How well do you know yourself?

Why self-awareness at work just might be the most underrated, overlooked element of a successful leader.

A few months ago, I asked Ben Congleton, CEO of Olark, what he wished he’d learned earlier as a leader. No, he didn’t mention learning a new business development hack, nor did he talk about the importance of hiring well. Rather, what Ben wishes he’d learned earlier was how to improve his self-awareness as a leader.

Self-awareness, really? After considering it for a moment, I caught myself nodding vigorously at his answer. How true!

In my head, I recalled all the moments I’ve personally lacked self-awareness as a leader: When I micromanaged someone yet had no idea, when I argued against a new idea because of my own bias… The list goes on. Each time, I’d shot myself in the foot.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized: Self-awareness at work just might be the most underrated, overlooked element of a successful leader.

Here’s why…

Why self-awareness is crucial for leaders

Fundamentally, self-awareness is about understanding your own mental state. It’s knowing about yourself: When are you energized? When are you in a bad mood? Where are you strong in, and where are you weak? What are you tendencies, your biases, and your leanings toward? What might your blindspots be?

This self-knowledge is irreplaceable. Without self-awareness, you can’t make informed decisions. You don’t know if you’re getting in your own way — if a strong irrational personal bias or misguided mental model is shaping your view on things.

Self-awareness is also critical as a leader because it means that you can build healthier relationships with your employees. Ben himself admits how his lack of self-awareness kept him from resolving an employee conflict as well as he’d like. He recalls:

“I remember there was one point where I was trying to resolve a conflict between two employees, and I just was like my head was somewhere else, my head was just like ‘This is the last thing on my to-do list, I just need to get this done, and then I can hop on a plane and go see my family.’”

Lastly, self-awareness is important for your growth and personal development as a leader. You can’t improve as a leader if you don’t know what to improve in. You have to see the current state of yourself clearly if you want to make any progress in getting better as a leader.

With self-awareness being so important, what are the ways you can actually improve your self-awareness in leadership?

How to improve your self-awareness as a leader

Assume positive intent.

One thing that Ben tries to keep in mind to improve his self-awareness as a leader is to assume good faith. When you feel yourself getting defensive and are not in a good mental state to receive feedback, stop and recognize it.Understand that the source of your resistance to what the other person is saying may be your poor assumption of the other person’s intention. You think they’re out to get you, or have ulterior motives. So assuming positive intent is a first step to bringing a sense of self-awareness to the situation: You may not being hearing things for what they are because you’re misreading the other person’s intention.

Hold up a mirror to yourself and your decisions.

Self-awareness naturally includes assessing yourself for your own mental models, biases, strengths and shortcomings, and the gaps in your perception of reality. Something that Peter Drucker, the well-known management expert, has recommended is: “Whenever you make a decision or take a key decision, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the results with what you expected.” Warren Buffet, in fact, practices a version of this with his investment decisions. This active reflection process helps create a deeper understanding for yourself. And by reflecting on your decisions and the outcomes, you can reach a more objective understanding of what’s working for you as a leader, and what’s not.

It’s not all about you.

Self-awareness isn’t just about reflecting inward, and delving into what you’re personally feeling. You have to understand what’s going on with the other person, as well. How might what’s happening at home or something that a family member is struggling with be affecting her performance? Does this person have preferences and reactions drastically different from your own? Don’t assume that this person wants to be treated the way you want to be treated. Embracing this nuance that everyone is not like you is a cornerstone of self-awareness as a leader. It’s not all about you — you must seek out to understand others’ perspectives.

Ask your team the tough questions.

If you really want to become self-aware, there are few better ways to accomplish this than asking your team. This means asking questions that you may be even hesitant to know the answer to. For instance, try asking, “When’s the last time something I did or said frustrated you?” Or, ask, “When’s the last time you felt unsupported as a member of the team?” When you defer to them to shed light on your tendencies, not only will you get helpful information to give you greater self-awareness, but you show them a willingness to become better as a leader. That, in itself, helps strengthen your bond with the rest of your team. Not sure exactly what to ask your team? Try a few of these questions to uncover your leadership blindspots.

