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When developing a career or a relationship it is important to know who you are now and who you would like to be in the future. This requires sitting down and reflecting on your life, an activity that is often neglected, as its benefits are only visible later in life. If you are working towards progressing in life, the first step is to be clear about who you are.
When we turn to Google and type the words Who Am I we are provided with about 11,050,000,000 results. Songs that capture the essence of Who Am I through musical compositions to psychologists debating on whether we focus on this or a better question: how would I like to experience my life? We have spiritual leaders assuring us the ultimate answer through rediscovery of the human soul to meditation apps guiding us through a practice of self-enquiry. Ultimately, you and I want to decipher this mysterious question that’s irking us in the background Who Am I… Who Am I… Who Am I… Some make a conscious effort to answer that question while others ignore it as mind chatter. Being a scientist I belong to the former and decided to explore this question from a social science perspective and how clearly answering it helps us develop not just our careers but our lives. Simply put, our Self Concept describes Who Am I.
Exploring Self-concept or Who Am I?
The self-concept describes who you are. It is like a narrative about yourself. However, it is more than just the description of who you are, and also includes a description of how the different parts of your identity relate to each other. A self-concept is composed of:
A self-representation, containing your goals, values, role models, traits, social identities etc These describe who/what you are, and how you feel about yourself.
A self-concept structure, describing how the different elements of your self-representation relate to each other. This also contains how clearly and concisely you can describe the various elements, the complexity of your self-concept. For example, do you have identities or roles that have positive and negative components, how strongly or weakly are different aspects of your self concept related to each other.
A self-concept is defined as: a clearly and confidently defined, internally consistent, and temporally stable description about who you are (Campbell et al., 1996, p. 141).
A high quality self-concept is therefore clear and understandable. You can easily convey it, and you feel “good” about it, in the sense that, after reading the description you can say with confidence “Yes, this is me”. Your description is also stable in the short-term.
A clear self-concept is related with a number of other factors. Those who have clearer self-concept also have, on average, higher self-esteem, are emotionally more stable. Cultural factors also impact how clear your self-concept is. A study has shown that Canadian’s have higher self-concept clarity than Japanese. This does not mean that individuals from Eastern cultures do not have any clarity of who they are. It means that the concept of self-concept clarity is limited in its explanatory power.
According to Rawoot, van Heerder and Parker (2017) an overlap between elements in your self-concept, especially those describing your values, lead to greater career success. This is also what Stewart Friedman describes in his total leadership book. Self-concept clarity is related to a number of positive outcomes, such as purpose in life (Blazek & Besta, 2012).
If someone were to ask you today
‘Who Are You’ how confident are you to clearly communicate yourself, your values, your principles, and your purpose?
A starting point would be to find out what’s most important in your life.. your most important values, principles .. etc
How to arrive at a clear Self-concept?
Transitional and disruptive experiences impact our self-concept clarity. Certain events, such as divorce, losing a job, or leaving a religious organisation, can create confusion and through this decrease your self-concept clarity. However, other experiences can lead to greater clarity.Going abroad can give you the right stimulus to reflect on your life. However, before you pack your bags, you should know a bit more about how going abroad can help you develop a clear self-concept.
Going abroad is just one way you can increase your self-concept clarity. The idea is that you need to break your habits and force yourself to experience different things. This is easiest when traveling abroad, especially if you are not staying in a resort. What you think and belief is influenced by your environment. If you always lived in one environment you have adopted the norms of that environment. You do not have the experience of questioning your thoughts and behaviours (Zou et al., 2009). A good example is eating habits. I remind my children that in this part of the world we eat with knives and forks. My goal is two-fold when saying this: First, pick up the fork. Second, be conscious of your culture and remember to adapt where necessary.
1. Reflect on your experience
First, going abroad can help you increase your self-concept clarity because you are confronted with values, norms, and ways of living that are contradictory to what you are used to. These experiences create cognitive dissonance in you that you have the chance to resolve. Thus, it is the reflection on experiences while being abroad that helps you develop a clear self-concept.
Researchers call this type of reflection self-discerning reflection, when you reflect what part of your current identity truly reflects who you are. If you always lived in one culture, you are immersed in this culture and do not experience other ways of living. Simple things like eating breakfast can differ a lot, and give you a different perspective about what food is “normal” to eat at a specific time.
2. Immerse yourself in the new environment
Second, it is the depth of your international experiences that help you develop a clear self-concept and not the breath. In other words, the quality of your international experiences matter, not the quantity. If you only spent a couple of days in a country, you have fewer chances to be fully immersed in this strange culture. This is a reason to practice slow travel instead of hopping countries.
3. Orient, consolidate, and validate
Third, your reflection will go through several stages: It will begin with orientation. In that stage, you are making sense of the new situation. You will see yourself as lacking something, this can be an ability or clarity about yourself. This is followed by consolidation, when you and the new situation are kinda “becoming one”, meaning you are trying to place yourself in the new situation. Here you are working on yourself, and try to improve through outside feedback or reflecting on yourself. Finally, you are going through a phase of validation. This is when you passed the turning point and you are performing, in the sense that you demonstrate flexibility thanks to your reflection and can clearly describe who you are.
Knowing who you are will help you form and make effective career-related decisions. You will not be crippled by the abundance of choices, or anxious due to a lack of organization-centric career paths. Effective career decisions manifest when the decision that you make about your career are accompanied with certainty about the decision and a high level of commitment and decisiveness.
1. Write your story
This doesn’t have to be an elevator pitch type of speech, but more a long story format. Do this regularly and note changes as your progress with your story.
2. Seek out new experiences
Buy a book from a category that you generally wouldn’t explore, watch a weird movie, meet up with someone in real life who would generally not be a part of your social circle. A new experience always reveals something fascinating about yourself you never knew existed.
Adam, H., Obodaru, O., Lu, J. G., Maddux, W. W., & Galinsky, A. D. (2018). The shortest path to oneself leads around the world: Living abroad increases self-concept clarity. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 145, 16-29.
Błażek, M., & Besta, T. (2012). Self-concept clarity and religious orientations: Prediction
of purpose in life and self-esteem. Journal of Religion and Health, 51(3), 947–960.
Campbell, J. D., Trapnell, P. D., Heine, S. J., Katz, I. M., Lavallee, L. F., & Lehman, D. R. (1996). Self-concept clarity: Measurement, personality correlates, and cultural boundaries. Journal of personality and social psychology, 70(1), 141.
Rawoot, Ishreen, van Heerden, Adelai, & Parker, Laaiqah. (2017). Operational Forces soldiers’ perceptions of attributes and skills for career success. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 43(1), 1-9. https://dx.doi.org/10.4102/sajip.v43i0.1440
Zou, X., Tam, K. P., Morris, M. W., Lee, S. L., Lau, I. Y. M., & Chiu, C. Y. (2009). Culture as
common sense: Perceived consensus versus personal beliefs as mechanisms of cultural influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 579–597.
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