Few skills are more important to self-improvement than being able to take a step back and honestly evaluate yourself. Self-reflection allows you to expose problems early, before they become too painful to ignore.
Unfortunately, honest self-evaluation is one of the hardest skills to master. People tend to be self-serving in their thoughts. For most people, self-reflection involves looking into a carnival mirror, with all the information warped and distorted until it barely resembles reality.
One of the reasons I’m cautious to recommend faith, optimism or confidence as a solution to problems is because it distorts honest self-evaluation. The benefits are outweighed by the extra distortions you face when looking in the mirror.
The Power of Truthful Reflection
Honest self-evaluation is a skill I must consistently use when running this website. Feedback that comes to me is warped, I only receive comments from a tiny fraction of the readers of this website. Often what works in the short-term to generate attention, sacrifices value in the long-term.
If I distort my self-evaluation towards confidence, I will become ineffective. When I ignore flaws in the value I deliver, I can’t fix those mistakes. If I distort my reflection towards pessimism, I may not take the bold actions to market myself and my ideas that could deliver more value. Only truthful reflection can give me the best results.
Truthful reflection also impacts my health, finances and relationships. Any distortions, however minor, corrupt my thinking and my ability to make changes. If I believe I’m in better physical shape than I am, I may be cutting myself from being more fit and energetic. If I feel my finances are too low, I may waste time scrambling for money when I should be focusing on other goals.
The impact honesty has on your self-improvement outweighs the impact of false confidence by a factor of ten. Whenever I try to learn a new skill, ruthless honesty is my entire goal in self-evaluation, no matter the result. I simply can’t afford to distort the reflection.
Achieving an Honest Perspective
The best way to achieve a greater level of honesty in your self-evaluations is to demand it. If you’re still under the illusion that false confidence and blind optimism are the correct path, you scrap any hope of an honest evaluation.
This sounds easy, but it’s hard to practice. Honesty, especially when it is negative, is uncomfortable. Few people are willing to spend the effort needed to strip away all the distortions and arrive at the truth.
Honesty doesn’t mean pessimism. If you respond to over-confidence by giving up hope, you’ve just added one distortion to another. Honesty is a mental step that involves evaluating things before you have time to alter that evaluation.
A good exercise to get more a more honest reaction to a given situation is to write whatever immediately comes to mind. If you’re trying to evaluate whether your current product is delivering the value you hope, immediately write down your first intuition.
Some, although not all, distortions occur after you’ve spent some time thinking about an issue. You have a gut reaction, which doesn’t fit your self-image, so you distort that gut reaction to fit the self-image. If you get in the habit of writing things without censorship, you can break off that layer of distortion.
Brainstorming functions on the same principle. Often we censor immediate ideas because they don’t fit our constraints of what a solution must look like. By forcing yourself to write down an idea without evaluating it, you remove those constraints and get better ideas. Of course, a lot of the ideas are still garbage, but its easier to filter through them consciously when they have been written on paper.
I keep a journal for exactly this purpose. My goal isn’t to write down my thoughts and feelings about current events. I don’t really have a need for that. But having a space where I can write uncensored, allows honest reflections I hadn’t considered to properly surface.
Gaining Emotional Distance
Uncensored writing removes the distortions to honest feedback that occur after you have an impression. But it still doesn’t remove the distortions that occur before an impression. Your mood has a profound effect on channeling your ideas in a particular direction.
If I use the uncensored writing approach to evaluate a business strategy, but I do so right after I receive a negative comment from a reader, my entire evaluation will be colored. If you recently went to the gym and felt out of shape, that’s going to corrupt your perception. Pessimism isn’t a tool for self-evaluation because it is easy to distort too far, mild over-confidence swings to extreme under-confidence.
Removing the pre-impression distortions from your self-evaluations is more difficult than the post-impression distortions. You need to make sure you are removed from the situation enough so that prior emotions won’t overwhelm your impressions. You need to gain a level of emotional distance.
A great tool for gaining emotional distance is to take one day off per week and to do a weekly review. I strive to do this as much as possible, because completely removing myself from my goals for one day allows me more honest self-evaluations.
If you’re trying to make even larger decisions that can impact your life for years, I think the importance of emotional distance is even greater. Taking a week off just to be in complete silence, broken from your routines, can give you a higher level of clarity. In the few times I’ve been able to do this, I’ve found it to be enormously helpful in getting back to honesty.
Honesty is the Best Weapon
All progress is filled with wrong paths, mistakes and failures. What creates eventual success, isn’t avoiding those failures, it’s your ability to recover from them. Clear, honest thinking allows you to spend less time on dead ends and more energy towards the right path.