I feel secure in saying that I’ve got a strong and varied skill set that includes writing, editing, yelling at people and making bad ’80s action movie references. You know, important stuff.
But my greatest strength would probably have to be my aptitude at being terribly, horribly wrong from time to time.
That sounds like sarcasm, but in my experience it’s fairly accurate. Acknowledging one’s lack of omniscience is one of the most important things a person can learn in college and without a doubt one of the hardest. It takes a great deal of patience, observation and introspection, not to mention a willingness to stick one’s neck out by placing oneself in potentially embarrassing situations.
Here’s an example of just how wrong I can be: Once upon a time, I took part in an informal Friday afternoon discussion group in the English department. We’d talk about a wide range of topics, which were usually a mixture of literary, philosophical and social theories. As a self-proclaimed habitual wiseass with a tendency to raise my voice when impassioned, I jumped at the opportunity to openly speak my mind (which is usually what I did anyway, no matter how many people gave me dirty, murderous looks) and show the rest of the group just how smart I was.
That first meeting was a crash course in humility. Having been born with a genetic predisposition toward over-excitability, I ran my mouth a bit too far and found myself on the wrong end of what could only be described as a verbal knife fight. I was practically in tears by the end.
But Tom Kline doesn’t give up easily, so I went back the next week and was once again rhetorically kicked in the nether region. This continued for an indeterminable length of time, and each time I tended to get really bent out-of-shape about having my opinions systematically obliterated.
At some point, I realized I needed to find the source behind my ambivalence toward criticism from others. I began to read more and stay current with world news, and became increasingly curious about the brain and mind, which was part of my decision to take on a cognitive science minor. I learned about metacognition, which is the ability to recognize and understand the thought process behind one’s actions and beliefs. Over time, I came to the realization that my ambivalence toward criticism stemmed from a desire for validation. My refusal to admit to being wrong ultimately led to me being wrong, as I saw any sort of challenge as a personal threat and impulsively shot my mouth off in retaliation. Once I came to terms with how I tended to think, I was able to see things from an opposing point-of-view, and began to view arguments as learning opportunities rather than battles.
Eventually, metacognition became second nature to me, and I learned not to take criticism personally or as a sign that I was stupid. I found an equilibrium between honesty and persistence, which has made me more persuasive and generally a better person with whom to associate. It wasn’t easy, and I still find myself slipping up every now and then, but I’m no longer afraid to voice controversial opinions or challenge others to do the same.
The best piece of advice I can give to anyone out there looking to become more self-aware is to start a journal and write in it daily. It doesn’t matter what you write about, just as long as you’re honest. Eventually, you may develop a kind of “voice” to your thoughts and understand why you do what you do. Plus, you’ll be a better writer for it.
If there’s only one thing you take away from the college experience, it’s the importance of challenging and reexamining how you and the people around you think. Remember the British SAS motto: Who dares, wins.