Have you ever had this experience? You meet with someone for the first time. First thing you know you’re listening to their elevator speech. They go on about the business that they’re in and the latest deal there working on. They go on and on with this rehearsed performance. With the worst of them you start to wonder if you really need to be there at all.
Soon you find yourself wondering “Who is this person and why are the so in love with the sound of their own voice?” What are you missing here? This person is not nearly as interesting to you as they clearly are to themselves.
So maybe you get adventurous and interrupt them. You try to turn the conversation towards finding the answer to that far more important question. Most often after a short diversion the enemy submarine returns to its original course and speed. No wait! That’s from an old WW II movie. Well anyway, you get the point.
The sense settles in that you’re along for the ride and don’t have any lines in this mini theatrical production. You have two options. First, you can stay through the whole performance and hope your eyes don’t glaze over two badly. Second, you can notice that your glass is empty and excuse yourself. If you decide to stay the experience may lead you to really need that refill.
Now think of the conversation as one between you and you. Are you so intent on telling yourself who you are that you go on and on - completely overriding the self-knowledge that will make you a whole and unique person? They this from a song by the Scottish singer/song writer Dougie MacLean:
Oh you need that rite of passage before you can continue on
That brave self understanding you can lean your dreams upon
You may want for children, you may crave for man and wife
But you need that rite of passage to the summer of your life
How many people do you know who seemed to have skipped one or two seasons? Gone from the spring to the winter of their lives without ever living through summer and fall?
It's a sad deluded vision this creature of our time
It's body now is broken it's smile it rarely has the chance to shine
It stands so high and mighty with its never ending needs
While somewhere in the beating heart the earth it vainly pleads
Much of my mentoring work starts with this idea. People come to me confused about who they are and what they should be doing with their lives. But they also tend to come with an insistent story about who they should be. Like the self-promoter who bends you ear interminably, they have a set speech that describes a vision - a synthetic reality - of their lives. Of course, the problem is that it just isn't working for them.
Or, how about this one? You get the feeling that the individual has been working the room and that you have finally been granted your ninety seconds of audience. Maybe they are not sure about you and, being better than half way down their list, you get assaulted late in the session. Somewhere around half way through you begin to realize that this is a dance in which you have no steps. The eyes say “I’m a warm and friendly individual that you should get to know”. But the voice keeps saying “I’m in control here and you are one of many audiences that I will perform before this evening. So do us both a favor, just listen until I’m through and then I’ll leave you alone. Let’s make this as painless (and unproductive) as possible!”
As your newest best friend drones on, you realize that they have an elevator speech that seems to lack any sort of personal vision or self awareness. Some even seem to follow outlines that we have all read – “How to craft the perfect elevator speech.” Lacking any humanity that you can see, the person before you has reduced themselves to anti-humanist inanity.
But if you’re really courageous (and this is where the experience can have some serious therapeutic value), it may also occur to you that you could be looking in a mirror. What if what you see is what you do?
I've been to paradise, never been to me
Of course, for most people 'paradise' feels more like purgatory!
Do you catch yourself treating yourself this way? You work a room telling everybody who will listen who you are - completely unaware that most of the people you are talking to are acutely aware that its a made-up image - a virtual representation of somebody you want them to believe is you. Of course, civility prevents them from saying what is really on their mind.
Its easy to identify those who have made that right of passage - who possess that 'brave self-understanding that they lean their dreams upon'. They stand out like beacons rather than like blaring asses. Yo know it when it happens - you meet somebody who is 'comfortable in their own skin'. But what about you? How much self-understanding are you sacrificing to this tendency to sell snake oil to the people you are close to? How much of you life are you willing to flush down the hole of inauthenticity? How long will you live without ever having lived the life that is uniquely yours?
Don’t Confuse Yourself with Your Elevator Speech!
