To see ourselves as others see us

DFW this is water quote

picture credit

Today I am reminded of the difficulty of seeing ourselves how others see us and the power of critical thinking both for that and to truly see and understand others.

These are universal challenges for each of us. For those who lead others, the “self-leadership” part is at the core, then the layers and dimensions simply expand, to the people in our organisation, the values, beliefs and cultures consciously and unconsciously present. The opportunities for understanding and exploring are endless as we then look at societal, systemic, structural issues.

For this reason, we often look to understand such issues through philosophy and also art, including writing.

Today I’ll share teachings from this from two great authors, David Foster Wallace and Robert Burns, I hope this supports you in looking at what you can do to see yourselves as others see you, as well as to look to understand and see others more clearly.

Seeing ourselves as others see us

“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion”


Oh, would some Power give us the gift
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion

~ Robert Burns,

from “To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church”, 1786

Robert Burns is celebrated around the world every year on his birthday 25th January, with Burns Night events that reflect the wide and varied nature of his work and thinking.

In this verse from one of his most famous poems, he captures one of life’s challenges, that we cannot truly see ourselves as others see us.

I do encourage you to attend a Burns Night celebration next January if you can. They are run according to a set format that is reflective of the man himself, from the formal to the funny, the conventional to the wildly ribald.

Through the format of a Burns Night, we can both understand much about the man himself, as well as our fellow humans, as Burns and his writing show so much about the human condition.

Now, call it self-awareness, self-knowledge, self-leadership, to truly see ourselves as others see us is the work of a lifetime, as well as sometimes taking bravery.

Being more personal about this, I am constantly looking to grow as a person and to better understand myself is at the heart of this. I am most grateful to have dear friends who both see me clearly and, critically, will “call me on my s**t” constantly. I love directness and, oh boy, I have some direct friends.

On a less personal and more business sense, last year I chose to work with the amazing business partnership that is AliMat Inc, as for years I had struggled to capture what it is I bring to my clients. I simply could not see myself as others see me. Alison and Matt did a “deep dive” on this over several months, including interviewing clients, friends, gathering testimonials and more. The result is the home and other pages on this site, where, through their genius in extracting the essence from that deep dive, I read it and, for the first time, my site feels like it is who I am and, far more importantly, what I bring to those who work for me. In short, you can now read it and see what I offer to you, something it is tough for me to see for myself, I needed that outside eye to see it so it could be shared.

So, a few examples here of seeing ourselves as others see us.

Now, a more contemporary phrase for this is “we cannot see the goldfish bowl we are swimming in”, and this both reminds me and leads me to the second part of this post.

Critical thinking and seeing others

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

These are the opening words of “This is Water”, one of my absolute favourite speeches, by the author David Foster Wallace.

The first part of this post is about the difficult of seeing ourselves as other see us. The speech by DFW talks powerfully to us about how we think and so how we can see others when we choose to recognise that the world does not revolve around us.

For consideration in terms of leadership, one of the most powerful things for any of us is humans is the feeling that we seen, we are heard, we are understood. Give this gift to an individual and they are so much more likely to follow you than if you just give them an idea, no matter how great that idea. For those your organisation serves, where they feel truly understood and served by you and your organisation, they will build powerful loyalty do you (and the reverse is also very much true). We may call that customer service, yet it can be so much deeper than those words.

So, consider your own lens of self and leadership as I take you through the teachings of “This is Water”.

To begin, at the base of this post you will see a beautiful labour of love, a video edit of this speech by The Glossary. The video uses a central story from within his speech to truly illustrate the power of seeing others deeply. Please give yourself the nine minutes to watch it, I watch this over and over again, it is deeply powerful.

To go deeper still, though, the full speech (transcript here, full video (22:43 in length here) takes us on an in-depth and impassioned call for critical thinking by an absolute master of the craft of creative writing, one taken far too soon from us.

For those who don’t follow the links and read the transcript or listen to the full speech, I’ll try to capture the core of his message on critical thinking with some excerpts:

..The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.

..the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your scepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

..The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

..Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.

..teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

..the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

..That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

..real value of a real education…has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.” “This is water.”

…It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

See others, see yourself. It is indeed the job of a lifetime. I hope you both commit to it and enjoy the journey.

In closing today, I give you “This is Water”.


Also published on Medium.

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