I have been pondering the usefulness (or not) of hindsight lately. For instance, after the horse has already bolted, how does ‘hindsight’ help me when it occurs to me that I should have locked the barn door before the horse bolted? I am pretty sure the horse is not going to magically reappear in front of my eyes along with my flash of hindsight. Wouldn’t foresight be more useful? With foresight, I can almost certainly predict that a locked barn door would keep the horse secure and I would not be dealing with an empty barn and a horse on the loose. Let’s assume I manage to retrieve my horse after fuming, fretting, puffing and panting across hills and dales. At this moment, you would think that I have well and truly learned the valuable lesson of locking the barn door in the future to avoid a repeat of this situation. With disbelief, you discover that I have continued my Groundhog Day nightmare habit of leaving the barn door open and chasing after a runaway horse. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, reminds us that:
“One thing’s for sure. If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’re getting. One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect different results.”
So, if I know this, why do I keep repeating actions and behaviours that are not serving me well? Well, it turns out that a lot of my actions and behaviours are to do with emotional intelligence. In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman discusses the 5 essential elements of emotional intelligence as being:
- Emotional self-awareness (knowing what you are feeling at any given time and understanding the impact those moods have on others)
- Self-regulation (controlling or redirecting your emotions; anticipating consequences before acting on impulse)
- Motivation (utilising emotional factors to achieve goals, enjoying the learning process and persevering in the face of obstacles)
- Empathy (sensing the emotions of others)
- Social skills (managing relationships, inspiring others and inducing desired responses from them)
Simply put, emotional intelligence is about using your emotions in a range of intelligent ways. Emotional intelligence is not the same as common sense. For example, in my horse bolting story (which you have by now figured is an analogy for many of the choices and decisions we face in everyday life) you could argue that locking the barn door is simply a case of common sense. If the answer were as simple as that, and putting aside the view that common sense is not really that common, why would I keep repeating a pattern that is not serving me well? The truth may be harder to accept. It could be that I am not using my emotions in a way that serves me well. In other words, I am not using my emotions intelligently. For instance…
Perhaps I am harbouring a deep-seated resentment that the chore of locking the barn door is always left to me? Perhaps I am angry that my husband /wife/ son/daughter/friend /colleague/ neighbour should be locking the barn door instead? Why must it always be left to me, I seethe? Perhaps I am demonstrating passive-aggressive behaviour by “forgetting” to lock the barn door? Let them get exasperated if the horse bolts again this time, I rage. Perhaps I am wallowing in self-pity and seeking attention from those around me? Let them feel as sorry for me as I feel for myself, I fret. Let them feel guilty enough to take the chore on themselves, I fume.
My stream of negative thoughts, trigger my negative emotions and my logical brain is temporarily hijacked. Left unchecked or unexamined, impulsive and irrational thinking takes over. In her book Emotional Agility, Susan David describes the ability to use our emotions intelligently as emotional agility, saying that it is about “being flexible with your thoughts and feelings so that you can respond optimally to everyday situations. It is not about controlling your thoughts or forcing yourself to think happy, positive thoughts……instead it is about choosing how you will respond to your emotional warning system”.
Whatever my underlying emotional reasons for repeatedly choosing to leave the barn door unlocked, the reality is that I am left with the consequences of having to chase after the bolted horse. Every. Time. Until I am willing to identify my emotional triggers and admit that my unexamined emotions are driving my patterns of behavior, I will keep getting what I am getting.
Emotional intelligence is not something that simply improves with life experience either. Those of us who have made repeated mistakes, know that we don’t automatically learn from our experiences. Transferring experience into learning that becomes embedded knowledge, requires the practice of skillfully reflecting on significant experiences in a structured and emotionally intelligent way. Only then can I intentionally change my responses. Emotional intelligence is a skill set that must be learned and practiced, and involves 3 components, firstly, to understand what emotion you are experiencing in the moment you experience it; secondly, to know what triggered that emotion; and thirdly to be aware of the impact of your emotions on others. Developing this skill set requires inner work and self-reflection to:
- Learn to understand yourself by gaining an idea of how and why you are who you are.
- Learn to accept yourself by acknowledging facts about yourself without approving or disapproving.
- Learn to forgive yourself when you make a mistake by thinking about what caused you to make the mistake, and then decide how you can learn from it.
- Learn to view ‘mistakes’ as opportunities for personal growth, by asking yourself “What is this situation showing me? What can I learn from it? What can I do differently next time?”
Being able to reflect on our own patterns of behaviour, requires an ‘open-to-learning’ attitude and approach to making the necessary changes needed for growth and personal-professional development. Carol Dweck tells us in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, that there are two basic mindsets i.e. fixed and open. The fixed mindset tends to give up easily, views effort as pointless, ignores feedback, feels threatened by the success of others, and is closed to learning and so achieves less than their full potential. The open mindset persists with difficulty, views effort as a path to mastery, learns from feedback, finds lessons and inspiration in the success of others, is open to learning and therefore reaches ever higher levels of achievement. An open mindset helps us to learn to utilise our emotions in intelligent ways, and facilitates reflections of personal experiences and patterns of behavior in a carefully considered way.
Any journey of personal change and transformation must first start with you, and reflecting on your personal experiences in a structured way is essential to making any lasting changes in your life. Socrates, the Greek philosopher advised us to live by the guiding rule ‘Know Thyself’; while poet Kahlil Gibran further expands on this Socratic philosophy, saying:
“Knowledge of the self is the mother of all knowledge. So it is incumbent on me to know myself, to know it completely, to know its minute details, its characteristics, its subtleties, and its very atoms”.
If we are to effect lifelong and positive change in our lives, the journey of personal change starts with an intimate understanding of ‘the self’. A word of caution; don’t beat yourself up in the process of self-discovery. This is less about fault-finding, and more about recognizing areas for growth and improvement. Recognise your personal value, your uniqueness, your strengths, your talents, your achievements and your successes, and continue to build from a platform of strength.
So what does any of this have to do with the usefulness (or not) ‘hindsight’? Well, hindsight is based on past experiences. Hindsight facilitates foresight and the ability to predict outcomes to some degree. Past experiences enable us to reflect on our previous actions and review the consequences of those actions so we can tweak and adjust our future actions and behaviours, if we want different results. Canadian leadership author and speaker, Robin S. Sharma said it perfectly:
“The real trick in life is turning hindsight into foresight that reveals insight”.
To reveal insight, you need to know yourself, accept yourself for who you are, reflect and learn from previous experiences, tweak and adjust future actions and responses, accept your attempts at change and transformation as a work-in-progress, be patient and kind to yourself, continue to build yourself up along the way…….and be sure to lock the barn door if you don’t want to find yourself fuming, fretting, puffing and panting across the paddocks in search of a runaway horse anytime soon.
Reach. Teach. Lead.
Reach Education Ltd
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