Everybody loves self-improvement. We want to get smarter, network better, be connected, balance our lives, and so on. That’s why we’re such avid consumers of “top 10” lists of things to do to be a more effective, productive, promotable, mindful — you name it — leader. We read all the lists, but we have trouble sticking to the “easy steps” because while we all want the benefits of change, we rarely ever want to do the hard work of change.
But what if we didn’t think of self-improvement as work? What if we thought of it as play — specifically, as playing with our sense of self?
Let’s say an executive we’ll call John lacks empathy in his dealings with people. For example, he’s overly blunt when he gives feedback to others and he’s not a very good listener. Thanks to a recent promotion, he needs to be less of a task-master and more people-oriented. He wants to improve on the leadership skills he’s been told are vital for his future success but, unfortunately, they are alien to him. What can he do?
John has two options. He can work on himself, committing to do everything in his power to change his leadership style from model A to model B. Or he can play with his self-concept by “flirting” with a diverse array of styles and approaches and withholding allegiance to a favored result until he is better informed. The difference between these two approaches is both nuanced and instructive for anyone striving to transform how they lead.
Let’s first imagine John working on himself. The adjectives that come to mind include diligent, serious, thorough, methodical, reasonable, and disciplined. The notion of “work” evokes diligence, efficiency, and duty — focusing on what you should do, especially as others see it, as opposed to what you want to do. I imagine John making a systematic assessment of his strengths and weaknesses, collecting feedback on areas for improvement, setting concrete SMART goals, devising a timetable and strategies for achieving them, possibly engaging a coach psychologist to dig deeper into the root causes of his poor people skills, monitoring his progress, and so on. With a clear end in mind, he proceeds in a logical, step-by-step manner, striving for progress. There is one right answer. Success or failure is the outcome. We judge ourselves.
Now, let’s imagine John being playful with his sense of self. What adjectives come to mind now? The words lively, good-humored, spirited, irreverent, divergent, amused, and full of fun and life now spring to mind. The notion of “play” evokes an element of fantasy and potential — the “possible self,” as Stanford psychologist Hazel Markus calls
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