“The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly—that is what each of us is here for.” [Oscar Wilde]
If this is the first time you’ve read or heard this quote, you might assume these words of wisdom are from a contemporary—one who feels quite at home in our self-absorbed world where taking selfies and promoting oneself on social media is the norm. But given the fact that Oscar Wilde died in 1900, it probably makes sense to search for a deeper meaning to these words. In my view, Wilde captures our purpose quite eloquently—that we are put on this earth to grow and develop.
I would go a step further than Wilde and contend that you can’t be all you could be if you don’t gain self-knowledge first. Unlike selfies or different forms of self-promotion, developing self-awareness is not an exercise in selfishness but rather the prerequisite for reaching your full potential. Furthermore, if you don’t develop self-awareness, you are doing yourself (and others) a disservice.
There are undoubtedly many examples of people who lack self-awareness and have suffered the consequences. One that sticks in my mind was described in an article written by Peter Drucker called Managing Oneself that was published in Harvard Business Review in January 2005:
When General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II, he was favored by the press. Journalists often praised how adeptly he responded to a wide variety of questions. Eisenhower gained a reputation for his eloquence and command of the English language. Yet when Eisenhower became President, those same journalists attacked him for his incoherent answers, claiming he butchered the English language with his poorly worded responses to their questions.
What caused this dramatic transformation? It couldn’t be the stress of the job. After all, Eisenhower was in charge of the European campaign and had to make serious life-and-death decisions under stressful conditions. It seems that Eisenhower was lacking in self-knowledge and didn’t realize that he was a reader, not a listener. During the war, he required all journalists to submit their questions ahead of time in writing. Because Eisenhower was a reader, this enabled him to gain an understanding of what was asked and to think about his answers before responding. However, when he became President, he followed the examples set by former Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, who were skilled listeners and enjoyed the repartee of off-the-cuff questions during press conferences. This led to Eisenhower’s downfall in the eyes of those same journalists.
Admittedly, most of us won’t have our lack of self-knowledge displayed so publicly. But this story emphasizes how we can’t do our best, and contribute what we were meant to do, without learning more about ourselves. Often we need an impetus to drive us to do something. I hope that this story about Eisenhower will motivate you to set aside some time for reflection and develop self-awareness so you can make the most of your talents and thrive in an environment that enables you to be all that you can be.