Practice Life-Long Self-Development and Become a Sage

Successful People Know Themselves and Their Strengths and Weaknesses

Mature businesswoman is leading a team meeting during which she is sharing life-long learning with the group.

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People define success differently. For some, success means having achieved financial security or career pinnacles. Some people judge their success by the positive impact they have made on others whether these are clients, students, associates, or family.

Other successful people have acquired a level of expertise that is recognized and respected by peers. But despite these differing definitions of what constitutes success, successful people themselves have similar characteristics.

  • First, they are self-confident without being arrogant. This comes from being self-aware: knowing one's strengths and weaknesses, knowing one’s goals and remaining true to one’s values and capabilities.
  • Second, they are willing to grow by challenging their limits of knowledge and experience.
  • And third, they are willing to reflect on and learn from experience.

Webster's Dictionary defines a sage as one who is wise through reflection and experience. In ancient cultures, a group’s sages were those who had experienced rich lives and were thoughtful about what they had learned through these experiences.

In contemporary times, groundbreaking research by the Center for Creative Leadership in the late 1980s found that successful executives were those who had benefited from the “lessons of experience.”

So from these common traits of successful people, those striving for success can seek to practice three fundamental steps to self-development.

Self-Development Step: Know Thyself

This is the most basic tenet of psychology, self-improvement, and emotional intelligence. If you think you need to get to know yourself better, try these basics.

  • Solicit Feedback Regularly: Perception is reality. Seek to understand how people perceive you. You may not be achieving the impact you expected in leading or working with others. You can not adjust your approach without the benefit of feedback that can inform you in terms of how your intentions were received by others. Be proactive in finding out what people think about you and your style of interacting and your approach. Be open to and appreciative of the feedback you receive, not defensive. Seek to understand rather than to be understood.
  • Reflect on Performance: Some successful people are gregarious and extroverted while others are reserved and introverted. But all successful people know how to spend time alone being reflective and thoughtful about recent performance and behavior. Take time every day to reflect on the day’s work and interactions.
    Always take ample time at the conclusion of major elements of work to reflect on the quality of what you produced and the effectiveness of your work with others. The key to reflecting on performance is remaining balanced in your self-assessment. Be self-critical: understand what you could have done better and learned from these mistakes. But also acknowledge success whenever warranted: celebrate and take pride in what you have done well.
  • Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses: As you collect feedback and reflections, come to understand your personal strengths and weaknesses. Know that everyone has both. Successful people build success from their strengths while they limit the negative impact of their weaknesses. The reason to identify your key strengths and weaknesses is not so that you can improve your weaknesses. It is much more important to identify your key strengths and leverage these.
    The management guru, Peter Drucker, in his classic article, “Managing Oneself", states, “One should waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. It takes far more energy and works to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence. And yet most people, concentrate on making incompetent performers into mediocre ones. Energy, resources, and time should go instead to making a competent person into a star performer.”
  • Know Your Joys and Passions: Be in tune with your emotions as you engage in your work. We all need to do elements of work that are tedious or displeasing, but the bulk of how you spend your day should satisfy you and make you feel good about your contributions and the impact of your efforts. Success is difficult to achieve without that level of satisfaction. Know that people who excel enjoy what they do and do what they enjoy.

As stated earlier, contemporary research affirms what ancient societies have known all along: those who are the wisest amongst a group are those who have had rich experiences and have learned from them. Consider these aspects of learning from experience.

