by Eric Johnson, Executive Director
Kelley Graduate Career Services
George Eliot* has been credited with saying, “It’s never too late to become the person you were always meant to be.”
This is good news for people like me, who aspire one day to be Matthew McConaughey.
I reflect on this quote every morning, without fail. It’s part of my daily practice of morning meditation and mental preparation. I feel inspired afterward because it keeps my value of continuous improvement alive and it reminds me that today presents a new opportunity to evolve towards the best possible version of myself.
I have also found that Eliot’s quote helps me give hope to others. In my job as a career and leadership coach, I assist young leaders in their pursuit of their best selves, particularly as it relates to navigating personal transition. Remembering that our past does not forever define who we are is an extremely important step in that process.
As I coach myself and young leaders on this journey towards our best selves we work through three big questions. The first is, “who are you today?” Being honest with ourselves about who we are today heightens our self-awareness and allows for a deep understanding of what we don’t want change, where we hope to evolve, and why. In exploring who we are today, we focus on five main areas:
- Personality: While there are a number of personality assessments available the one we use at the Kelley School of Business is the Keirsey Temperament Sorter. Personality does not define us, but it does help us understand our natural default settings with regards to how we like to give and receive information and how we prefer to relate to others.
- Skills: Knowing our strengths and weaknesses, and how these make us both unique and relevant, helps us begin to recognize the situations in which we provide the most impact to others. Gallup has a good tool for this, Strengthsfinder, though often we’ll just spend an hour using contextual examples to develop a personal SWOT.
- Interests: If we’re not interested in what we’re doing then we’ll lack the motivation to do it well. Questions like, “What do other people find interesting about you?” and “What’s one of the first things you bring up about yourselves when meeting people for the first time?” are useful conversation starters as we dig into this area.
- Values: There may be no more important part of the discussion than when we talk about values. Values are our guardrails – I believe they provide us with our greatest motivation and the greatest amount of personal insight. I also notice that when we are at our happiest our values are being honored, and when we are angry, sad, or frustrated our values are being compromised. My favorite tool to start this conversation is the Via Character Strengths free assessment.
- Demeanor: Who you are is, at least in small part, shaped by how you present yourself. I love the questions, “How would your closest friends describe your general outlook on life?” and “What 3-5 words do you want people to say about you when you leave a room?”
Synthesizing these five areas into a personal inventory sheet provides an enormous amount of insight. We can see who we are, where we’re happy, what we hope to change, and why. This sets us up for our second big question, “Who do I want to be?” I share Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha’s view that we were not born with a single purpose for our life, but that our purpose constantly evolves over time. The key is to have a great short-term (i.e. 1-3 years, not 10) personal vision that makes you happy and helps you see where you can provide unique value to your community (as you define it). This vision should also inspire you to take action.
Again, there are any number of resources to develop a personal vision and I often use The Personal Compass from The Grove. Whatever the tool we choose, the output should provide a clear, concise, and motivating statement about who we want to become – our personal vision statement. It should highlight the things we hope to accomplish, the relationships we wish to build/maintain, the environment we hope to exist within, and the ways in which we will experience joy. I have mine hanging in my office, and I ask my coachees to keep theirs visible as well, such that we don’t lose focus on who we’re trying to be.
Finally, the third big question is, “How are you going to get there?” With a clear and concise vision – and a heightened sense of self – we can begin to make choices about what we will do (and what we will not do) to consciously and deliberately improve ourselves. The key is deliberate – focused effort and attention on the experiences which will provide us with the greatest momentum towards our personal vision. (Check out one of my favorite blogger’s take on deliberate practice.) This is not easy, but what I’ve learned is two things: we must focus on a single issue at a time and we have to practice daily.
Focusing on a single issue at a time might be the most important step towards attaining our best selves. Data shows that between 80 and 90% of New Year’s resolutions fail and the primary reason is that people try to change too many things at once. I like James Clear’s advice to focus on one area for improvement and stick with it until it becomes a habit. I have been implementing this strategy personally over the last year and have been more consistent about working out, reading, improving my skills through training, and being positive all by focusing on one aspect of my personal vision at a time.
Finally, I believe the only way to “become the person we were meant to be” is to move forward one day at a time, deriving as much out of the present as possible. I mentioned that I meditate each morning – I take time to notice how I feel and what I think, and to make a commitment to the one thing I want to focus on that day. I will stay conscious of that one thing throughout the day and journal about what I notice. Each night I’ll take 10 minutes to reflect on how I did and to make notes for tomorrow. This practice worked for Benjamin Franklin – he tracked his progress across 13 virtues by focusing on one each day and journaling about his progress, too.
Which brings me back to Eliot’s quote – I close out my morning mental session by reminding myself that it really is never too late to become the person we were always meant to be. I personally find that an inspiring thing to remember as I start each new day.
*The irony of the fact that George was not George at all is not lost on me. George Eliot was a pen name used by author Mary Ann Evans to ensure that her works were taken seriously. I will also acknowledge that there is some debate about Eliot’s exact phrasing about the quote, but the essence is the same across the board.