Your Life as a Work in Progress

Earl R. Smith II, PhD

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One of the first steps in my mentoring engagements is to have the client begin to understand that their life is a work in progress. The deeper we get into it, the more detailed that understanding becomes. Then there is the recognition that life is a process which begins at birth and continues until death. But recognition is only the first step. It is an important one to be sure, but the best comes after that. We can begin to focus on the value of each of us and the positive impact that we can have on the lives of others.

Step One – Assessment

We begin with a self-assessment. Our objective is to develop a clearer understanding of the life which has emerged. Most of my clients begin this phase with some confidence that they understand the life they are living and how it came to be. But that certainty is soon replaced with a deeper understanding that overturns many of their cherished assumptions. In a fundamental way, they are meeting themselves for the first time. As casual assumptions are replaced by deeper self-knowledge, a far different picture begins to emerge.

One exercise that I use involves a self-description. I ask them to write one in as much detail as they can manage. For the most part, these paragraphs tend to be rather generic. They could be a description of most people. The hopes and dreams, strengths and faults, opportunities and limits are described in very general terms. It is a start, but only a start. Nothing much of that initial description survives the process as we begin to move from the generic to the specific. The driver for the process is a very simple set of questions.

1. Tell me about yourself
2. What kind of a person are you?
3. What do you think are your strongest points?
4. What are your weaknesses?
5. How do people around you see you?
6. What do you stand for?
7. What do you tolerate?
8. What about you makes you most proud?
9. What about you gives you pause?

The first responses to these questions are an outline of the, almost casual, vision that each of us evolves during our life. Most answers are cast in positive value-loaded language. Nobody wants to see themselves as a negative person. But, using these initial responses as a baseline, we begin the journey of self-discovery. The results are almost always far more positive and empowering than the generic description. My clients begin to discover that they are much more complex and important than they assumed.

Step Two: Meeting Yourself

The assessment is a kind of snapshot; a picture frozen in time. Once we begin to fill out the details, the vision shifts to that work in progress. The idea of a person who is complete falls away and is replaced. Meeting yourself involves recognizing the things that are going on in your life and understanding why and how you are managing them. It means meeting yourself as a work in progress.

Once you start to see yourself in this greater detail, your self-image becomes richer and more detailed. A sense of progress in some areas and lack of progress in others highlights important details of the life you have been living. Some of these efforts seem positive and empowering while others look limiting. The process of working forward from the baseline involves asking at each point, ‘I know that I said that that this is the way I am, but am I really this way’? It also means asking, ‘I always thought that this is what I stand for. Is it really’?

Step Three: Finding Good Mirrors

Early in the process, it is important to draw in other perspectives. Part of my mentoring involves building a support network of close friends. These serve as ‘mirrors’; the better the friends, the better the mirrors. It is always important to have these sources to validate what you are telling yourself you are. We all need to understand the critical importance of these ‘veracity checks’. An old friend and mentor was fond of saying, “I’ve never met anyone who could tell it completely straight, including me”. The truth is that each of us has become very good at misrepresenting ourselves in ways that even we cannot detect. The irony is that most of these misrepresentations distort rather than reflect our true nature.

So we develop a support structure to check our conclusions and, most of the time, the reflections tell us that we are selling ourselves short.

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