Your sense of identity will help determine your scale of influence. Ignore it at your own peril.
Do you have the courage to be rather than cease? To be you rather than someone else? Are you brave enough to resist the forces trying to shape you into something you’re not? If so, you’re ready to develop a habit of self-discovery. Adam Braun, founder of the innovative nonprofit Pencils of Promise, says “[Your] self-discovery begins where your comfort zone ends.”
Self-discovery is not one and done. There are no few silver bullets to utilize today so that tomorrow you’ll have completed the process. Discovery, by definition, is a progressive reality. It is not something you’ve done, but something you should be doing. Discovery never ends.
Because human identities are deep caverns, and life doesn’t grant humans enough years to reach the bottom. Various seasons—both the sweetest moments and the most devastating crises—will plunge you to new depths if you let them. I’ve learned attributes about myself at forty that I couldn’t have at twenty, and vice versa.
To complicate matters, humans change over time. Once you feel you have discovered your identity, you’ve probably changed. So self-discovery is not a practice you complete, but a posture you cultivate.
I’ve found a few practices helpful in my own journey, but these require regular repetition as you form them into habits:
Take a test or two. Upon returning home from London, I took and retook several personality tests. I’d taken many of these before and pulled out my old ones to compare. It doesn’t matter if you prefer StrengthsFinder, Myers-Briggs, DISC, or any other reputable one. Pick a couple and get started. Know very clearly your areas of strength. Take tests to understand your personality, and the who of who you are, looking for evidence and justification for why you operate as you do. You must first have an accurate understanding of who you are and where you are in life and a realistic picture of your current realities.
Once you have a few results in hand, review them next to each other and look for echoes. This gives you an emotionless snapshot of your identity, gifts, and passions. You don’t get in the way of results. Instead, you can step outside of yourself and more clearly survey how you’re built. Do this at least once every two years.
Schedule regular retreats. You need to calendar at least one retreat per year. A couple is even better. These aren’t professional retreats where you catch up on projects, or family retreats where you fill your time hanging with the kids at waterparks and playing miniature golf. These must be personal retreats where you focus on reflection and introspection.
Go alone to a quiet place if possible. Make sure to unplug from your phone, e-mail, and social media as much as possible. (While I was on sabbatical, I changed my e-mail address. I found this unbelievably helpful.) Be intentional about answering specific questions about who you are and how you’ve changed since the last retreat. If your schedule allows, try to schedule one at least every eighteen months for a minimum of three days.
Learn to list. I love lists, as those who follow my blog or have worked on my teams in the past can attest. From to-do lists to grocery lists to best practices, I feel as if I’m always compiling them. But one of the most important ones you can keep around is an identity list. Take time to list the central components that make you who you are. What do you prioritize? What energizes you? What grounds you in a sense of purpose?
Survey the list after it is complete to see how many of the items you listed are tied to your job. This will help reveal if you’re cultivating an independent identity. Keep this list in your desk drawer. Review and revise it every six months.
Lead yourself. Self-leadership is a constant process. Self-leadership turns into self-awareness. Knowing who you are means leading yourself first. A leader’s ultimate and most important role is to lead him- or herself. Great leadership starts with self-leadership, which means you know yourself. This is paramount. “Who am I?” is the foundation to “How do I . . . ?” Everyone wants to be great. But few are willing to put in the hard work to get there. You are your greatest coach. Start with you. This may be the most courageous decision you make. Courage is required to lead yourself first and make yourself better. You can’t expect to pass on to your team what you don’t have. The more I help me get better, the more I can help we get better.
Be more of yourself. Stay true to who you are. Secure and self-aware leaders are confident and give confidence to others. In a shaky world, a habit of self-discovery matters. Your identity is not what you do. It’s who you are. And identity always comes before activity. Who you are determines what you do.
Many practices can be a part of your habit of self-discovery. Feel free to borrow, modify, or replace my suggestions. But whatever you do, schedule identity-discovering exercises into the rhythms of your life. If you aren’t intentional about identity, you’ll ignore it. And you are too important to overlook. Nicky Gumbel, the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton in London and founder of the Alpha Course, says, “You can teach what you know, but you will reproduce what you are.”
More on leadership identity and other essential leadership habits in H3 Leadership: Be Humble. Stay Hungry. Always Hustle, which released today.
Brad Lomenick is a renowned speaker, sought-after leadership consultant, and leader for 10 years of Catalyst, one of the largest gatherings of young Christian leaders in the nation. He is the author of The Catalyst Leader, and H3 Leadership. More at bradlomenick.com.