Philosophers of old have exhorted the importance of self-knowledge, such as Socrates’ “A life unexamined is not a life worth living” and Sun Tzu’s “Know yourself and know your enemy, and you will win a hundred battles”. At crossroads big and small, I have sought self-awareness as a steadfast guide in choosing the roads to take. The persons we are, after all, are amalgamations of the everyday decisions we make. Through the lenses of my identities as a citizen, student, and leader, I have found three elements of popular psychology particularly potent in enhancing self-awareness.
One basic criterion of a responsible, vote-casting citizen in a democracy is to be informed. However, the quality of incoming information is difficult to ensure. In our commitment to maintain truthful knowledge, we have to confront and overcome our cognitive biases.
We live in a world of information overload. Social media has democratised the provision of information, but in the same breath has introduced the spectre of ‘fake news’. While knowledge has always been open to interpretation to some degree, the subjectivity of news has been taken to an extreme with distorted facts, deliberate omissions and outright untruths. Modern technology allows photos and videos to be manipulated in ordinarily undetectable ways, and to spread like wildfire before credible investigations can be mounted. Our personality and demographic profiles can be mined by unscrupulous political campaigns, which lobby us in manners precisely targeted to manipulate our inclinations and decisions, such as in the Brexit and Trump 2017 campaigns.
Amid these dystopian circumstances, there are ways to remain truthfully and objectively informed. One important approach to facing the external barrage of data is to turn inward and nurture a strong sense of self-awareness. We are susceptible to a range of cognitive biases that can leave us exceptionally vulnerable to manipulation. By understanding and mastering our biases, we can better interpret and analyse incoming information to make sound and balanced decisions.
I find confirmation bias particularly insidious – the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. We all struggle with this because we like being proven right. It offers the same kind of simple, child-like satisfaction that my nine-year-old self enjoyed when I answered a math question correctly. The danger of being blind to alternative viewpoints is exacerbated by the social media echo chambers that I occupy online, further threatened by the lack of diversity amongst the friends with whom I commonly exchange views.
In order to continue knowing things with confidence, I find it essential to introspect – plumbing my underlying assumptions and inclinations. Asking myself why I react in this way or that; what types of information I find most persuasive; which sources I tend to prefer; how I can counter them with alternative sources. Challenging myself to know things with less certainty, and taking the effort to reweigh both sides of a story when new information becomes available. Resisting the push of the crowd, and rethinking the popular or establishment opinion. I acknowledge that a perfect state of knowledge is unattainable – how much research is necessary until any particular opinion can be justifiably held? Yet it is important to try, so as to fulfill this fundamental requirement of good citizenry.
A student, broadly put, is someone who learns. Yet, adopting a different mindset can radically change our ability and propensity to learn effectively.
As an Officer Cadet in the Army, I struggled to keep up physically with my male counterparts. One visceral memory I have is of participating in a fast march, carrying my field pack and weapon, and being unable to follow the pace. In the middle of the file, with the gap between me and the cadet directly in front widening, my fellow cadets helped me by tugging on my hand in front of me, and pushing on my field pack behind me. I had never felt as weak and needy as I did in that moment. We eventually completed the march, and the experience left me with gratitude but also a deep bucket of black fear. I was afraid that I would never be physically powerful enough to hold my own and carry my team. It was only years later that I realised that the key word in this narrative – ‘never’ – was a symptom of a fixed mindset, as opposed to a growth mindset.
Popularised by American psychologist Carol Dweck, the fixed versus growth mindset paradigm refers to the approach with which individuals interpret challenges and successes. A fixed mindset suggests a belief that basic qualities such as intelligence or athleticism are static, innate traits. On the other hand, a growth mindset holds that traits and abilities can develop given effort and time. Having a fixed mindset makes one afraid of unfamiliar tasks and terrified of not meeting expectations, while someone with a growth mindset is able to see challenges and the inevitable failures as necessary parts of learning and improvement. I saw in my teenage self an inclination towards a fixed mindset in terms of fitness, and wanted to embrace a growth mindset instead.