Maybe the events described above don’t make any sense to you at all. Maybe you can hold them 'out there' but stridently contending that it's 'not me' - I don't do that. Maybe you don’t see a difference between who you really are and your elevator speech. If that’s the case, maybe the rest of this won’t make much sense to you either.
I’d like to suggest that the difference is quite important. It is the difference between an anti-humanist, Hegelian approach to people (people are what they do and their value is defined in ‘draft horse’ terms) and a humanist approach (people are who they are and what they have the potential to become and amaze) – and that is the difference between an instrumental approach towards the people you meet (their only worth what they can do for me) and an approach which relishes the incredible variety of a human experience and sees each meeting as yet another chance to experience that diversity (wow, another human being – and they’re different and potentially very interesting!). And there is a difference between treating yourself as a draft horse with a fanciful story or as the person you uniquely are.
So to be clear and at least for me, an elevator speech is about virtual reality while self-understanding is about who you really are. And that is true whether I am talking about mine, yours or anybodies. But I don need to say that I don't have one anymore. When somebody asks me who I am, I respond, "Well, I've got an idea or two about that. Let's find out together. And maybe we can find out who you are along the way."
One of the reasons that many individuals reflexively resort to an elevator speech as a substitute for a authenticity is that self-understanding takes reflection on who you have been and what you most dream of becoming. And that is heavy lifting. Many of the people I work with tell me that it is exhausting at first and exhilarating when they get the hang of it.
Importance of that Brave Self-Understanding
At the beginning of any relationship, I am always more interested in the person’ rather then their elevator speech. I suppose that tendency comes from an insatiable curiosity about people and who they are. I am simply fascinated by the incredible diversity of the ways humans find to make their way through life. I want to know how well they know themselves. I am attracted to people who seem to have a clear idea of who they are and where they are going.
The truth is that it’s a very good idea to have well-based and detailed self-knowledge because it makes you both an easier person to meet and a more interesting one to engage with. (Remember, I am not talking about the plastic-fantastic version that serves as most elevator speeches.) A clear understanding can help you successfully enter into productive relationships more easily and quickly. The ability to say “this is who I am and where I am going” provides a clarity that circumvents tendencies towards wandering or non-productive time wasting.
On the personal side, a well-based self-knowledge and self-awareness can help you move forward with confidence and inspire those around you to help you reach your dreams. It will also help you be more satisfied with your life and get the most out of mentoring relationships. You will be seen as a person that has taken their own destiny and future in hand. And here is the danger - if you don’t have a strong personal vision, you are going to find that others have taken to planning and directing your life for you. You may find, some years down the road, that you have been a passenger in your own life’s journey? Unless you are determined to accumulate regrets … but then it's your decision.
At it’s core …
Solid and authentic self-understanding is the basis for living the life that you create of yourself - the one that you were meant to live - and for an authentic relationship with the world around you and the people you meet along the way.
So what does this self-understanding involve? It's a combination of a fearless assessment of what is; an equally fearless assessment of what is possible and finally a determination and plan to make the journey.
I am often amazed at how many people fail miserably at the first of these. My experience has been that most people are much more substantial than they give themselves credit for. Many of my mentoring engagements start with, and dwell extendedly on, a personal inventory that more accurately reflects reality. Sometimes the conversation goes like this:
Me: ‘You have much more to offer than you are giving yourself credit for!’
Client: ‘No – you are wrong – I am less than you see!’
Me: ‘You deserve much more than you are settling for!’
Client: ‘You are wrong. I don’t deserve even what I receive.”
Me: ‘Look around you. Your friends agree with me.’
Client: ‘What do they know? They are wrong. They don’t know me like I do.’
What is true in delusion seems truth in fact to the deluded
I remember being at a dinner in Scotland at which the after-dinner conversation had gravitated to the British kitchen. For those of you who have never been there, British kitchens and bathrooms are not only retro to an extreme but inadequate to civilized living. And the British tend to celebrate this inadequacy! The conversation had settled on the British vision of what was an adequate refrigerator. Again, for those of you who don’t know, in Britain it is what we would refer to as a dormitory unit – about a quarter the size of the average one in an American kitchen and quite primitive and inefficient.
