to consider. You’d be forgiven if you forgot to look at yourself. It wasn’t until I was three years into work that I really started to look at myself and ask what I liked and didn’t like — what my strengths and weaknesses were. In order to know where your strengths lie you need to test some stuff, straight out of University, there is a distinct lack of career testing going on. You need to try different careers on for size to understand which ones suit you.

The Sweet Spot

There is no right or wrong to who you are. If you’re confident, be confident. If you are honest, be honest. The point here is that there is no definite ‘good way to be’ it’s more about figuring out who you are and being more of that. By doing so you optimise happiness.

If you are naturally an outspoken person, continue to do so. Say your thoughts, talk with enthusiasm, showcase your passion. Just mindful of your effect on other people and encourage them to speak up too. Be cautious, some people find outspoken people threatening, so you might have to hone in your volume at points to invite people into the conversation to get the most out of them.

If you are someone who doesn’t love voicing their opinion and get overwhelmed by confrontational chat and meetings in general, find a line of work that suits you. Data for example, speaks for itself. The numbers on the screen tell the story so you don’t have to. If you find a career that has clear cut answers where the results are things that tell the story then you will find that you don’t often know how to be outspoken because the work isn’t down to opinion, it’s down to facts.

Who You Are

This is the beauty in knowing who you are. It’s not about adapting to the world, it’s about adapting the world to you. Sure there are characteristics that are favoured by employers. Confidence, passion, communication, hard work. Some of those are non-negotiables but some aren’t. You’d be hard pressed to find an employer that is okay with you not working very hard but you can find plenty of jobs that don’t require a huge amount of confidence.

For example, if you hate large groups of people, don’t like talking much and get overwhelmed by presenting ideas — I wouldn’t recommend going into a career as a public speaker. Now some people would read that and say that you need to push yourself, you need to find spaces that make you feel uncomfortable and grow. And I agree. However, there is a huge difference between doing a presentation once and being a presenter for a living.

The facts are that there are probably 200,000 people out there that love presenting. They love the thrill of the crowd, the ability to chat away and have people solely concentrate on them, they love presenting ideas and telling stories. So why would you compete with that? It’s basic maths. If you like something you will be good at it.

A Final Word – Self-Awareness Wins

Careers are hard. We spend a huge amount of time at work and therefore we want to make it as joyful and happy as possible. I don’t buy into this idea that ‘work is just a job’ and it’s a means to an end. It can be if you want it to be, you can go, turn up and leave. And if that makes you happy then that is totally cool.

However, if you’re striving to find happiness in work, if you want to come home feeling like you’re doing something you enjoy then it might take you a little longer to find and that’s fine. We’ve got a lot of time to get it right. Focus on being super self-aware in the beginning.

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