Self-Reflection and The Power of Narrative


In our work and personal lives, we're better off if we adopt the habits that support learning. Just as with organizations, we are involved in two parallel and paramount processes. One is the group of processes of cooperation with others, where we apply what we know to deliver on commitments to others. In work, this is delivering value, and in our lives outside of work, these are expressed in our obligations to community, family, and loved ones. The second is learning, a set of activities that are more inward-focused, although not exclusively so.

I've been an advocate -- and adherent -- to the learning practices associated with self-reflection, and in my case, to the practice of daily journaling. Journaling can include a wide variety of activities:  such as collecting materials -- text, images, quotes, links -- that relate to the journaler’s interests, writing about these interests, and collating various materials in support of insights or theories, some or all of which may be shared with others (via various media, like email, letters blogging, or other forms of publishing); and keeping track of projects, deadlines, tasks, and events. Many other activities fall under the umbrella of journaling.

Self-reflection is one of the most important and least discussed aspects of journaling. As James Baily and Scheherazade Rehman wrote,

The practice itself is all about learning, looking back on the day (without bias or regret) to contemplate your behavior and its consequences. It requires sitting with yourself, taking an honest moment to think about what transpired, what worked, what didn’t, what can be done, and what can’t. Reflection requires courage. It’s thoughtful and deliberate. Being at the “top of your game” only comes when you extract from your past how to engage the future.

Asking a set of superficial questions on a daily basis will not get you there, and you also cannot write about every one of the ten thousand events that happen every week. Baily and Rehman suggest that we must winnow from the bombardment of the weekly steeplechase, perhaps selecting events that surprise us, when we fail, and what frustrates us.

More than just writing these events down, we need a systematic approach to making sense of our day-to-day, both at the time they occur and in the context of the trajectory of our lives.

To make sense in the moment, I suggest the What? So What? Now what? model of Driscoll (1994) and Bolton (1970) as a starting point. In WSWNW you answer three questions about situations you want to learn from:

  • What? -- Identify the context and details of the situation, including both facts and feelings.
  • So what? -- What does the situation reveal about the participants, the setup, and the outcome? What other theories or knowledge can you bring to bear to make sense of it?
  • Now what? -- How to proceed now that the situation has been considered? What course of action to take?
from The University of Edinburgh

But self-reflection on an event-by-event basis is like pedaling a bike with only one foot: it needs to be counterbalanced by a longer-range backdrop: a narrative of the past, present, and future, and your role in it. In short, we each have to undertake -- as a central purpose in journaling -- to tell the stories of our lives, and through that act of journaling, as Julie Beck puts it, "the story itself becomes a part of who you are".

Returning to the WSWNW approach, we need to invoke the power of narrative to make sense of some life event -- a career triumph, a project derailed, strife in a team -- and, to weave together the facts, feelings, and players in the drama we are part of. Julie Beck, again:

This narrative becomes a form of identity, in which the things someone chooses to include in the story, and the way she tells it, can both reflect and shape who she is. A life story doesn’t just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they’ll become, and for what happens next.

This self-reflection then is not just a way to become more resilient, and to be able to accept the ups and downs of life. Instead, it makes sense from what we experience, but also leads to us making sense, in that we come to know what we value, what we care about, who we are, where we want to be headed, and how all that articulates with the situation just experienced.

The arrow from Now What? to What? is quite different from the other two. The third arrow represents a (slightly) different person moving into the future who has assimilated the situation behind the What? through the process of Now what?. That person has integrated the surprise, failure, or frustration by telling new stories about themselves, or rewriting old stories to recast their character, aspirations, and strengths. Even what we once thought was the plot line of the story we each find ourselves in can be reworked by today's narrative.

After all, if learning doesn't change us, what is it for? And if the means for people to learn is to tell stories, well then, tell them. And if the way for us to learn about ourselves is to tell, retell, and rejigger stories about ourselves, well ok. Even if we rewrite the plot to find our way through the newest set of challenges in our narrative arc. As Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, said, "The past is always up for grabs."

So if you aren’t already, start journaling. It’s a sure way to find out what happens next in your story, since — to a large degree — you get to write it.

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