Find an accountability partner.

For Ben, the most effective way for him to develop greater self-awareness as a leader was to hire an executive coach. For Ben, this was helpful for two reasons: (1) It created an accountability partner for him, helping him put into the practice the things he wanted to improve, and (2) it forced him to have a time to reflect every week, causing him to set aside time to deliberately to become more self-aware. Without this third-party intervening to keep Ben actively focusing on his own self-awareness, he doubts he would have made the same progress he did as a leader. Now, I’m not saying you need to go out and hire an executive coach tomorrow. Rather, a third-party serving as an accountability partner could be a friend, mentor, spouse or anyone outside the company. You simply need a buddy to help make sure you’re walking the walk when it comes to becoming more self-aware.

I’m so grateful that Ben admitted that self-awareness was his greatest leadership lesson. It was the reminder I needed to double-down on my own personal self-awareness. Without self-awareness, we fly blind as leaders. Choosing to know ourselves is truly our first step to becoming a better leader.

P.S.: This was originally published on the Know Your Team Blog. If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊(And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Why we dismiss negative feedback

Three fallacies that get in the way of hearing what we need to hear. Here’s how by recognizing them, we can overcome them.

My stomach dropped. My face flushed.

I thought to myself: “No way that’s true!” and “No way that’s me…”

Those were my physical and mental reactions when an acquaintance gave me some feedback a few years ago. (She told me I had “come across as fake” to her… Ouch!)

My first instinct was to completely dismiss her feedback.

Now looking back, I wonder… Why?

Why was my first instinct to push this feedback away? Why was I so quick to say it wasn’t true or that it didn’t matter?

Simply put: We hate criticism.

Anything negative, anything critical — we fear it. We resist, push back, and build a wall around ourselves.

In fact, as humans, our brains are hardwired to resist negative feedback. Research show how our brains hold onto negative memories longer than positive ones — so the negative stuff always hurts more. We’re more upset about losing $50 than gaining $50… It’s the same when it comes to feedback. When we hear something negative, it sticks with us more than when someone tells us something positive about ourselves.

Our distaste for negative feedback is so strong that further research shows we drop people in our network who tell us things we don’t want to hear. In a recent study with 300 full-time employees, researchers found that people moved away from colleagues who provided negative feedback. Instead, they chose to seek out interactions with people who only affirmed their positive qualities.

Fascinating, right? In other words, whether or not we intend to, we seem to insulate ourselves away from any potential negative self-image of ourselves.

To be honest, it sounds like quite a self-absorbed way to live: To seek out only those who tell you what you want to hear. To never have the humility to want to learn, adjust, improve and become better.

How did we get like this?

Some psychologists suggest that we associate negative feedback with criticism received in school or from our parents growing up, and that’s what prevents us from hearing negative feedback.

Personally, I’ve found three fallacies in my own head that get in the way of me being receptive to negative feedback…

  1. I’m a perfectionist. I expect myself to be good at everything. So when I hear negative feedback about myself, it conflicts with what I think is true… and it makes me push the feedback away.
  2. I don’t trust the other person. I’m skeptical of the person who gave me the feedback. What was her intention? Does she really have the full story? Perhaps she just misinterpreted things? So I disregard the feedback, as a result.
  3. I conflate behavior with identity. I interpret the feedback as an assessment my sense of self-worth. “If I’m seen as fake by someone, that must mean I’m a bad person.” It’s hurtful to think about this, so I choose to ignore the feedback.

These knee-jerk reactions are the foundation for the wall I start to build around me when I hear negative feedback.

