Trying to understand oneself is a pain in the ass for many reasons, but most importantly because we humans are emotional beings and emotions tend to impact our ability to assess ourselves realistically. It’s especially hard to make a distinction between what are your actual traits, characteristics, and tendencies and what are ego-driven false beliefs and fears. For example, I had a friend in high school who had convinced himself that he was poor in math and English, and that that’s just the way it is. However, at the same time he was really good in physics and Swedish, which of course made no sense. Why would he be able to understand physics and Swedish if he was naturally bad at math and English? The truth is, he probably had gotten a bad first impression of learning math and English, and his ego coped with the frustration by developing a story that said: “I’m just naturally bad at these subjects, and that’s the way it is for me.” With physics and Swedish, he was somehow able to let go of that story and learn new things without beating himself down.
The story illustrates how we humans often react to feelings of frustration and fear: we give into our emotions and label ourselves as fundamentally bad at something. We then draw a black and white picture of ourselves, where we’re either really good at a given skill or we’re absolutely shit at it. This way of thinking is called splitting, or black and white thinking, and it’s an ego defense mechanism that prevents us from assessing ourselves in a realistic way. Because of this bias, we end up jumping into conclusions about our abilities, strengths, traits, and characteristics, which hinders our ability to lead balanced lives.
Let me use myself as an example. When I was in the Finnish army, I got selected to the reserve officer school in Hamina, Finland, where they train infantry platoon leaders, forward observers, pioneer officers and such. I was being trained to become an infantry platoon leader, which required learning about the use of terrain, leadership, tactics and strategy, different weapon types, and how to lead men in battle. Now, to be honest, I wasn’t a very good platoon leader, and especially when we were practicing leading men in a battle, I felt I was at a complete loss at times. It seemed there were so many little details that I needed to remember at the same time, and I just couldn’t multitask to the level required in the moment. Reading the map, giving orders, calling in artillery, using the radio, spotting the enemy, taking in reports from team leaders, and trying to breath all at the same time always put my head spinning. And based on the feedback I got (i.e. how red my instructor’s face got when he yelled at me), I just wasn’t a very good situational leader. And that’s the story I’ve been telling myself ever since: I’m just not very good at leading men in a battle.
But wait, is that really true?
What evidence did I really have that proved I wouldn’t be a good situational leader? Yes, I made a lot of mistakes during my training and most likely what I demonstrated really wasn’t particularly good leadership. But if you look at the circumstances, it only makes sense that I messed up. Firstly, I was doing something for the first time and mistakes are bound to happen. Secondly, multitasking in a rainy forest where it’s so dark you can’t see your nose, while you’re being yelled at by both your commanding officer (someone you’re naturally afraid of) and by your peers (someone whose respect you eagerly want), aren’t the ideal circumstances to practice something in the first place, let alone for the first time ever. And finally, considering I was 19 at the time and basically just learned how to wipe my own nose, it’s no wonder I had some issues leading 30 men into battle.
So, looking at the context, I actually did pretty good: we all got out of the forest alive and with only minor emotional traumas.
Let’s take another example, this time, someone who is a master: Cesar Rodriguez, an American former fighter pilot. Rodriguez has been named the Last American Ace because of his several aerial victories in campaigns in Iraq and Serbia, and no one can deny he is a true master in his art. But as the author Robert Greene reveals in his book, ‘Mastery’, Rodriguez wasn’t a natural-born fighter pilot or one of the ‘golden boys’ of the fighter training program. These golden boys were people who seemingly had the ability to fly a fighter the minute they got into the cockpit and would wipe the floor with people like Rodriguez all day every day. Despite flying several small aircrafts before, Rodriguez had tremendous problems handling all the multitasking, the G forces, the weight of the helmet, and the difficult maneuvers that were involved in flying a fighter plane. In fact, Rodriguez was completely overwhelmed by the fighter and was almost dropped out of the course.
What if Rodriguez had started telling himself: “I guess I’m just not meant to fly a fighter, I just can’t do it.” That would have been perfectly reasonable: not everyone did pass the fighter program, and he could have concluded he just wasn’t meant to fly a fighter. However, thanks to Rodriguez’s persevering attitude, he kept going, and after hours and hours in the cockpit, his brain got used to the multitasking and he could focus on the more advanced aspects in flying. And as it turned out, Rodriguez’s training allowed him to soon surpass the golden boys and become the Last American Ace.
The moral of the story? We humans can learn anything, and making too fast conclusions about your natural strengths and skills based on one or few experiences alone can place unnecessary restrictions on your life. So don’t judge yourself too fast, and be careful of what labels you give yourself – who knows what you can become if you just allow yourself.