Who will you be?

Personal growth can only happen if we know who we want to be, says Sanyin Siang

“We are not yet what we shall be.” These words, attributed to 16th-century theologian Martin Luther, are among my favourites in offering a mindset for living. They undergird my philosophy as a CEO coach and adviser, and as a university educator. They speak to the dynamism of life and the vast opportunities we all have to learn and grow. They are incredibly hopeful words, too: a reminder that we are not shackled by past mistakes or failures, which are frankly inevitable in a world that requires us to take quick decisions with incomplete information.

But they also pose profound questions: whom do we wish to become? To what end are we building personal mastery, and towards what are we growing? Just as any good strategy begins with understanding the endgame, clarity about who we strive to be helps us avoid succumbing to distracting minutiae, or comparing our progress with others on tactics that were designed for endgames other than our own.

How can we choose whom we wish to become, and work out how to make progress in that direction? My work with leaders points to three essential actions.

First, make time to reflect. Pausing from the frenzy of the everyday is hard, and processing our thoughts and daily inputs can be uncomfortable. Looking inward forces us to be aware of both our good and not-so-admirable emotional responses to situations and people, and to explore why they happened. The reward is clarity about what really matters to us in the long term and in the moment. That often helps us discover something about ourselves, because clarity about what really matters to us helps us see how we wish to matter to others. It shows us who we aspire to be.

Second, create touchstone memories. No matter our circumstances, we have choices about the memories we make. We can choose to see wonder and acts of kindness – they are always present. We can choose to celebrate victories, no matter how small. We can choose to encourage and support those around us. Such memories are touchstones that remind us there is more goodness than not, and create a type of psychological safety that gives us the courage to take the risks required in pursuit of becoming the person we aspire to be: to make unconventional choices, go out of our comfort zone, take tough actions, and create new habits.

Third, engage others for feedback. Growth requires that we see ourselves clearly, yet our own personal perspective is inevitably limited. Our experiences, while valuable, also create blindspots – and every time we move into a new situation, including through a promotion, joining a new team or moving company, new blindspots form. A strength in one context can be a detriment in another. External data and other people’s perspectives are crucial. It’s why I start every coaching process with 360° interviews, and why we need accountability partners to provide perspective on our progress.

We face a period when many of us will feel little control over our circumstances and great uncertainty about the future. Yet we can still choose our endgame, pick the memories we make and determine how we grow. Knowing that enables us to thrive and prevail in the most trying of times. Personal mastery and growth begin with knowing who we are and who we wish to become.

Sanyin Siang is a Pratt School of Engineering professor and leads the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics (COLE) at Duke University