Reflection as a Tool for Growth

When we talk about Reflection, we are actually talking about two different but related situations and outcomes. When you look in the mirror (the most literal form of Reflection), you can see yourself and the world in a way that is not possible without a mirror. And there are two important results to that:

  • Self-Reflection: You are seeing yourself the way others see you.
  • Reflecting Back: You can see behind you.

Both of these perspectives present you with learning and growth opportunities.

Self-Reflection: Seeing Yourself the Way Others See You

We, as human beings, are biased towards ourselves. We have to be! We need to believe that we can succeed so that we have a chance at success. And because of that, we hide our flaws from ourselves. We deny our mistakes. We avoid truths about ourselves.

Reflection. True Reflection. Looking at ourselves the way other see us is the key to really seeing ourselves without bias and without judgement. When someone else sees us for who we are, they just see the facts. “He is not a great listener.” “She tends to pontificate.” “He makes a lot of excuses.” “She is always late.” And while those might sound like judgements, they are really just observations as they are seen from the outside. She (in the above example) is determined to be “always late” because she is, in fact, always late. That might be followed by a judgement. But it is simply a truth based on a track record.

We cannot always see that sort of thing in ourselves. When I am late, I know much more about why I’m late and what I intended to achieve and who caused me to be late. The outside observer has none of that. To her, I am simply always late. It doesn’t really matter whether I have a good excuse. If the excuses are good enough, that might change the judgement the outside observer puts on the observation. But it won’t change the observation itself.

“She is always late because she lives two hours away. (It’s understandable.)” vs “She is always late. I can’t trust her with client meetings.”

Those are two different judgements based on the same observation.

So how do we look at ourselves the way an outside observer looks at us. I would argue that it requires two actions:

  • Observe without judgement
  • Observe over time

Observing without judgement means that when you watch yourself work, you document what you see without thinking poorly of yourself, without feeling guilty, without reading too much into what you are seeing. Here’s an example. If I wanted to see myself through the skill of listening, I might spend a week tracking the ratio of time that I listened versus the ratio of time that I spoke on every phone call I participate in that week. You might make a simple chart like this:

Note that there is no column for judgement. At the end of the week, look at it objectively. Notice that you do, in fact, speak much more than you listen most of the time. Assess whether or not you think that is even a problem. And decide what you want to do about it.

Also note that the work described above forces observation over time. It’s never a good idea to look at one example of anything and make a judgement based on that one example.

You are looking for patterns and consistency.

When you find a consistent pattern, you can make an observation about yourself the way another person would make an observation about you. And because you have removed your ego from the equation — you are not passing judgement — you can try to solve the problem objectively, as well.

Think of it as a scientific experiment. I notice X about myself. I want to change X about myself. What can I try?

What you might find is that the simple act of documenting, in this case, the ratio of listening to speaking in your conversations actually begins to change the way you approach the conversations. Because you know you will be writing the numbers down and because we are one our own sides — remember, we are biased towards ourselves — you might find yourself listening more just to pad the numbers! That’s fantastic! You are already taking developmental steps forward.

But that might not be enough. Try something else. Observe the results of that trial. If it works, keep going. If it doesn’t abandon that solution without thinking twice. Be cold. Be scientific. If you approach the squishy stuff with scientific un-squishiness, you can change even the squishy stuff!

Reflecting Back: Seeing Behind You

Ma — Japanese for Negative Space

The other advantage to Reflection is that you can see behind you while taking yourself into account.

In Japanese, there is a character (shown on the left) called “Ma”. Ma is translated as the gap, space or pause between two structural parts. But it tells a larger story of philosophy that has been spoken about for centuries. It is the idea of The Pause.

The philosophy goes like this: We, as human beings, spend our time doing two things.

  1. We desire something/someone/somewhere
  2. We take action to get ourselves what we want

The Pause is the X Factor. The Pause can be inserted in between a desire and an action and/or in between an action and a desire.

Imagine you want to eat a cookie. You desire a cookie. Because you desire that cookie, you take the actions necessary to get that cookie. You go to the kitchen. You open the cabinet. You reach into the cookie jar and voila! you have that thing that you once desired. But surely life does not come to a neat little conclusion in that moment of satisfaction. Soon after you eat the cookie — maybe even while you are eating the cookie — you recognize another desire. I’m thirsty. So you open the refrigerator and take out the milk. You place a glass on the counter and you pour the milk.

The pause can be placed in between the desire and the action. It occurs to you that you desire a cookie. But before you start walking to the kitchen, you take a moment — just a second — to consider, Do I want a cookie? Why do I want a cookie? Is right now a good time to have a cookie? Am I just procrastinating? Maybe you decide to go get the cookie. Maybe you don’t. That is not the point. The point is that because you have paused to consider your action before taking it, you have made a conscious decision to act or not act, as the case may be.

The pause can also be placed in between the action and the next desire. So you get the cookie. You are eating it. Do you even taste the cookie? Or are you already on to the next desire? Pause. Enjoy the cookie. You made the conscious decision to take action to get what you desired. Bask in that for a moment.

The first type of pause allows you to make more deliberate decisions. I want the cookie AND I feel strongly about going to get it. (As opposed to, I want the cookie. Here I go getting it without even thinking.) You are considering your actions prior to taking them.

The second type of pause allows you to extract meaning from the decisions you have made. That can mean enjoying the fruits of your labor. That can mean considering whether you made the right decision so that you can make better decisions in the future.

And, obviously, this isn’t just about cookies. This is about everything.

This type of Reflection, the Pause, is closely aligned with making meaning. Why do we do anything if not in search of meaning and purpose?

Let’s come back to our original example of listening skills. As you’ll recall, you have decided that you want to listen more. You’ve looked at your behavior objectively by making observations about yourself over the course of a week. Pause. Find meaning in those observations. Don’t just jump into the next set of actions based on the next set of desires.

That brings us to the challenge.

Here’s your challenge: Think about something that you want to improve about yourself. Think about when that something comes up in your life. Spend a week observing yourself and documenting those observations. Don’t judge. Don’t get down on yourself. Don’t allow guilt to cloud your work. You are a scientist, dammit! Look at those documented observations. Pause and try to find meaning in what you have observed. Allow yourself to see a new desire. Take action.

We’d love to hear about what you learn. We at CultivateMe are fascinated with the way people work now, the way people wish they could work in the future and how we can build the bridge to the new world where learning and work are two parts of the same whole. Send me an email at

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