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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall — The Power of Reflection

Let me tell you a story…many years ago, I was one of the final candidates for a job I really wanted. The interviewer asked me, “tell me about your most recent reflection”. My mind went blank. I couldn’t think of anything.
I’d been running my days like a well-oiled machine, having amazing conversations with people, tackling challenges and putting out fires. In the eyes of many, I was a great performer who was always positive and energised by new challenges, but there I was, sitting in an interview room, unable to give a good answer to a simple question.

That moment lasted in my mind forever, even though it could have been just a few seconds of pause.

I blabbered about something completely irrelevant and the opportunity was history. The frustrating part was that I knew I could do the job and would probably be really good at it, but because I was running at an incredible pace every day, I had failed to make time for reflection.

“Reflection is different from thinking. While we are always thinking, reflection is a conscious effort.”

Christine Tan

It involves going through your experiences in a critical and thoughtful way to break down information and gain insights. This allows us to learn from the experience, develop new perspectives or ways of approaching things, and enable us to direct our future actions with more foresight.

An interesting article written by Robert J. Sternberg speaks about “Successful Intelligence”, which defines as 1) the ability to achieve one’s goals in life; 2) by capitalizing on strengths and correcting or compensating for weaknesses; 3) in order to adapt to, shape, and select environments; 4) through a combination of analytical, creative, and practical abilities. I am definitely not an expert in this theory and neither would I say I agree 100% with it, but it did make me wonder how we can drill down to capitalize on this “successful intelligence”.

1. Setting Goals
Have you thought about what you want to be doing in 5 years? What do you want to achieve by the end of this year? What is your main objective at work right now? 

If you’re like me, wishing it is still summer as the cold wind blows and temperatures keep dropping, then wake up, summer is long over. If you haven’t already set clear career goals for this year, what are you still waiting for? If you want to progress in your career, you need to set goals. You can’t just say “I want this” and expect things to magically happen. 

Goal setting starts with careful consideration of what you want to achieve and a set of well-defined next steps on how to get there, not to mention a lot of hard work to achieve the results. 

To inject new perspectives and foresight into your goals and action plans, you have to make space and time for yourself to pause and reflect on what it is that you are not doing today that should be done, and what it is that you are doing today that could be done differently. 

Setting goals is not writing a task list, you need time and space to reflect and consider your current state and the future state you are envisioning. If you want further information on how to set great goals, then I recommend this resource.

2. Capitalizing on strengths and compensating for weaknesses
A Chinese saying goes “取长补短”, which means leveraging others’ strengths to help with your weaknesses. 

Have you ever considered what has made you successful? What strengths have helped you stand out from your peers? What are the areas you need help with?

One way to identify your strengths is to consider how you solve problems. If you solve problems by leveraging your connections and bringing in different resources, you may be resourceful. Or, if you can bring different ideas to the table to solve a problem, you may be creative. 

You can also consider the way you enjoy solving problems the most. Your preferred way could likely be the way you are most effective in solving problems, and that could be your strength. 

To capitalize on your strengths in your career progression, you can identify opportunities at work that best utilize these strengths. If you do similar reflection for weaknesses, you can then identify ways to overcome them. This could be an area where you can develop or leverage someone else’s strengths or tools to help you. 

At the end of the day, you can never be the expert in everything and to be able to identify how you can compensate for weaknesses is a strength too. 

3. Shaping the environment
You don’t need to change environments, or jobs, all the time. But it is important to shake things up occasionally. Reflect and consider what role you can play in shaping your environment. 

Our environments have a huge impact on the way we behave and respond, and on our personal well-being, however, we all have the power to influence our environment too. I am asking you to decide if you will invite someone to speak and contribute in a discussion and how you will do that. You too can decide how to debate and challenge in a healthy way. The environment can influence one’s behavior and motivation, but you as a manager or co-worker can also do the same. A friendly greeting from someone along the corridor or, these days, a virtual hi-5 during tough times can greatly influence someone’s mood. 

When someone tells me the environment they are in is not ideal, I hear them out, and then I ask them, what are you going to do about it?

4. Building your abilities
Well-defined goals come with development plans. What do you grow, change, do, to move one step closer to your goals? Reflection is about staying curious about yourself. When you look back in a year’s time, how have you grown? 

You cannot expect to stay the same to reach the goals you want. There are learnings to be made and competencies to be built. There are many ways to find out what learnings and competencies you need, such as speaking to your manager, receiving feedback from others, making mistakes etc. However, learning is often incomplete without reflection. 

Reflection helps you to review the effectiveness of how you do things and supports your development, rather than keeping things the way they have always been. It is about asking yourself questions – what you do, why you do it, how you do it, and then deciding whether there is a better way of doing it in the future.

I really like this Confucian quote, 博学之,审问之,慎思之,明辨之,笃行之, which loosely translates as “To learn [from a broad variety of places], To ask [and examine things in details], To reflect [meticulously], To distinguish [clearly between right and wrong], To demonstrate [what you have learned].”

I hope this blog inspires you to take a look in the proverbial mirror and reflect on your strengths, past achievements, and where you want to be. Happy reflecting!

About the author
Christine Tan is currently based in Munich and looks after Field HR & Engagement for Red Hat for part of the EMEA region. Being born and raised in a traditional and humble Asian family in Singapore, Christine has always been taught to be independent. Since young, she has refused to let society’s expectations, stereotypes and glass ceilings pull her back from what she wants in life, and she has been fortunate enough to benefit from great mentors who have supported and guided her.