As things heated up – I was arguing that the user of the kitchen deserved an adequate refrigerator. The natives (mostly the women) were arguing for the status quo. Then one woman suddenly interrupted. “Wait just a bloody minute,” she said, “this bloke is arguing that we deserve better and we are responding with a loud ‘no we don’t deserve better.’ Come to think of it, I like his side better.”
Most often the evolution of a self-understanding begins with an acceptance that you deserve better than what you’ve been settling for
Self-Understanding - First Steps
The first step is conducting an accurate and thoroughgoing assessment. Here are just some questions that you might develop answers to (there are lots more and you should develop and continually revise your own customized list):
Sources of Personal Fulfillment
- What is important to me in my life?
- What do I really enjoy doing?
- What brings me happiness?
- What brings me a sense of accomplishment or mastery?
- What are the things that I most proud of having achieved?
- What are the issues or causes that I care deeply about?
- What could I see myself doing for the rest of my life?
Sources of Irritation and Blocking
- What am I tolerating?
- What am I constantly procrastinating about?
- What really drives me nuts?
- How is my life out of balance?
- What keeps happening to me that I would rather avoid?
- What are the recurring patterns in my life that I need to change?
- What bothers me most about other people and why?
Personal Strengths and Potentials
- What are the things I can do at the good-to-excellent level?
- What are the things that I am willing to learn to do at a good-to-excellent level?
- Where is my depth of experience?
- What are my strongest interests and passions?
- What value do I bring to a relationship that tends to be unique?
- Who do I know that I can team with to provide excellence in service to others?
- What can I commit to and reliably maintain that commitment?
Personal Weaknesses and Vulnerabilities
- What would I like to stop doing or do as little as possible?
- What are my blind spots – what mistakes do I seem to keep making over and over?
- How do I sabotage my future possibilities?
- How is the way I treat others keeping me from developing enduring and mutually productive relationships?
- What don’t I seem to be able to understand about my life and its present course?
Personal Goals and Dreams
- What kind of a person would I like to become in three or four years?
- How about in ten or fifteen years?
- When I dream about who I might become, who is that?
- What would I like to be known for?
- What would I like to be remembered for?
- What do I dream about contributing to the lives of others?
- What successes are important to me?
Facing Your Self and Asking Others for Help
It is important to keep in mind that developing answers to the questions above is the first step in making things better. You must avoid having this ‘conversation with the mirror’ descent into an orgy of self-criticism. That complete waste of time is simply an avoidance based most often on the highly erroneous assumption that you are not worth the effort. Unless you are willing to start with the fact that you are and that the more honest and supportive you are of your interests the better the results will be, why bother?
Also, your first responses are likely to be either fairly facile and self-serving in a maudlin way or corrosive and self-depreciating. It is going to go better if you break the process into shorter working sessions with a bit of time for reflection in between.
Copy the questions from this column and paste them onto a new page. Make sure that you add ones that you think are important and re-word all of them in ways that seem to make more sense to you. Develop first cuts at answers to each and then put them away. Leave them alone for a couple of days and go back and revisit each.
Once you have done this choose a couple of friends and share the answers with them. Ask them if your responses accurately reflect who you are and listen to their responses carefully. There is an old saying, ‘you never know how you look until you get your picture took.’ Your friends should provide you with that reality check and help you produce a well based assessment.
If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there? Yogi Berra
Make the effort – your life depends on it!
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD
PJ, Mentoring Client,
Mentoring Client, CEO and Serial Entrepreneur,
Mentoring Client, Deloitte,
CEO of Croix Connect and Host of ABC Radio’s ‘Taking Care of Business’,
Partner, IT & Telecom, Defense Solutions,