Saturday, 27 December 2008

Remember Who You Are!

As a teenager growing up in rural New Zealand if I ever wanted to go out I needed to borrow my parents’ car.  Borrowing the car involved a pretty standard ritual of asking for it, explaining where I was going and who I would be with and when I expected to be home.  Based on this explanation I would be given access to the family car (or the farm truck, depending on what was available).  The final part of the ritual was that just before I left Dad would always say “remember who you are”.  Every time he would say this and it drove me nuts.  I interpreted “remember who you are” as an overt attempt to control me and my actions to ensure I didn’t sully the family name.  As a teenage boy I wasn’t about to be controlled by anyone, especially my father! 

As time went by I left home and went to University.  There I met the love of my life (Jo, now my wife and mother to our 4 amazing children).  After a couple of years I took the big step of bringing her home to meet the parents.  I was very nervous about this meeting.  Much to my surprise she liked my parents and they liked her.  One day while Jo was at my parents place we wanted to go out.  I went through after the standard “can I borrow the car please” ritual and Dad added the usual “remember who you are”.  As we left I muttered under my breath something about what a control freak my father was, although the language may have been a little more colourful.  Jo just stared at me “what are you talking about?”.  So I explained to her in simple clear (emotional?) language what the problem was.

She just shook her head in disbelief “is that what you really think?  That’s not what he means at all.  What he means is ...” and she proceeded to give me a big long explanation on what he really meant.  I don’t remember exactly what she said but it was something along the lines of don’t go and get all caught up in the moment, cave into peer pressure and do something that you know is wrong and will regret later.  English students!!  Always reading stuff into things that don’t exist.  I mean really, she barely knew my father.  If she did she wouldn’t say such ridiculous things.

Now as it happens my father and I got on a lot better when we were apart from each other (something to do with being so alike I’m told) and over time I began to see that maybe there was another possible interpretation to “remember who you are” and maybe, just maybe Jo was right.  Without getting into it too deeply eventually I made peace with my father and remember who you are.  That is until I started participating in a series of leadership and personal development courses and reading a number of books on leadership.  These courses and books raised “remember who you are” back to my consciousness but in a new and unexpected way.  It began to dawn on me that “remember who you are” was really short hand for “remember who you really are and always act with integrity to that true self”.  Jo was right and perhaps my father was actually quite wise to say such a thing.  

This caused me a bit of a problem however as it posed a question I couldn’t easily answer. “Who am I really?”  It’s very difficult to “remember who you are”, if you have no idea who you are or who you want to be!!  “Ummm, best I find out”, and the quest began!

I won’t bore you with the details of the journey to answering this question.  It was long, often frustrating (frustration being my negative emotion of choice) and in truth continues daily. I would however like to share some of the things I have learnt along the way.

My first major insight came from Stephen Covey (see stephencovey.com).  If you are a regular reader of this blog you will know that the work of Stephen Covey has had a major influence on me.  One major learning for me was when I really began to understand that Habit 1 – Be Proactive, actually meant that everything we experience in life is a choice and that the person who is doing the choosing is me.  It wasn’t someone or something out there, it was me.  I was responsible both in the common understanding of the word and also in the sense of “being the cause of …” whatever it was that life sent my way.  Life is a choice.  (the actual definition of responsible referred to above goes on to say “being the cause of something, usually something wrong or disapproved of”.  No wonder we hate being responsible!!  The true definition of being responsible does not differentiate between good and bad it is simply being the cause of something.).

My second major insight on this journey is that who you are is not the same thing as what you have or don’t have.  Nor is it a description of what you do or the roles you play in your life.  It is much more to do with what you stand for, what’s important to you and how well you reflect that in your life now, in the moment.  I explored some of this in my first blog entry Living Inside Out which described that the order for living is BE, DO, HAVE.  The message of living from the inside out is that what you do and what you have is ultimately determined by who you are being, or, to say it another way who you are being causes (is responsible for) what you do and what you have.  The irony is the world seems to work exactly the opposite to what we have all been taught.

