Warren Buffet, one of the world's most successful investors, gave a talk at his alma mater, the University of Nebraska. At the end of the talk, a student in the audience raised his hand excitedly and asked him, "What should I invest in?".
What was the 'Sage of Omaha's' advice? Stock in dynamic new technologies? Or venerable American industries? Buy gold? His answer was none of these. “The smartest investment a person can ever make,” he said, “is in themselves.”
Mr. Buffett's wisdom echoes that of Dr. Bell, the Founder of Bell Leadership Institute. For over forty years, Dr. Bell has identified Four Laws of Leadership. His second law is, “Build yourself first,” because, he says, “there is nothing more important we can do during our lives than building ourselves.”
The question is, given the incessant demands and hectic pace of our lives, how do we do this? How do we build ourselves first when, as Dr. Bell warns, the world is designed to "suck us into trivia"? We are bombarded by emails and meetings at work, then go home to our nightly routines, most likely performing at less than our peak. We do a lot, but end up majoring in the minors. Our lives pass, we retire and then say, “What happened? It’s all a blur."
Dr. Bell reminds us that we only have one life to live. It is the most precious thing we have. Therefore, we want to use our time to invest in ourselves. Although “Build yourself first” is a lifelong commitment, the good news is that it can be broken down into a series of five steps:
First, we’ve got to believe that building ourselves is the most important thing we can do to lead a great life. It is not self-indulgent or narcissistic, but rather, the best thing we can do to be a better colleague, parent, or friend. Like putting the air mask on ourselves first in the airplane – if we aren’t breathing, we aren’t going to do anyone much good.
Second, to build ourselves means to know ourselves -- to really spend time thinking about how we behave, why we behave as we do, and how others perceive us. A simple place to begin this process is to identify our strengths and weaknesses, taking some time to personally reflect on our own strengths and weaknesses, then seeking feedback from others and comparing how we see ourselves to how others perceive us. In this process, we often discover we have at least two “blind spots” to work on, and two “hidden strengths” to build on.
Third, we must learn to love our feedback. In Dr. Bell’s foundational Achievers program, participants take a 360-degree Bell Personality Profile. Before they see the results of this feedback, Dr. Bell asks them to write "I LOVE FEEDBACK," followed by "I’m great and getting better". This activity always elicits a great deal of laughter, easing the tension in the room. Although some people may feel silly writing “I’m getting better….”, they realize it is very true.
Often, when we receive feedback, as Dr. Bell says, we get a few “zingers.” Our natural tendency is to defend ourselves, dismiss the negative, argue, and blame. We deny that it represents who we really are – our true core, our ideal self. On the other hand, being open to feedback means intentionally listening to how others see us. People often see us differently than we see ourselves, because all they see are our actions and behaviors -- without knowing the reasons behind them or why we do what we do. Like listening to our own voices on a tape recorder -- we often are surprised to discover how different our voices sound when we listen from the outside rather than from within. If we learn to seek out feedback, listen and think deeply about it, love it for how it can help us be better – we can ultimately build ourselves.
When we receive feedback, it is critical that we share it with others in our professional and personal lives. By talking about it, we can ask others how they can help us to improve. For example, if we find out that we have an annoying tendency to interrupt or rush people in meetings, we can partner with a trusted colleague to help hold us accountable to listening more effectively. They can check on us before the meeting, talk through some best practices in patience and listening, and then rate us afterwards on how well we did on these listening techniques.
Finally, the most important thing to remember is NOT to take feedback personally, or to get too angry at ourselves or others. As Dr. Bell reminds us, "we would do better if we knew better." No human has ever achieved perfection. Instead of worrying about being perfect, we can strive for excellence, getting a little better each day.
The secret is to enjoy the process of building and investing in ourselves a little at a time over a lifetime. After all, if we don’t invest in ourselves, who will invest in us?