To knock down this wall, and make sure my mind and heart is open to receiving criticism, I keep these three fallacies in mind. When someone gives me negative feedback, I ask myself…

  1. Am I being a perfectionist? Are my perfectionist tendencies getting in the way of hearing something worth learning from this feedback?
  2. Am I distrustful of the other person? Am I resisting this feedback simply because of my relationship with this person, or what I perceive her or his intentions to be?
  3. Am I conflating behavior with identity? Am I shutting out this feedback because I’m projecting this feedback onto my sense of self-worth?

Take a moment to sit and marinate on these questions. They may uncover why you tend to isolate yourself from feedback. This understanding of why you dismiss feedback is the first step to making sure you’re hearing all of it.

After all, you don’t want to get caught inadvertently pushing away those who tell you the truth, creating a circle of yes-people who tell you only what you want to hear.

Know why you dismiss feedback, first.

P.S.: This was originally published on the Know Your Team Blog. If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊(And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Speed Reading

My 8th grade teacher had a curious process where she made us produce three book reports each quarter — three books that we picked on our own that fit diverse themes she had chosen. When we turned them in, she’d quiz us on the book. How could she quiz us though on these books that we picked out randomly, you might ask?

She read each and every book when we turned in the report over her lunch break. It wasn’t a big class, and we didn’t all turn the reports in on the same day. But she could easily go through a couple books at lunch.

It was amazing and something I wanted to learn myself. I stumbled through some books on speed reading but never really landed on success until I took an Iris speed reading class when they had a Groupon.

I’ll share a few big tips and ideas I learned there, but it won’t substitute for taking a day long class like I did and going through the exercises.

The biggest lightbulb moment for me in speed reading isn’t faster reading but better skimming.

Afterall, most books and material are filled with fluff. Good ideas separated with a ton of sentences you don’t need <- A great case-in-point. You didn’t need that second sentence. The first one was enough. Damn, I did it again.

When I first get a new book I’ll read the periphery of the thing. The back summary, the insides of the covers. Next, I’ll look over the Table of Contents looking for things like “How’s this book broken up? Is it like three parts with three big ideas, or 27 chapters each with a unique point?”

I want to learn as much about the thing I need to devour beforehand so I know what I’m about to do.

Next, I read the first page of the intro, and then I’ll skip right to the end, and finish the last page of the book. Yes, you might ruin any suspense you were hoping for, so if suspense is your goal, don’t do this.

Next, I’ll go through each chapter. I’ll read the first paragraph (two if the first is short and not useful enough).

Then I’ll go through each paragraph of the chapter and read just the first sentence. The first sentence is often the most important point of a paragraph after all:

Often in a book, you’ll have other paragraphs illustrating that topic sentence anyways.

Then, I’ll read the last paragraph of the chapter which often summarizes everything.

And I do all the above at my normal reading pace. I take my time and carefully consume those skimmed sentences and ideas.

Now I have this crazy good outline in my head of what the chapter is about, and what holes I might have in the ideas. Page 10 talked about X which seemed obvious, but later on, page 35 mentioned a story I didn’t quite understand in my skim.

So now, I’ll go through the entire chapter again but this time as fast as I can.

At this point just being a better skim reader has probably earned you 70–80% of the benefit of “speed reading”. You can go through a second read of a chapter you’ve skimmed and probably know exactly what you need to “re-read” to understand better. And you can probably do that at a normal pace and still save a ton of time.

But the other 20–30% is all about getting through words faster.

Reading as Fast as You Can

You instantly recognized a dog. You didn’t have to vocalize the word “dog”. You also don’t have to first look at its nose, then move to its eyes, then body, etc. You seem to be able to take a whole dog in with your eyes, and just know it’s a dog. But a lot of people don’t read like that.

When you were young, you likely read out loud most of the time. Mouthing each and every word. When you got older you probably stopped saying the words out loud, but many people keep vocalizing the word silently in their heads. You have to learn to stop vocalizing words as you read.

Another habit people need to break is having their eyes read each and every letter as they go along. Again, this is something we learn as young readers. We see a word we don’t know, and we look and sound out each letter until it makes sense to us.