  • Development Occurs Within the Context of Work: During most of the 20th century, companies and their employees tended to think about professional development as something that happened away from the job, in classrooms and workshops and seminars. These development options are used to build basic skills and provide the opportunity for workers to interact within a cohort, but they do not compare with the capacity for development of real skills learned on the job and through the experiences of meaningful work with real implications and result.
  • Growth Occurs Through Challenge and Stretch: Once one achieves a level of comfort and ease in their job responsibilities then high performance may continue but growth and development will not. Individuals with the highest potential and talent need to continue to grow until their potential is reached. This means applying a consistent level of tension with respect to challenging the individual’s skills, perceptions, and experiences. The appropriate “stretch” for development is consistently requiring job expectations that are just beyond those skills already mastered.
  • Diversity of Experience and Depth Versus Breadth: Know that one’s career goals need to shape career experiences or else career experiences will shape career potential. Understanding how to apply this goes back to the tenet of “Know Thyself.” Know how you will define your career success so you can build the appropriate career path to get there. Are your passions energized through expertise: would you like to know all there is to know about a particular area? If so, you need to build an expert’s career that is deeply steeped within that area of expertise.
    Or perhaps your passions are energized by leading broad sets of people and your vision stretches across an organization or industry. In this case, you need to build a leader’s career that is broad and encompasses a variety of knowledge and perspective. However, whether you are building depth or breadth, diversity of experience is critical to ongoing development. Always be looking for the next challenge, the newest goal that will mix things up and add another layer to the fabric of your career.
  • Apply Your Lessons of Experience: So, an important distinction in understanding how to develop through experiences is that the experience itself is only half the task. What is critical is that you learn from the experience and thus apply these lessons to future experiences. Again, this requires reflection and self-awareness and purposeful cognizance relative to learning. “What did I learn from that?” is a common question you should ask yourself following successes and failures. And when you have your answer to that question, be sure it is applied to your next experience.

Learning from the experience—the task, the challenge, the work, the goals—is only half of the lesson’s potential. Each experience puts you in touch with people—clients, peers, reports, bosses, teachers, and mentors—all of whom have their own sets of lessons for you.

  • Seek Diversity of Perspective: Just as you should seek diverse experiences to expand your skill set, you should also seek diverse perspectives to expand your own thinking. We all enjoy and have a comfort level with people who are “like me.” But these people will only reinforce your current thinking without necessarily expanding or challenging you to think differently – and just as in experiences, collecting diverse perspectives results in growth and development.
  • Observe Others: Be a people watcher. Be aware of how your colleagues interact with others and assess what works and what doesn’t. Learn from those colleagues who are effective – borrow their strategies and approaches. Learn from those colleagues who are ineffective – guard against making the same mistakes you see them make as they interact.
  • Exposure, Exposure, Exposure: Anytime you can work on a project that exposes you to new contacts, new audiences, new networks – do it! Remember this: it isn’t really about who you know but it is all about who knows you.
  • Solicit Feedback Regularly and Ask for Support: Okay, so you heard this one already in Step One. It’s that important to hear it again. One way you learn from people is to learn what they think about you and can provide feedback about how effective you are in interacting with them. When you receive feedback that requires you to adjust your behavior or experiment with new ways of interacting, ask your feedback providers to support you and help you to improve by reminding you when you slip back to old patterns or acknowledging you when you successfully implement new ones.
  • Networks: Successful people are well networked, period. It may seem as though their broad and loyal networks of friends and associates are effortless and naturally attracted to the successful person’s charismatic style. But the truth is probably more likely that the successful person works hard to keep connected to these networks by remaining cognizant of comings and goings and by keeping proactive and systematic goals to stay connected.
  • Manage Your Own Performance Management: Development on the job almost always means needing to learn from your boss. But some of us are more blessed than others when it comes to bosses who are natural coaches and mentors. Don’t let a boss who is poor in performance management deprive you of the lessons you need to learn from him or her. Be proactive and persistent. Manage upwards: schedule time with him or her, come prepared to the meeting with a structured agenda, a self-assessment of recent performance, and be prepared to solicit feedback directly.

In closing, wisdom and success are within everyone’s reach through three steps you should practice daily.

  • Know thyself: solicit feedback, reflect, do what you love!
  • Learn from experience: use work to learn, challenge yourself, expose yourself to diverse experiences, and apply your lessons of experience.
  • Learn from people: seek diversity of perspective, be a people watcher, seek exposure, ask for support, maintain your networks, and take responsibility for your own performance management.


Susan McKeone is a key executive strategist and a preferred HR partner. She is committed to helping clients develop, motivate, and leverage talent.