Self-Work: The Invaluable Investment in Becoming the Person I Want to Be

I recently read a book that changed my life. I have about a dozen books that I describe this way, including Pedagogy of the Oppressed, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Ishmael, and The Artist’s Way, read in that order and re-read many times over the years. The newest addition to the list is The Surrender Experiment: My Journey Into Life’s Perfection, by Michael Singer. Singer is a self-described pony-tail-wearing yogi who lives in the woods. He has also been a college professor, constructed a meditation and yoga temple that has consistently hosted guests for more than 40 years, and built a powerful software development company valued in the billions (There are other juicy tidbits about him that I won’t mention here for fear of ruining the fun for those who plan to read the book).

Singer’s book is being widely circulated in entrepreneur circles with which I am connected, including people from every part of the world far beyond the U.S. — to the Middle East, India, Dominican Republic, and London. The book is a great read and a beautiful reminder of the power of spiritual investment. What I love most about the enthusiastic embracing of this book by thoughtful, worldly, and intellectually curious people is that it begins with and centers the critical importance of self-work.


I define self-work as the investment I make in understanding myself, how I came to be who I am, how I am perceived by and impact others, and the degree to which I am having the effect I desire. 

This multi-part definition is worth closer examination of the various parts.

Understanding Ourselves

This is often referred to as self-awareness. It is one’s ability to describe their core values, beliefs, preferences, and effectiveness—including strengths and weaknesses—honestly and accurately. Understanding one’s self is a combination of internal and external effort. Internal examination includes surfacing, processing, interrogation, and sometimes even unlearning beliefs and ideas that have been formed either by way of values that did not originate with ourselves or that are ours and have shifted over time. These shifts happen through education, life experience, and as our own cultural competence increases, to name a few. External examination requires that one observe their own patterns and behaviors, including thoughts, reactions, words, and choices, to discover which are aligned with one’s current values and which may be limited or limiting because they reflect defensive routines.

Defense mechanisms are behaviors that many form at a particular point in our lives as a survival or coping mechanism. For example, when I was younger, we often ran out of food during dinner. To avoid not having enough to eat, I found myself filling my plate beyond a “normal-sized” helping, or eating very quickly so that I could be assured of getting a second helping. For many years into adulthood, and far past the point of limited food supply, I continued to over-serve myself and then hold myself accountable for eating every bite. It was not uncommon for me to feel overly bloated or even sick due to overeating. In workplace settings, this is called a defensive routine. I regularly hear people describe “hoarding information” or masking their work from their colleagues or managers. When asked about this, some tell stories from years prior when they were tracked for a full week by external consultants. These consultants required an account for the person’s time, down to 15-minute increments, attached a value to the report, and then used the information for making layoff decisions. Others relive belittling experiences with managers who berated their work in front of the team. With examples like these, and many more that can include experiences far more atrocious, defensive routines are understandable. They provide a shield against a hurtful experience. Overall, though, they are incredibly problematic, particularly because they live on beyond the point in time during which they were devised and become interwoven as part of our self-narrative. Defensive routines, unfortunately, are often mistaken for personality, preference, or culture.

How We Came to Be Who We Are

How we came to be who we are is often in response to the input of others. It is a self-perception that results from socialization, acculturation, parenting, institutionalization, and lived experiences.

A lot of what constitutes who we are is genetic, from physical characteristics to temperament, but it also includes some painful elements, like racial trauma which is the subject of much research and writing. We absorb messages from many places beginning early in our lives, often with only the same flawed (human) lenses to help us decipher which are valid. It makes sense that in order to be the best versions of ourselves—effectively able to navigate relationships in ways that are valued by us and others—requires intentionally thinking about what we think, why we have the beliefs we continue to hold, and who’s truth has been conveyed (Sometimes, THE TRUTH that is told to us as OUR TRUTH is really someone else’s pain, shame or insecurity that we take on without realizing we are drinking poison).

Importantly, regardless of what we have been told, what we have believed, or for how long, we always have the ability, and the right, to be whoever we want to be, to name ourselves and step into our own identities, self-formed and validated. 

A lot of self-perception is formed through the first two portions of the definition, both focusing on self-talk and the concretization of ideas about us in our own minds.

How We are Perceived by and Impact Others

How we are perceived by and impact others focuses on other peoples’ experience of us. The self-work begins with identifying what we know, don’t know, and often don’t admit, even to ourselves, and the work ends with making an empathetic connection with others.

Many people believe that our self-perceptions are pretty accurate, even embrace a “what you see is what you get” or “I’m an open book” idea about themselves. In my coaching work, I find that a person’s self-perception is often more limited and less accurate than we think. I am often called into organizations specifically to deal with this gap in perception; or, more importantly, the repercussions that occur within the organization because this gap exists. The Center for Creative Leadership assessed executives’ self-perception and those held by others. They found a 1: .321 correlation between how executives view their behavior and how others view the same behavior. This means that 66 percent of the time executives are out of sync with their followers about how their behaviors are being perceived. The same kind of gap exists wherever power and privilege are imbalanced and not intentionally managed.

What are the consequences of not accurately understanding how you are perceived? For starters, the existence of a gap of this significance is a signal that you are a) not receiving honest feedback or b) not acting on it. It is not unusual for people who are seen to hold power or privilege to lack authentic feedback. That’s how power often works; people with less of it resist sharing information that may potentially threaten, shame, or embarrass those with more power for fear of retaliation (even subtle, which can be the most insidious).

Not acting on feedback is something different. In my experience administering 360-degree feedback assessments to hundreds of executives and managers, this is one of the most common comments shared and lowest scores provided. Instead, the focus is on rationalizing, defending one’s actions, or trying to identify the flaw in the person who provided the feedback.

The Degree to Which We are Having the Effect We Desire

This is directly related to motivation and empathy. It rests on a foundation of self-applied values, the source of intrinsic motivation. People who prioritize inclusivity and equity as personal values see the direct connection between their behaviors, their relationships, and their use of power (power with as opposed to power over, for example) and privilege (to act as an ally, champion, or sponsor) on others’ experience. They understand that effectiveness is not gauged in isolation but is the ability to be viewed by others in ways align with aspirational self-perception. They care what others think about them, not out of a sense of inflated ego or insecurity, but because they care about others’ experience.

Empathy is the ability to, and active demonstration of, care about another person’s feelings and experiences. It requires curiosity about other people’s reality in order to develop understanding of experiences or worldviews that may be different from one’s own. 

Empathy helps us know how to make appropriate adjustments in order to communicate most effectively given the other person’s needs. It helps us know what matters most to the other person, their worldview, and even what words, tone, and timing to use in talking with them.

According to a study by the Center for Creative Leadership, managers who are strong in cognitive empathy are rated higher by their direct reports "and executives who have this mental asset do well when assigned to a culture different than their own – they are able to pick up the norms and ground rules of another culture more quickly."

Learning, practice, and adjustment. It is also the only way to continue to expand the boundaries of our minds and hearts, with the associated richness of understanding and joy. It is our vehicle for self-betterment and positively impacting the lives around us. 

I leave you with two questions: Who do you want to be? How will you get there?      

Enjoy the journey, the work is soul-filling,


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DeEtta Jones & Associates (DJA) guides leaders and organizations on a journey that builds capacity, strengthens innovation, and increases organizational performance by creating a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive environment.

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