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Shakespeare handed down a timeless challenge: “This above all: to thine own self be true.” I’ve tried for years to hold this standard in my life and my leadership, and it is fantastically difficult. When I’m facing a hard choice, and I want conflicting things, how do I know who to be true to?
Experience tells me those moments are so difficult because we have many different selves inside us, each with their own values and needs. Think of a time when you were truly torn with a decision: your head said “Left” when your heart said “Right.” Your dreams said “Go big,” but caution said to stay small. Which side of that conflict was the “real” you? What if they both were? What if there are many parts of you, all of them really you?
With a small adjustment to Shakespeare, I’ve embraced my revised standard for success: To thine own selves be true.
The Big Four
I’ve spent nearly 20 years working with executives and other leaders, while at the same time researching what makes human beings tick. I found basic “selves” each person needs to be “true to” in order to find success and deep fulfillment. InWinning From Within, I called these parts The Big Four:
- a Dreamer who cares about creativity and future vision
- a Thinker invested in reason and analysis
- a Lover engaged with emotion and relationships
- a Warrior determined to achieve results and protect what matters
If I get to the end of a day having maintained a dialogue between these four major parts of me, I call that a successful day. External success – for me and for my clients – consistently flows from that effective internal “collaboration.”
When I’m not true to myself, it’s often because one of my inner parts is getting lost. Perhaps I’m putting all of my time into launching a new project (myDreamer is chasing the big vision) and ignoring my family at dinner to text colleagues under the table (my Lover got lost, so I neglect my relationships). Or perhaps I keep listing all the ways an endeavor could fail (my Thinkeroverindulging in hypotheticals) so that I never take decisive action (my Warrioris sidelined and twiddling her thumbs). I’ve learned in time how to recognize the feeling of agitation that happens when I’m out of sync between my selves: it gets harder to sit still, harder to keep quiet or speak softly without shutting down completely, harder to stay engaged in the present moment, harder to listen respectfully to opposing views. When I’m not being true to my selves, or they’re out of alignment with each other, everything takes more effort than necessary. That wasted energy of internal friction is my metric that something is wrong, and I’m off the path.
Take the Road to Success, One Self At a Time
Here’s a little practical advice on staying true to each of these parts:
If you’re not being true to your Dreamer, you might find yourself listless and bored. You might feel stuck and pessimistic about the future, or just stifled in your routine. If so, try temporarily releasing your creativity from any demand for quality or practicality. Imagine absolutely everything is possible: your dream job, relationship, physical and mental health, your ideal community. See yourself content, joyful, at some moment in the future. Look around at the picture you create for inspiration. In the “real world” some of those dreams can’t happen, at least not exactly as you picture them. Yet letting yourself muse about your ideal world energizes your Dreamer to remember that your future holds great possibilities.
If you haven’t been listening to your Thinker, you’ll find it hard to get clarity on big, complex decisions. Stop waiting to understand the answer all at once, and start breaking it down into parts. List everything you know and list the information you need to find out. Then identify key questions and make a plan to research them. Focus on the data, one piece at a time, until you’re ready to look at the whole problem again. Even putting your ideas into a simple spreadsheet can wake up your analytical mind. Once you gather the information you need and organize it well, your Thinker can make sense of things.
If you’re out of alignment with your Lover, you likely haven’t been giving the relationships in your life the attention they need. Step back for a minute, and consider if you’ve withdrawn from the people around you. At work you might have your head down all day, never leaving your office for even a quick hello to colleagues. Maybe you worry people will slow you down, or even take your ideas. Your Lover finds it safer to go it alone. If you dig a bit deeper, you’ll often find other emotions lurking behind the choice to hide from people. These include feelings like loneliness, or fear of failure — the kinds of emotions that feel better when your Lover reaches out for help, or even just someone’s company.
Your Warrior is out of alignment when you’re not getting things done. To regain the strength of your Warrior, notice the pattern of your actions: are you procrastinating? Are you driving so hard for something perfect, you can never finish things, because they can always get just a bit better? Can you not find the willpower to even start the task in front of you? People often get intimidated by the mountain of effort they think success might require, but one step in the right direction can unleash the power of your Warrior. Ask yourself to find small steps you can take right away to make some progress. Surprise your inner perfectionist with the satisfaction of getting something finished. A healthy Warrior loves momentum, and even more appreciates crossing the finish line.
So This Above All…
Your Big Four, these many selves, can’t all get what they want every minute. When moments of conflict happen, the key is to recognize the many dimensions inside you, and acknowledge the legitimacy of each one. As you get to know your Big Four and listen to each of them, you build trust that each will get its time and place to guide you. Together your Dreamer, Thinker, Lover, and Warrior will take you where you want to go.
This above all: To thine own selves be true.
Erica Ariel Fox is a leadership expert and the New York Times Best-selling author of Winning From Within: A Breakthrough Method for Leading, Living, and Lasting Change. She advises executives and other senior leaders on personal and organizational transformation. She is a founding partner of Mobius Executive Leadership.
For more about the Big Four, watch this video of Erica.