Define yourself to create success

Feb 28 2012 by Marshall Goldsmith Print This Article

In my job as an executive coach, I am known for helping my clients achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. Something that most people don't realize is that I also help them change their identity or the way they define themselves. I have found that truly successful leaders have created identities to become the human beings that they choose to be - without being slaves to the past or to other people. In doing so they are able to successfully surpass obstacles and meet challenges that might stop others in their tracks.

One of the first things I'll ask my clients is: Who do you think you are? This question is more subtle than it sounds. It's amazing to me how often I ask people this question and their first response is, "Well, I think I'm perceived as someone who . . ."

I stop them immediately, saying, "I didn't ask you to analyze how you think other people see you. I want to know who you think you are. Taking everyone else in the world out of the equation, including the opinions of your spouse, your family, and your closest friends, how do you perceive yourself?"

What follows is often a long period of silence as they struggle to get their self-image into focus. After people think for a while, I can generally extract a straight answer. And it's in this answer that my clients will often find one or two defining characteristics that they would like to change that will help them meet today's business challenges, and sometimes even personal challenges, more successfully.

It's important for me to note here that I don't believe that anyone can become anything just because they choose to do it! For instance, I will never be a professional basketball player. I cannot wish physical reality away with 'positive thinking'. However, I am amazed at what we can change, if we do not artificially limit ourselves. I have seen leaders make massive positive changes, both in the way that they treat others (behavior) and the way that they see themselves ("created" identity).

Our created identity allows us to change, to become different people, to achieve higher goals. Our identity is not fixed; it is not immutable. It can be altered - significantly. One of the greatest obstacles to true happiness and meaning is the paralysis we create with the self-limiting definitions of who we are.

No one is safe from this defect. The client who hangs on to the self-image that he's bad at follow up, long after it's true or meaningful, is literally living with a false identity. So is the boor who thinks his cultural heritage excuses his rough manner, although he's only fooling himself with this fake ID. But the real damage is how these limiting IDs prevent us from changing - and becoming someone better than we used to be.

When we define ourselves by saying we are deficient at some activity, we tend to create the reality that proves our definition. I once heard a client claim that he made a bad first impression. As someone who was favorably impressed by his manner the first time I met him, I asked, "What do you do the second time that reverses the bad first impression?"

"I'm much looser with people the second time," he said.

"Why?" I asked.

"I know them a little better, so I talk more freely, I joke around. I'm confident that I can charm them."

"Why can't you do that the first time," I asked.

"I'm shy. Being outgoing with strangers just wouldn't be me."

"And yet, that is who you are the second time," I said. "Don't you find that odd?"

"I've always been like that," he said, as if that ended the matter, as if he was beyond forming a new version of himself with strangers.

This is the most visible form of self-limiting behavior. This client stopped trying to make a good first impression because he defined himself as bad at it. The rest of us are no different. If we tell ourselves we can't sell or are bad at speaking publically or don't listen well, we will usually find a way to fulfill our prophecy. We doom ourselves to failure.

Review the various components of your current identity. Where did they originate? If your present identity is fine with you, just work on becoming an even better version of who you are. If you want to make a change in your identity, be open to the fact that you may be able to change more than you originally believed that you could.

Assuming that you do not have "incurable" or "unchangeable" limitations, you can create a new identity for your future, without sacrificing your past.

About The Author

Marshall Goldsmith
Marshall Goldsmith

Marshall Goldsmith was recently recognized as the #1 leadership thinker in the world and the #7 business thinker in the world at the bi-annual Thinkers 50 ceremony sponsored by the Harvard Business Review.