I grew up in a small town. I was five years old before I experienced the thrill of the big city. When I went there for the first time I was spellbound. Family lore says I spent an entire afternoon at a shopping mall riding elevators and escalators like I was at the funfair.
I don’t really remember that.
What I do remember, though, was walking through a mirror-lined arcade. I stopped and stared at my reflection in one mirror wall and noticed that there seemed to be a million of me standing in a line behind each other. I turned and looked into the opposite mirror wall. Same thing: reflection upon reflection upon reflection into eternity.
I lifted my arm. A million ‘me’s lifted their arms. I jumped. A million ‘me’s jumped. It was my first tangible contact with infinity.
I doubt I understood why this visual effect was happening, but I can still clearly recall the feeling. It was as though I could see myself from outside my body, as if I had discovered a perspective that was far bigger than me.
I think this may be natural for children – when we are young our sense of self is less concrete and rigid. As we get older we might lose the ease of access to this perspective, but we can practice through meditation. It is the awareness that pays attention to thoughts and feelings and sensations. It is the observer of the experience.
In meditation this shift can feel profound, but in the “real” world – in the flow of daily life – this type of “zooming out” can significantly impact our way of being. It is what allows us to see our patterns of thought and behavior – the conditional first steps in any process of change.
If we are ever to evolve we need to be able to step outside the boundaries of our perceived experience and see ourselves in operation. In order to learn and grow we need to be able to think about our thinking.
This ability is called metacognition. In educational fields it is increasingly seen as a powerful tool in optimizing the way we learn. Rather than focusing on WHAT we are learning, metacognition pays attention to the HOW and even the WHY of our learning.
However, metacognitive strategies can be employed intelligently to accelerate personal development. If you have ever worked with a coach, you will have knowingly or unknowingly used these approaches already. A coach’s role is to help you generate the feedback loop of insight and action that leads to progressive and consistent growth, but simply understanding these metacognitive strategies is enough to get a head-start on your development.
1. Set an intention
Change is constant. We are all in a ceaseless state of flux. We have no control over that, but we can direct the way in which we engage with change, and the type of change we want to focus on. We can be reactive or proactive. We can have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Our personal development can be accidental or intentional.
Intentional growth and transformation moves you into another league. It doesn’t mean that you take control of everything that happens in your future, it means that you take control of how you respond to those future events, regardless of what they are. An intention to continuously learn and grow from every situation changes everything.
2. Know what you know
Intentional self-development relies on a need. This why someone who has moved to a foreign country generally learns a new language faster than someone who has set it as a new year’s resolution. Need is a stronger form of motivation than desire.
When we find ourselves seeking change of some kind it is useful to ask ‘why?’ In one form or another, the answer to that question will tell us that things, as they are, are not working. We either need to improve or radically adjust an area of our lives. At this point we might don’t know how or why, but we do know this: I need things to be different.
Acknowledging that simple need helps clarify purpose and set an intention. From there you can add any other data that helps you answer the question: ‘why do things need to change?’
3. Know what you don’t know
One of the first questions any coach will ask you is some version of, ‘Well, what brings you here?’ From my experience, that seldom inspires a clear answer. People don’t seek out coaches when they know exactly what is holding them back and what they need to do about it. They look for a coach when something feels stuck but the solution is unclear. Usually, even the problem itself is unclear. The coach’s first job is to help the client define the challenge. That apparently simple step can have a profound effect on the way a client sees his/her ‘problem.’
‘I don’t know’ is a difficult space for most of us to inhabit. It forces us to acknowledge a lack of autonomy and control. It makes us feel vulnerable and afraid. However, authentically considering what we don’t know invites the humility and presence required for growth.
Don’t know what’s wrong? Don’t know why? Don’t know what to do? That’s okay. That’s normal. And by recognizing what you don’t know you can start building a plan.
Once you have a clearer sense of what you want to achieve, what is holding you back and what you have available to you, the next step is to develop a plan of action. The way forward will vary completely depending on the challenge, the need, your resources, the type of person you are.
Perhaps this is something you can handle on your own. Perhaps you need support. Perhaps you seek out a mentor or coach. Regardless of what plan you formulate, be constantly willing to adapt. Self-development is not a linear process. It has twists and turns and circumstances change. Perhaps your goals shift, maybe your priorities change; what if your problem disappears altogether?
The willingness to constantly adapt to your emerging needs ensures that you are always serving yourself in an optimal way.
5. Continually self-assess
Self-awareness is the foundational metacognitive skill and in personal transformation, it is important to use it constantly to self-assess. The four strategies described above are not steps in a process, they are areas of continuous focus.
To grow it is necessary to always reconsider and reconnect with your intention. As you work with yourself, what you know and don’t know changes all the time – that’s a measure of your learning. And, to be adaptable, it is critical that you constantly self-reflect on what is working or not working.
With an elevated metacognitive perspective learning and living become more meaningful and productive. It takes practice. Sometimes it takes help. But it always adds value.