I picked a physical challenge – pull-ups, specifically to execute just one pull-up to start with. The symbolic connotation of carrying my own weight was not lost on me. I started from being what is colloquially known as a ‘zero-fighter’, incapable of doing pull-ups, and embarked on building the relevant upper-body strength and muscle memory. My confidence was initially rock bottom, and everything felt impossible at the beginning. Putting up a pull-up bar on my university dormitory door, I began hanging on it for as long as I could on my way to and fro the bathroom. That progressed to using resistance bands and the assisted pull-up machine at the gym. After 6 months, I performed my first pull-up, and it was magical.
Today, I still don’t see myself as much of an athlete. But I fully believe that hard work and intentional, well-directed effort will yield improvement over time. Psychological habits take time to become entrenched, and I may still have some fixed mindset hang-ups. Yet, a growth mindset gives me confidence that I can be a perpetual student, in the broad sense of staying curious and always having something to learn and grow – even, or especially, from challenges.
The kind of leader we are is the kind of person we are. The psychological resistance we face on a personal level may colour our leadership experience as well.
As an officer in the Army, I was recently given the opportunity to lead as a company commander in charge of about 90 men, mostly conscripts. Command is a privilege, accompanied by a fair amount of autonomy and ownership over the training and development of one’s soldiers. It is also a heavy responsibility, and my team and I were accountable for the safety and well-being of the soldiers under our charge.
It is as a leader that I have most had to contend with imposter syndrome – that insidious feeling of inadequacy and of being a fraud, which persists even in the face of successes and progress. About seven in ten would experience something similar in the course of their lives, and both women and men can identify with this. At its worst, imposter syndrome can cause crippling self-doubt, low self-confidence, a tendency to dwell on failure and negative feedback, and fear of trying new experiences that might lead to failure.
In my case, imposter syndrome reared its ugly head through a persistent feeling of ‘faking it’ and yet ‘not making it’. As the etymology of the term suggests, I sometimes had the impression that my leadership was an imposition on the soldiers I led; that it was not my place to insist even when my appointment gave me not just every right, but a compelling and dutiful prerogative, to lead. Cognisant that my every decision influenced the culture and morale of my people, I knew it was vital to overcome this syndrome so that I could act morally, decisively, consistently and confidently.
A few things helped me push past my fear. First, identifying the syndrome as a baseless quirk of the mind, amplified by thoughts and emotions that I knew would eventually pass and that I countered by grounding myself on my values and purpose. Second, appreciating that my specific context of being a woman in a male-dominated environment might have wrought the sense that I could not belong. Instead of ruminating on this, I focused on my duty to nurture a strong sense of camaraderie and belonging within my company. Third, spinning my perspective towards the positive by embracing opportunities to break new ground and serve as a role model for my juniors. With every experience, the imposter syndrome gradually, thankfully, loosened its hold.
While the self-help genre may be poorly viewed as being fantastical and overly abstract, I have derived unexpected mileage from these simple popular psychology concepts. First, facing and fighting confirmation bias helps me stay informed as a citizen. Second, adopting a growth mindset over a fixed one keeps me effectively a student for life. Third, naming and rejecting the imposter syndrome enables me to lead more effectively. These strategies have become treasured bedfellows in my process of living introspectively, and I hope my experience may be useful to you as well.
Sharon is a soldier in the Singapore Army, where she currently serves as a staff officer. A warrior at heart, she is a proponent of life-long learning and responsible citizenry, balanced with a healthy dose of not taking herself too seriously. She does not say it enough, but she is grateful for the support and love of her family and friends.
This essay was first published as ‘The roads in our heads’ in The Birthday Book 2018: The Roads We Take. As Singapore turns 53, the book includes 53 reflections on the journeys and paths we take, as individuals and as a society. The book can be purchased at bit.ly/2MIlUFg.