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Socrates observed that ‘a life unexamined is not worth living’. Nowhere is that more true than when we act against our own self-interests and suffer the consequences – pay the bills for our own rash actions.
“It’s what you do without realizing it that can really mess things up.”
That’s the way one of my early mentors used to put it. Jim was constantly pointing out those things I did without thinking – and the effect of my having done them on future prospects. Now don’t get me wrong, Jim was not an advocate of “staying low and not making waves”. Far from that, he made more than his share of waves and was a real change agent in his business and personal relationships. He insisted that you had to realize the likely impact of doing this or being that way on what you wanted to get out of life and the people around you.
I don’t want to give the impression that Jim was manipulative or an opportunist. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Jim’s suggestion was inwardly, rather than outwardly, focused. He seemed to have taken one of the proscriptions over the entrance to the temple of the oracle at Delphi quite seriously – “above all – know thyself”.
My mentoring practice often gives me a chance to apply Jim’s prescription. Most of the time, new clients are suffering some crisis in either their career or private life. Most of the time they have been unable to figure out why this suffering has come to them. The search for answers is almost always an inward journey – a journey of self-discovery.
One particular client comes to mind. This person was in their early 30’s. He had the beginnings of a good career but there were problems showing up. During the last five years he had jobs with three different companies. His resume was starting to reflect the fact that he could not seem to stay in one place for very long. The first move was a promotion of sorts but the second one was clearly lateral.
That was what I saw when I looked at this resume. However, that was not what my client wanted to talk about during our initial sessions. Current conflicts with team members were causing concern and leading to ‘serious talks’ with his supervisors. His focus was on those immediate problems – but, he avoided thinking about them within the historical context of the last several years. My first task was to help him break through to a deeper self-knowledge.
The effort took several sessions. Eventually we began to talk about his experiences in the other companies. What we discovered was that a similar pattern seemed to develop no matter where he was working. He also began to talk about how this pattern was present in his personal life. He was divorced and had gone through a series of rather short-term relationships since.
The real breakthrough came when we began to talk about his participation in various chat rooms and social media sites. Behind a screen of supposed anonymity, his behavior became more extreme. He was more judgmental, more aggressive and far more intemperate. As we read through the messages that he had sent, I could see him becoming more and more embarrassed.
I do want to be clear about something – the personae in the chat rooms and social media sites was not his real personality but a distillation of certain tendencies within that personality. He became someone within that environment because he thought that no one would connect his real life with the fictional one. The supposed anonymity magnified center tendencies and subordinated others. As a foot note, he was wrong about the anonymity. He behaved in this manner on sites which contained his ‘profile’ – a profile that listed his company and job. One of the ‘serious talks’ with a supervisor was triggered by an e-mail complaint received from one of his ‘targets’. Anonymity, it seems, is not all it’s supposed as being.
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