Who are you capable of being?

What do we mean when we say someone is being their best self?

We often hear people say things like “I did my best” or “I was awesome today!” to express their pleasure and pride. We also hear things like “I wasn’t on” or “I wasn’t myself today” to explain why they aren’t pleased with their actions. There’s a reputation issue here: people who aren’t satisfied with how something turned out don’t want to be known for it, or remembered by it. They want to be associated with successes, or what they consider successes, anyway, and they want to disassociate themselves from failure. Sometimes people try to deny any responsibility for failures. Instead they blame circumstances or other people. But there’s more to it than reputation.

Recently someone translating the book Primal Leadership asked me to explain what the authors meant by the words “best selves”, on page 197.

Primal Leadership is a book about emotional intelligence that looks at the impact of leaders’ emotion-handling skills on their business relationships. Here’s how the section containing these words reads:

“How can an organization transform itself from a place that discourages people’s best selves from making an appearance into a vibrant workplace where people feel energized and purposeful? That kind of change requires a great leap: from a thorough understanding of the reality to a profound engagement with people’s ideal visions–of both themselves as individuals and as part of an organization.” (pp. 197-198.)

I think the translator’s question is rather interesting: off the top of your head, what do you think it means — and how would you explain it to someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you? There are three things about it I find especially interesting.

The first is that each of us is aware of certain standards we set for ourselves, personally and professionally. We may or may not actually live up to our standards, and we may or may not apply our standards to other people. Our standards might include:

  • Being respectful to others;
  • Being accurate;
  • Being enthusiastic;
  • Being generous;
  • Being thrifty (not wasting money or other resources);
  • Being practical;
  • Being efficient;
  • Being useful;
  • Being a good decision maker; and
  • Being a quick learner.

To some extent our standards are imposed from outside – by parents, teachers, bosses, customers, or coworkers – but in the end we either internalize outside influences or reject them. We are influenced by outside standards, but the ultimate decision about applying these standards always lies within us individually. Otherwise all siblings, all fellow students, all fellow employees, etc., who have been influenced by the same expectations would share the same standards, and this is clearly not the case.

Of course, just because we have standards doesn’t mean we judge ourselves by whether we live up to them. Sometimes we simply don’t notice whether we meet our own standards. Sometimes we make excuses for our failures. And we all know somebody who talks about their standards often enough but regularly acts inconsistently. Advocates of both emotional intelligence and executive coaching stress that work performance and communication skills improve when people articulate their standards then compare their actions to their standards. When we discover inconsistencies between the two, we may change either our standards or our actions, or both.

So we all have a best self, although it may be unclear, even to ourselves, what to expect from that best self.

The second point that I want to touch upon is the way that our standards for our own conduct change depending upon the situations we are in, or more precisely, depending upon the role we play in a given situation. I find that the idea of “roles” is the simplest way to capture a snapshot of the different packages of standards we apply.

For example, when talking to an infant or a frail adult we try harder to be gentle and patient and don’t expect speed, precision, or consistency in response. By way of contrast, when we work opposite a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant, we expect and push for higher levels of speed, accuracy, and consistency. When talking to our boss most of us will talk less, and more quietly, and listen more attentively, than we do when talking with a subordinate. When talking to someone we love we will be more indulgent, whereas when talking to someone at whom we are angry we will allow little leeway.

So how our “best self” behaves may change depending upon our role.

The third point I’d like to bring up involves what I call the homunculus perspective. The word homunculus means “little human.” and it has a long tradition. In mythology, philosophy, psychology, and pop culture, a homunculus refers to a splitting of one being into multiple parts, with a question sometimes arising about whether one part is in charge of the other.

When I refer to the homunculus perspective I am referring to our tendency to speak of ourselves as operators or executive decision-makers living within our own bodies.

Perhaps the clearest example of the homunculus perspective in action is when we have conversations with ourselves. “I was just telling myself the other day…” is one common expression, or “I was debating with myself about whether or not to have another helping,” or “I had to stop myself from doing something stupid.” Seems ordinary enough, right? Of course, the interesting question at this point is: if YOU were the one doing the telling, or debating, or stopping…then WHO was it that you were talking to, debating with, or stopping? It’s harmless to talk about ourselves this way, and it helps most of us to think through conflicting impulses within our thoughts by treating them as if they were spoken by different people. So I like to think of the homunculus perspective as simply a metaphor that explains our internal debates in a familiar way, like a debate between different people — although I imagine many of us also attribute this apparent debate to our consciences, super-egos, internalized parents, God, or other sources.

So by talking about our “best self” as if we were talking about a separate person we can use the homunculus perspective to examine our standards and our actions and make value judgments about ourselves.

In conclusion, I think when the authors of Primal Leadership wrote the words “best selves” they were using the homunculus perspective metaphor to emphasize the expectations people have for themselves when they pursue high standards of conduct.

For a little extra spin on this topic, I recommend that the emotional climate of each workplace be designed to evoke the kind of “best self” behavior wanted by a company’s leadership. If the emotional climate is designed properly, everybody can easily step into the role of the “best” person performing their particular function.

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