Who am I, really?

November 9, 2016

By: Richard Haller

Executive in Residence Blog Series

This seems to be the question that haunts us, all of our lives. If you are wondering if it ever disappears, I can only say that even after retirement, it remains an object of my personal exploration. It is something I never really expected, but then again I might have been just fooling myself into that conclusion.

Many years ago, as part of a leadership development exercise, I participated in the Myers Briggs (MB) assessment and I discovered I was an INTJ. What does that mean? I began to understand that the test identifies personality preferences. In my case those preferences are Introversion, Intuition, Thinking and Judging. What does it mean in the context of my human interaction? Should I be something else? Is this a contributor or obstacle to my career?

This left me with more questions than answers. How do I interact with other personality preferences who prefer Extroversion, or Sensing or Feeling or Perceiving? Do I tattoo INTJ to my forehead to help in relating to others?

There are sixteen different MB personality profile possibilities. How could I possibly figure out who is which, and then practice how to interact? I was completely baffled. Should I accept that this is ‘who I am?’

I can only say that I often blow the dust off that report as a reference to possible preferences and categories, but I never could answer the question: ‘who am I, really?’ Who I am is only understood in interactions.

So why is the need to find the ‘who’ we are so important? It might be because without this understanding we flood our persona with personality features that are not reflective of our true self but only force a portrait to please the viewing public.

You might have heard the old adage, “with age comes wisdom.” Well I might offer this perspective, that life is a journey of self-discovery from the moment we take our first breath to the last gasp.

Aristotle was aware of this life question and offered an observation that “knowledge of oneself is the beginning of all wisdom.” I might add to this hypothesis that knowledge of oneself is not a milestone event but rather a continuous journey. Wisdom like self-knowledge is a never-ending journey.

Gandhi proposed that “man is the product of his thoughts,” and that “what he thinks he becomes.” This perspective suggests that I have some control over the person I become, formed by the values I choose to practice. Certainly environment, upbringing, experiences and life choices contribute to forming those values.

So the ‘who’ I am, the true self I seek to know, the object of discovery in my life journey, is always right in front of me as a constantly evolving portrait, one influenced by many factors and recognized only through my relational interactions.

However, there seems to be a priority; that before I can discover the “why” of my existence at any given time, I need to be ever aware of ‘who I am’ at those waypoints along the journey.

Our ability to understand who we are and then adjust, improve, or grow is dependent on feedback from many possible sources. This feedback could be experiential, self-reflective, from analytical tools or from others. However, as I look back over my life and career, the most meaningful and significant source of feedback came from others.

During my career experience, I supported the traditional strategies of the suggested tools that offer feedback for understanding and improvement. Those included personality profiles, strength finder, performance evaluations, 360 evaluations and frankly, they all served a purpose. They all gave or at least attempted to give information to help improve awareness of one’s ‘who’ profile.

The survey-based tools are like stick drawings: that is two dimensional, simple, good basic knowledge, however they lack getting to the real three-dimensional ‘me’ in actions. Whether I knew it or not I needed to know ‘who I am’ when communicating, coaching, or leading.

Performance evaluations have their shortcomings. I know my efforts did not focus much time celebrating the positive. I sought to help the reviewee improve so that highlighting weaknesses were more prevalent than the positive qualities of feedback. I now recognize that it created more negative energy and likely diminished the results I sought.

These, too, are like stick drawings, lacking the three-dimensional depth of “performance in action,” we find in stories.

Then a few months ago I became aware of a tool that got me to the place I was always seeking. I was introduced to the Reflected Best Self Exercise (RBSE) at a Center for Positive Organizations (CPO) Consortium event.

The foundation of the tool addresses the question: “who am I when I am at my best?” The perspective is in the form of stories from a group of 15-20 folks, self-selected, from diverse group from whom you will solicit feedback in the form of three (3) separate short stories describing you at your best. Personally, I believe the more diverse the group the better the data and the more powerful the consistent themes found in the stories.

When I received the feedback package it was an emotionally energizing positive experience. Remember, these stories are positively focused and I was overdosing in positivity. But then again that is the point.

The process leads you to synthesize the themes discovered into 4 to 6 consistent themes. I would have never expected common themes to be so prevalent considering the diverse group I selected for feedback. Using these themes allows you to create a personal word portrait. Answering the question: “when I am at my best I am….”

The stories, the perspectives, the contexts provided a more valuable perspective of feedback than any I received or gave over my 43-year career.

The RBSE tool should be used at various milestones in life and career, keeping in mind that we are on a journey of evolving self-revelation.

I only wish I would have discovered and used this tool throughout various career and personal milestones and I encourage that you try it. It may be the most valuable tool you could use to answer the question: “who am I, really?”

Rick Haller, the retired president and COO of Walbridge, is an Executive in Residence at the Center for Positive Organizations.