Finally from the Archives, (November 2002), published once, condensed in a newsletter.
As you'll read, I had undertaken a home-grown exploratory soul-surgery on myself at a time in my life when pieces of my self, my identity, were falling away like ice off a cliff in the Arctic. I had no sense of when that reductive process would end, what else would be taken from me as part of that process. I was surprised to learn about a year later that I had begun the re-building process quite subtly.
I took inspiration for the exercise I conducted from an article I had read about executive assessments called, "360's" where a highly-paid consultant conducts anonymous in-depth interviews with everyone in a client's life, then gives them an unflinching assessment of where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and what they might do to adjust their manner or behavior for the better. I had neither a consultant nor a budget; but I had email (and had I to do it again, I would have used an anonymizer like SurveyMonkey or something like that.) So, folllowing is the description of my experience:
But Enough About Me...What do YOU Think of Me?
Paul Simon wrote in one of his songs, “If I have weaknesses, don’t let them blind me”. It was in that spirit that I recently sent out an email to my friends, loved ones, and colleagues, asking them to tell me in no uncertain terms, what they thought of me. “What,” I asked, “do you see as my strengths, and what do you see as my weaknesses?” This was no ego-stroking exercise in fishing for warm-fuzzies. As an actor, I have learned that one way to learn about the character one is playing is to look through the play, and find out what the other characters say about him. So, why couldn’t that work for real life as well? If I am, in fact, out to increase my self-awareness, then, I realized, it was time to step back from my own self, and see myself as an actor in the play of my life. So I did the research. What I found in this exercise was not only personally enlightening, but also surprising on a number of fronts. I went through my entire email address book, choosing one name at a time—how well do I know this guy, and how well does he know me? Will she be able to address my request for total honesty tempered by generally-accepted standards of kindness? Gee, I haven’t spoken with that person in years...I wonder what he’ll say. I ended up with about a dozen and a half individuals. Perhaps I asked too many people, but I wanted a broad cross-section of the people in my life; I wanted to get as full an accounting as possible. I reasoned that I was at a point in my life where I could get my ego out of the way, and observe the feedback with a certain degree of objectivity, and without defensiveness. I braced myself for the onslaught of brutal honesty by making a list of my own perceived strengths and weaknesses. This, I found, was an important step. I also built into the message an easy, but important ‘opt-out’ clause, to allow for those who may just be weirded out by my openness. And after all, my ego was not so fragile as all that. With a decisive flourish, I clicked the SEND button. In the next instant, I heard the tone indicating the message had been sent. And, perhaps not surprisingly, I was promptly gripped by a flood of second thoughts. Yes, the barn door was closed, but the horses done gone...so I waited.
I didn’t have to wait long. Within the next couple of days, the responses came trickling in. I have yet to hear from some of the recipients, and some would prefer having a face-to-face with me. (The which I’m not comfortable with, since to have the feedback in writing allows, in my opinion, the surveyed to be more open, honest, and thoughtful in the response. And, it gives me a tool to which I can refer later—which is the whole point for me). Some responded with incredulity that I would contact them at all, after I had not actively maintained a relationship with them for years. This last one was a chastening experience I had to particularly steel myself for--but hey, if I’m looking at myself, warts and all, then look I must. Still others would be so averse to responding that they would even disregard my request for a reply of non-response. Though, with no statute of limitations in my request, it’s entirely possible some might find their way to commenting still.
But most did respond—thoughtfully, respectfully, and unflinchingly. I learned here that there is truly no such thing as an objective response to a survey such as this. And, by extension, no true objectivity in much of life. I saw so clearly here, the ways in which we bring our context, our own perceptions to bear on all our experiences. For the most part, the feedback I received was consistent with my own perceptions of my strengths and weaknesses. One of the biggest surprises to me was that I found that those closest to me (and who incidentally held me in high esteem), were the most humble in their responses, even to doubting their own (entirely valid) perceptions. A recurring motif in those responses was something along the lines of, “I don’t know if any of this means anything to you, since I see so much of this in myself as well...” And therein lies the true lesson I learned in this process. In a very real and immediate way, I saw first-hand, the theory proven how we project aspects of ourselves onto the people and circumstances in our lives. I saw how we are all reflections of each other, for each other, and in sacred service to each other. In one moment, it became more than an intellectual construct for me, and became instead an experiential truth. We are as the mirrors in a spinning carousel, multi-faceted, a kaleidoscope of images passing in a fairground, shifting for each gazer.
Ultimately, I learned that because of this very phenomenon, my research yielded much more truth than I could have hoped or sought.