You need to learn to just digest words instantaneously. Even better, you want to learn to digest multiple words together at the same time.

Another bad habit most of us have is rereading text purposefully or subconsciously. We skip over something and then reread it again. Tim Ferriss has found we spend about 30% of our reading time in “re-reading”. What a waste.

You need to train your eyes to work like you want them to. You don’t want them going over every single letter. You want them to fixate in fewer places in a sentence.

I remember my 8th grade teacher sliding her whole hand down the middle of the book keeping her eyes stuck there. It’s funny, because using a finger was a technique many kids use to help read but are trained to stop. But you’ll see many speed readers use a finger to read. A finger can help guide your eyes to fewer places on each line and page of a book. It can also force you to keep a pace that’s faster than you might be initially comfortable with.

A lot of this is just practice. Just like running. Get a stopwatch and start timing yourself through some examples. Get an article and figure out the word count. Skim the thing. Now, go back for a reread and get through the thing as fast as possible trying to take in as many words as possible at a time. Keep timing yourself and trying to beat your best. Use your finger/hand to force yourself to go faster.

I won’t go into an in-depth look into training your eyes to ingest more. I’ll leave that up to Tim’s article or classes like Iris.

But one thing I started doing to help train my eyes for faster word digestion: is trying to quickly read a book in a language I didn’t understand. You’ll have much less desire to try and comprehend what you’re reading, because you simply can’t. You don’t have all those same urges to reread things or sound out words.

I hope that helps. The skim reading part is what really cracked open a whole new world of getting through more stuff faster. But I don’t read everything like this. If there’s a great fiction book that I want to take my mind to another place, I read that as comfortably as I can. Speed reading for me is a shortcut to get through stuff. It might even make the book less “fun”. But my goal is often to get through piles of new books and articles out there looking for interesting needles in the haystack.

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Don’t Promise

We’ve all been there.

A customer’s upset. They make a demand. Maybe it’s reasonable, quick, easy, and no big deal. Fine. But sometimes it’s unreasonable given the context and situation. And we give in.

Promises to placate rarely end up well. Sometimes you’ll do anything to avoid the immediate pain of saying no. And since in the near-term there’s little cost to saying “yes”, promises feel like a bargain. But while promises are cheap and easy to make, actual work is hard and expensive to do. If it wasn’t, you’d just have done it now rather than promised it later!

Promises are like debt — they accrue interest. The longer you wait to fulfill them, the more they cost to pay off.

One of the biggest costs is regret. Past promises are often met with current regret. Once it’s time to get to work, you realize just how expensive that “yes” really was.

You promised someone you’d release that new feature or product by the end of the year. Sounded totally reasonable in April — “sure, we’ll have plenty of time to get to that!” — but now that it’s November, you have to scramble.

Things that were slated get pushed off. People have to get reshuffled. Teams reassembled. Priorities put on hold. Other things delayed. New ideas take a backseat to old ones. All because of a simple “yes” to dodge the pain of saying “no” months ago.

Many companies are weighed down by prior obligations of placation. Promises salespeople made to land a deal. Promises the project manager made to the client. Promises the owner made to the employees. Promises one department made to another.

The further away the promise, the easier it is to make. And the more painful it is to ultimately deliver. That’s because when the time comes to fulfill the promise, Employees would rather be working on new ideas rather than old promises. You have to put aside progress to make up for the past. Tomorrow waits for yesterday.

Morale takes a hit when the past continually snaps you backwards. Energy and will is sapped. Undesirable past obligations are a constant source of stress and frustration. People leave when they feel like the work they’re doing today is last year’s work.

It might feel difficult in the moment, but you’re far better off saying no in the first place. Take the short term pain that goes away quick vs. the long term pain that sneaks up on you and intensifies as obligations come due.

Be a better person — with customer support

(and gratuitous music videos!)

