gh - self-aware robotNatascha Chtena is a PhD student in Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena

Honestly, I have a hard time understanding why barely anyone in higher ed ever talks openly about how intrinsic self-knowledge and self-awareness are to success, in grad school and beyond. How your graduate careers will not be automatically marked by large doses of self-discovery and skill-building. And how, unless you’ve figured out where you’re headed, grad school might well get you nowhere. Because it doesn’t matter how smart, hard-working or diligent you are when you don’t know who you are and what you want. Without a clear sense of where you are going, grad school can get frustrating (even painful), expensive, and long. Very long.

Having said that, I don’t believe that anyone is born knowing his or her self. I also think it’s a common misconception that self-knowledge and self-awareness are bi-products of life experience; some people grow old without developing either. In other words, if you seek to get to know yourself better you have to work for it, you have to make a conscious effort, and you have to do it with intention and purpose. But how?

Actively ask for feedback (and listen):

I know this won’t be easy. When I first started approaching people for suggestions and feedback I was terrified, defensive, and close-minded. I heard things that surprised and others that hurt me (and so will you), and I was just plain bad at taking surprise criticism productively. But then I came to realize that without correction, my weaknesses would limit how far I could take myself, in grad school and in life more broadly. Pretending I’ve got it all figured out could only last so long after all.

Of course, coming across as a drifter or having a nervous breakdown in front of, say, your thesis supervisor is no good. Also, having a mental list of what you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses during such conversations is a must. But asking for honest feedback can be as hurtful as it can be empowering.

And one last thing. Try looking beyond the idea of “the one” mentor who will hand hold you through the journey of self-discovery. Not to underestimate the profoundness of such relationships, but sometimes placing your life (and self-esteem) into the hands of a single person can be tricky. Trust me, I’ve been there. Instead, sit back and think critically and maturely about anyone – supervisors, colleagues, friends etc. – in your social network that might be able to offer some valuable insight. And don’t forget to take notes (pain and repressed anger can be distracting)!

Take a few personality tests (but not too many):

While there are plenty of online tests to waste your time with – from which One Direction member you will marry, to what kind of animal you were in a previous life – the one type of test worth your time is a personality test. Sure, some of them are pricey, like the acclaimed Myers Briggs test which, depending on extra features, can cost you anything between $50 and $100 (ouch). But don’t worry! Discovering yourself doesn’t have to make you broke, as many low-cost and free alternatives can be found online.

The classic Princeton Review Career Quiz, for example, is free, fast, and concise. Certainly, the list of suggested careers is too long (75 in my case) but the personality overview is enlightening and is neatly tied up to the “right” workplace environment (for example informally paced and future-oriented or orderly and structured). Another good tool is the RHETI, based on the Enneagram concept, which identifies people as one of nine personality types (such as the peacemaker or the enthusiast). While you can find a free Sampler online, the complete test and interpretation will set you back $10. A personal favorite is the Keirsey Temperament Sorter (KTS), which helps you find out if you are an Artisan, Guardian, Idealist or Rational. Good news is the site only requires a free registration for you to take the test. Last but not least, the Draw a Pig Quiz is hilarious and impressively accurate!

Gain loads of work experience outside the “ivory tower”:

Obviously, personality tests and career quizzes can only take you so far. If you want to get a real sense for your strengths and weaknesses, you have to put yourself “out there.” Even if you’ re certain about what field interests you, it’s still very useful to work in different positions, in different environments, and with different people. Seriously. I’ve worked for over 30 non-profits, for-profits, NGOs, public institutions, start-ups, and individuals, and every single one of those work experiences taught me something about myself that I didn’t know. Working in the field you are pursuing, or any field really, won’t just equip you with hands-on experience, professionalism, and knowledge of new technologies, it – gradually and painfully, I must admit – equips you with self-knowledge.

Discover (and push) your physical limits:

What has physical exercise got to do with self-knowledge? Loads! Whether it’s running a marathon, climbing a mountain, or rafting through a national park, challenging sports teach you that physical limits are breakable. They teach you that your limits are not fixed but temporary. And most importantly they show you that everything holding you back is in your head. The thing is, most of us tend to have potential that we’re not fulfilling that is “locked up” somehow. Physically challenging—even extreme—experiences not only enable us to recognize this potential, but also force us to reach it. Sure, there are multiple ways to find out what you’re really made of, but pushing your physical limits might be especially valuable if you’re the kind of grad student who’s convinced mental limits are the only ones worth breaking (I’ve been there too). Not that mental or, if you like, intellectual challenges don’t teach you a lot, because they do. But they teach you different things, and the insights from both are indispensable.

Admittedly, those tools and activities are the ones that have worked best for me. A while ago, our writers Eva Lantsoght and Katy Mayers shared how developing mindfulness and practicing meditation respectively, helped them better understand their patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Others have found themselves in self-help books, community volunteering activities, or somewhere in South-East Asia. There’s really no wonder pill, and it’s all hard work. But when evidence suggests that blind spots in self-knowledge can pretty much screw up your life (poor decision-making, poor academic achievement, emotional and interpersonal problems, lower life satisfaction – do I need to go on?), action may be the only option.

What strategies have you used to boost your self-knowledge and awareness?

[Image from Flickr user Wizetux and used under Creative Commons License]

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