If your self-awareness is wrong

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, November 1, 2022, 10:30 PM | comments: 0

There was a time when Elon Musk could be viewed from afar as that guy who cashed out big time on PayPal and went on to found SpaceX and make the investment that made Tesla possible. If you've read the deeper details, you would also learn that he is in fact a brilliant engineer that seems to pick up on a great many technical subjects with ease. If you've ever heard him talk about battery chemistry or the physics of squeezing more performance out of a rocket engine, he's far from just the money guy.

Lately, whatever visionary outcomes he has in mind or progress he's directly influenced for things like sustainable energy and transportation, has been overshadowed by impulsive behavior and something that, on the outside, looks an awful lot like arrogance. It's not just the cringeworthy things he's done around his arguably terrible decision to buy Twitter, but a whole series of pretty poor actions. Like when he thought he could cleverly build something to get those kids out of the flooded cave in Thailand, or call an actual diver "pedo guy" and lose a defamation lawsuit over it. The impulsivity is pretty easily explained by his declaration that he has Asperger's Syndrome (which more generally is just considered autism spectrum disorder), but it also may explain a general lack of self-awareness. Again, we may interpret this as arrogance, but I think it's more nuanced than that. But also, having autism doesn't make you an asshole, so there's that. He's making choices as a grownup, and they're not good choices.

There's a pattern of innovators who have walked that line in history's most influential scientists, artists and thinkers (many of which are presumed to have had ASD). Steve Jobs is another one that comes to mind. People loved that guy, and there's little question of his impact on the world, but even in his official biography it's clear that he wasn't the nicest guy to work with. Did he realize that he treated people like that? Do we have to tolerate the ugly parts from the people who ultimately move us forward?

Self-awareness, therefore, is not easy to practice, and most of us will never be genius world-changers. It means that there is more at stake for the individual, because we don't get the results that may create a tolerance for our shortcomings as humans. It's a precarious position to be in. We need self-awareness to understand where confidence is warranted, when to stick to your position based on experience and wisdom, when to acknowledge the limitations of your ability, when to defer to others.

I know the scope of my influence will never be like Jobs or Musk, and that's fine, so I suppose that I have a good baseline to start with on my own self-awareness. But you also have to wonder if self-awareness restricts you, or is the actual limitation in your potential. I mean, you probably have to not be self-aware to some degree to think that you can lead a company to build reusable orbital rockets when no one else could figure it out after a half-century. I don't know if that's arrogance, hubris, a lack of self-awareness or all of the above.

In my journey, I think that self-awareness has often been a crippling impediment to me. The unknown, about what my potential is, has often prevented me from even trying things. I'm not saying that I'm not good at anything, because I can point to a great many things that I am good at, but I often point to my not starting a real business myself as an example of self-limitation. I come back to that so often, and it's frustrating because I have a great deal of business experience at so many different stages. I can talk and walk it... just not around something I start. Why? Self-awareness? There are other times when I've certainly not had enough of it, and made poor decisions about my actions. There must be a sweet spot for self-awareness... not too much, not too little.

The other angle on self-awareness is that we may put an awful lot of energy into monitoring how well liked we are. That could easily throw things off balance too, because it's not healthy to base your actions entirely on how popular it makes you. Doing the right thing doesn't always align with people liking you, obvs.

A friend once made the metaphor that people are like pencils. Most of them are dull and not great to write with, but the sharp ones are self-aware and work the best. I strive to be a sharp pencil.


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