My third major insight was that while I do believe in the fundamental premise that I can do anything I want, the reality is that we have all been given a unique set of gifts, both positive and negative.  In life I can choose to use these natural endowments to my advantage or not.  There is no right or wrong answer, however, I am likely to be more effective and happier in life if I work with my strengths and mitigate my weaknesses rather than the other way round.  There are a lot of good teachings on this.  My favourite is Marcus Buckingham (see marcusbuckingham.com).  So the question is what do I love to do?  That is, what is it that makes me stronger and feeling great?  You probably will not be surprised to know that sharing (either written or in person) about things I have learnt, insights I have gained and changes I wish to see in the world is something that makes me feel stronger!!  What’s interesting is that working consistently with your strengths helps to build energy and passion.   Energy and passion are two things I want more of in my life!!

My fourth major insight is that there is no success without focus.  We all have our strengths, however, if we never focus these strengths we are unlikely to succeed on any significant scale.  To take an often cited example, Tiger Woods clearly has a series of gifts and strengths that mean he is a good golfer however it is his unrelenting focus on honing and building on those gifts that has made him a great golfer.  The chances are that with focus Tiger Woods could have been exceptional at a number of different things. He chose golf.  At the end of the day talent without focus does not create lasting success. 

One last thing on focus.  As you work to hone your skills through focus and to become the very best you can, you will find that you become very good at a number of auxiliary things as well.  These are things that although not what you are focusing on, are capabilities that support you in what you are focusing on.  For example, Tiger Woods is by all normal measures physically strong and flexible.  Not because he wants to be strong and flexible, but because it helps his golf.  If I look at my own case, my focus is on building and leveraging world class IS organisations.  As I focus on this I am beginning to build skills in leadership.  This is not because I want to be a great leader (truth be known, leadership scares me to death) but because these skills support building a great IS team.

Finally, the world is a very big place and it is not just about me.  I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed when I made this realisation.  I, as in fact most of us do, live my life from my own perspective.  That is, what is important to me?  What do I want?  How does this impact me?  In my generous moments I would include my family and maybe even friends and colleagues.  Even then however, it was still what I thought they would want, from my perspective.  It is in fact all about me!!  I know some of you are sitting there thinking “I’m not like this.  I often think about other people and their feelings and do many things for others selflessly”.  Maybe.  I would ask you to consider, is your selflessness really about others or is it about what a great giving person you are, sacrificing yourself for others and therefore really about your sense of self worth?   Don’t despair it seems to be the standard human condition.  Standard maybe, but not normal.  (Normal - physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy).

If you pause and think about it for a while we all know that it is not just about us.  As the saying goes no man (or woman) is an island.  We are social creatures by nature.  That’s why we build halls and other meeting places and live in towns and cities.  We intuitively know that it is not about us, it is about our family, our community, our society and that all of these things interrelate and depend on each other.  When we allow ourselves to remember this, the question is what are we doing to make our families, our communities, our society a better place to live?  Or how are we contributing?

That’s what I’ve learnt.  So, who do I understand myself be?  Well, as of today:

  • I believe my natural strengths include:
    • A natural desire for and attraction to new challenges.  This includes being naturally curious about why things are the way they are, and a real drive to question the status quo.
    • The ability to take complex situations and circumstances, distil them to their essence, and communicate them in a way that people can understand and relate to.
    • The ability to design systems, processes, mechanisms and measurements that support teams and organisations to achieve their goals
  • My focus is to be the authority on how to build great IS organisations that deliver on the promise of technology and add real competitive value to businesses and other organisations
  • I will contribute to my community and society by working to make New Zealand a place where everyone can and does feel safe and loved
  • To do these things on a consistent basis I need to be a role model of inspiration, opportunity and vitality

So now that I know who I am, I can begin to remember.  Now that I can remember, the challenge in life is to fulfil the promise of who I am meant to be.

3 comments:

Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.), MPA said...

Very interesting post. Its such a simple message that has been stated over and over: to thine own self be true; be all you can be; do your best - come to mind. Yes, what a freaking hard lesson to learn and live.

Dan Symons said...

A great post - but it does show that communication is the important factor and what is clearly understood by the person saying it, isn't often clearly understood by the person receiving it. Had you father explained what he meant - this journey could have been truncated....that said, the learnings may have been different or less.

Owen McCall said...

Dan,

As far as I know Dad never explained to me what he meant by "remember who you are". He may have and I missed it because I wasn't open to anything my father said as I grew up. I had made up my mind that he was just out to control me and make my life a misery. I was very invested in my story about this.

It is very odd as looking back with some level of objectivity he was an amazing father and did so much for me and all the family. Like many of his generation he didn't talk lots or say I love you but in hindsight his actions clearly demonstrated that he did.