When I’m at work, I’m my best self. I’m positive, patient, helpful, curious and considerate. I tap seemingly bottomless reserves of empathy, and drip, drip, drip kindness out to customers and colleagues. I’m resourceful and flexible, bending over backwards to solve people’s problems. I take pride in exceeding their expectations. I listen to criticism, but try not to take it to heart, and I show up ready to make a difference to someone’s life, day after day after day.

But when I close my laptop, something changes. By the time I’m done working, I’ve usually had enough of other people. The last thing I want is to be around other humans, listening to their problems, responding to their requests. I forget to call my mum. I miss my friends’ events. I complain about going to buy ice cream for my wife — something I actually love to do — because I don’t want to be asked for. One. More. Thing. I open Twitter and get into fights with trolls, then turn around and troll others. In my downtime, I’m antisocial and cynical; I’m lazy, sloppy and thoughtless.

What if it doesn’t have to be this way? What if the me who makes customers happy all day could continue to spread cheer through his private life? If switching off from work didn’t have to mean switching off the parts of my personality I’m tired of exercising — all the nice parts. What are the things I practise in customer support that could make me better at supporting humans in general, and myself in particular?

I have a plan for being my best self, even when I’m not being paid to do so, when I’m not being monitored and given feedback. You know, when I’m “just” living my life. Here’s what I’m going to practise — and what I’m going to listen to, to get me in the mood:

Just do it

If a customer writes me an email, I respond in a matter of minutes. If they want to talk on the phone, I’ll call them as soon as I can. My goal is to resolve their problem as quickly as possible, with the bare minimum of back-and-forth. But if someone calls my personal phone, there’s little chance I’ll pick up; zero chance if I don’t recognise the number. I hardly ever listen to my voice messages, let alone return those calls. I don’t pick up my mail, and it’s returned to sender. In my office there’s a patch of wallpaper I’ve been waiting for months to strip. Well no more. Whatever needs to be done, I’m going to… just do it.

You’re gonna wake up and work hard at it
You’re gonna wake up and stop giving up
You’re gonna wake up and just do it

Be human

It’s easy to forget that, on the other side of that phone call, email or tweet, is another person, made up of flesh and blood, and faults and feelings. Good support pros keep in mind, and occasionally remind their customers, that we’re all human here, doing the best we can in sometimes frustrating situations. I’m going to try to speak to people online with the same courtesy and respect that I would if we were face-to-face. Even if I disagree with them, no one deserves to be disrespected, demonised or dehumanised. We’re all human, after all.

I’m only human, I do what I can
I’m just a man, I do what I can
Don’t put your blame on me

Disarm negativity

My team practices something called noncomplementary behaviour. That’s a Psych 101 term (beautifully illustrated by this Invisibilia podcast) for meeting anger and frustration with politeness and positivity, leading the conversation in a more constructive direction. Don’t feed the trolls; have a cup of coffee with them. Some people can’t be helped, but others will benefit from a little listening, understanding and empathy. I’m going to be the disarming, charming(!) person Basecamp expects me to be, and make life more bearable for everyone, myself included.

The killer in me is the killer in you
My love
I send this smile over to you

Let it go

In life, especially online, it pays to pick your battles. We waste so much time and energy fighting with people whose beliefs we have no hope of changing — and I’m as guilty of this as anyone. While supporting customers, I’m empowered to help them and address their concerns, but there is a fair amount of frustration and criticism I let wash over me. Outside of work, I’m practically powerless, and vulnerable to stronger and more personal attacks. I’m going to stop taking it personally, make a positive difference wherever I can, and let everything else go.

Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway


At Basecamp, we take self-care very seriously. We’ve invested in health benefits for employees; we’ve created a Basecamp for that. Over the years, I’ve become better at caring for myself, and worse at caring for others. With all the terrible things happening in the world, it’s easy to feel hopeless, and my way of coping has been to detach, and exist in a state of blissful ignorance. But part of my job is to empathise with people, to care about what they care about, and by doing so, help make their lives a little better. I’m going to invest myself more in others, in their passion and their pain, and see if I can inject a tiny bit more love into the world.

