Positive Thinking: Use the Best Within You to Form Your Sense of Self

Huffington Post

June 28, 2010

by Marshall Goldsmith

How do you know who you are? Likely, you add up all the events in your life that you can remember and this helps your form your sense of self or your identity. These moments in your personal history, whether glorious or terrible, are touchstones that you can’t forget. They’ve left an impact–they won’t be forgotten–and when you write an autobiography of yourself, these moments will inevitably be recorded.

Successful people, those people with robust senses of self-worth, remember the good, the diamonds, not the bad and the lumps of coal. They don’t dwell on painful and embarrassing episodes from their past. They wouldn’t even consider allowing these moments to define their identity. The trouble is that the further you go back in your past, the greater the chances are that who you were, or your “remembered” identity, doesn’t match up with who you are. The world is full of people who were incredibly popular and successful–in high school. What’s sadder than the adult who “peaked in high school.”

Then there are those people who made mistakes in their past, but those errors do not necessarily pinpoint with any accuracy who they are now.

Years ago, I had the following conversation with one of my more self-effacing clients. I asked this man, with amazing achievements, to give me a list of his positives and negatives as an executive. Here’s what he told me:

“Well, I’m not very good at follow up,” he said.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“My biggest screw-ups in business occurred when I didn’t pay attention to my customers,” he said. “I didn’t check up on them as much as they’d like. I didn’t return phone calls promptly. I didn’t always do what I promised to do, at least not in the timely manner they expected. And sometimes I lost customers because of that.”

I took a moment to look at the feedback I had been gathering about this man from his direct reports and colleagues. He was a capable leader, with several thousand employees under his command. He had a few behavioral issues that needed to be dealt with, but “bad at follow up” was not on the list.

“When was the last time a customer gave you negative feedback for poor follow up?” I asked.

“It’s been a while, at least ten years.”

“Then why do you still insist you’re bad at it?” I asked.

“I guess that I always remembered being told that.” He laughed.

This is where remembered identity can cheat us in the moment. While there’s nothing wrong with looking back to the past to sort out your strengths and weaknesses. There is something wrong with holding onto the past and creating a picture of yourself that is someone who doesn’t exist anymore.