I know you’ve been hurt by someone else
I can tell by the way you carry yourself
But if you let me, here’s what I’ll do
I’ll take care of you

I’m going to try and break down the (otherwise healthy) separation between my work and my life, and let the good habits filter through. I’ll hold onto that positive attitude past 6pm, and see what else I can apply it to. It’s going to take work and thought, practice and commitment. But it’s going to help me live my best life. Why not join me, and let me know how it works out?

If you’ve read this and thought, “I do that anyway”, then you might be perfect for Basecamp’s support team. We’re hiring someone in the US to help care for our customers, and resolve their problems with a considered response and a smile😀. If this sounds like you, then apply to join one of the world’s best customer support teams here.

I’ve never had a goal

I can’t remember having a goal. An actual goal.

There are things I’ve wanted to do, but if I didn’t do them I’d be fine with that too. There are targets that would have been nice to hit, but if I didn’t hit them I wouldn’t look back and say I missed them.

I don’t aim for things that way.

I do things, I try things, I build things, I want to make progress, I want to make things better for me, my company, my family, my neighborhood, etc. But I’ve never set a goal. It’s just not how I approach things.

Keep reading

Try harder to be someone else


“Just be yourself!” is commonly served as encouragement for people facing challenges in life. Whether that be in personal relationships or job hunts or speaking at a conference. If you’re already the perfect person, that’s sound advice. If not, it’s worth closer examination.

Whoever you happen to be right now, at this very moment, is highly unlikely to be the person you ultimately want to be. Maybe you occasionally have a short temper. Maybe you don’t know as much about programming or speaking at conferences as you’d like to. Maybe you procrastinate too much.

Whatever it is, you could probably stand to be more like other people in a bunch of areas. Being content merely being “you”, and whatever incremental iteration on that concept you can scrape together, is a sigh of resignation.

This is where the power of envy comes in. As emotions go, envy doesn’t exactly have much popular support. I mean, when you make it onto the list of the seven deadly sins, it’s probably best something to steer clear of, right? I say wrong.

Envy is a useful jolt of motivation to be more like someone else. Better, smarter, wiser, hell, even prettier and richer (oh, the horror 💀!). All attributes that can be refined through your own actions. You can learn new skills, you can read more, you can work out, you can save money.

I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago. Thankfully! I decided early that there was nothing so special about this happenstance of personality traits, skills, and knowledge I had acquired by age 16. Not only that, I reveled in the fact that there were lots of people that were downright better than me at all sorts of things. Things I wanted to be better at. They provided a clear template to first emulate, then adopt from. In other words, I was envious.

I remember attending JAOO 2003, a programming conference in Denmark, and seeing Kent Beck talk about Extreme Programming. Not only was the subject matter interesting, but even more so the manner Kent delivered it. I felt deeply envious at his excellent delivery and vowed to be more like Kent. To study and emulate him until I had become more Kent than me (at that time) at delivering a convincing argument on stage.

Same thing happened when I discovered the writings of Gerald M. Weinberg. I devoured Secrets of Consulting, Are Your Lights On?, The Psychology of Computer Programming, An Introduction to General Systems Thinking, and his Quality Software Management series. I got deeply envious of not only Gerald’s stellar writing skills, but his profound insights. I set about to notice and ponder the world of programming and teams like he had. To be more like Gerald than I was myself at the time.

I could go on and on about this. I’ve had similar pangs of envy watching the onboard videos of Patrick Long driving my race car in 2010. Of reading Kathy Sierra’s insights on making users kick ass. Of the tranquil state of mind and techniques employed by Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. I’ve wanted to change myself so many times to be like so many other people, and I think I’m far better off for it.

So don’t be so quick to fall in love with who you are right now. Allow yourself to imagine being more like someone else than yourself. Then make it happen through envy and emulation.