Playing Tennis with a Badminton Racket

This was it, hours of preparation and training came to this moment.

I step out onto the court and await the first volley. The ball zips through the air, smacks my racket and THUD…it lands an awkward two feet away after having made contact with the racket.

The opponent across the net suggests it is my turn to serve the ball, it’s obvious by their body language they are either embarrassed or seriously intimidated at the mad skills about to be displayed. Using all my reserved might, the racket comes into perfect contact with the ball and it makes a few desperate little bounces before rolling up to the net.

My opponent made some odd frowning before finally suggesting, “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but what happens if you used a tennis racket? I mean we are playing tennis not badminton here…”

As ludicrous as the above story is, it is more so an allegory of an increasingly serious dilemma unfolding within our students and is also persistent in many adults. A lack of true self-awareness. This lack of self-awareness is having many of us show up for life with the badminton racket, when in actuality we are in the midst of a tennis match!

Self-awareness can be defined simply as our ability to see ourselves clearly. This knowledge of ourselves does not actually come innately, we have to be made conscious of it through purposeful reflection and spending time with ourselves. In today’s world of media/technology saturation self-awareness seems to be of lesser and lesser value than ever before.

In education and business culture circles we are deploying tools and tests that are meant to help us define our leadership styles, strengths, personality types, and the list could go on and on. Yet, ALL those tools and tests come with a HUGE caveat, their accuracy hinges on our ability to see ourselves clearly for who we actually are! 

Let that sink in for a moment…

The accuracy of these tools and tests (that are so often used to help develop teams, train personnel, or help guide us through various facets of our life including, relationships and career selection) are heavily dependent on our ability to answer the questions as they relate to our true understanding of ourselves. SO, WHAT IF WE LACK THAT UNDERSTANDING OR SELF-AWARENESS??…uh oh…can you see where problems could arise?

In many instances we are putting the cart in front of the horse and assuming that our students and ourselves have gone through the continuous process of self-reflection towards becoming self-aware. Too often I hear from students and adults alike, “I’m not really sure who I am.” Other times they are confused when I ask what motivates them or what are their personal passions.

Grappling with these topics are not a one-time activity or a quick personal inventory list…these topics require active, extended engagement in pausing to assess ourselves. Doing this after we engage in an interaction that may not have gone well or after an experience that got us really jazzed…each situation presents us opportunities to peel back the layers of ourself and reveal details on who we really are for good or bad.

Those who know me probably would immediately identify me as an extrovert. This statement would be correct in part. I love people, I love to engage and connect with others, and I derive energy and excitement from those interactions. Everything that would come to define an extrovert I’d fit the bill on paper. Yet, I’m self-aware enough of myself to recognize I’m not a full-bore extrovert. I MUST HAVE TIME ALONE!

This understanding of myself helped me balance my needs with our student-teacher. During the mornings early in the internship there were times I saw that I was very short-tempered, I’d be cranky or otherwise not myself. As I reflected on what had changed it was that my student-teacher had (not intentionally) been inadvertently interrupting my morning reflection routine. When I realized this was a source of friction, we discussed about how we could make it work while still balancing her needs to feel prepared for the morning. We came up with a plan that honored both our needs, I got 30 minutes uninterrupted in the morning for reflection and preparation and then at 8am we would do a team walkthrough of the day and focus on her needs for being prepared.

If I had not taken the time to identify what about myself was bringing the friction and if I had not appropriately handled it or bottled it up; this issue could have escalated and caused deeper rifts in our mentorship over the course of the internship. I cannot emphasize enough the importance that practicing self-awareness is comprised not only of reflection, but also intentional action.

As we look to practicing daily self-awareness, here are a few strategies I’ve found helpful:

Strategy 1: Find a Mentor!

We need help in the process of developing self-awareness. It starts with being challenged and having someone we trust bare the truth in honest terms of how we come across; again for both good and bad. Usually, we are far harder on ourselves and miss the valued qualities that we bring to our teams or families. For the last year I’ve been working with my spiritual mentor in developing a rhythm for my life that does not hinge on the constant need to achieve and drive. Though some would say that aspect of my life has allowed me to be successful, it was leading to unhealthy burnout in my career and life.

It’s been hard, but through the process of prayer, reflection, wise counsel, and taking actionable steps; I’ve made huge strides in being more attuned towards my self-awareness on what success actually looks like for me and creating goals that are less focused on “crowing achievements” and more on building a firm foundation for the remainder of my life through spiritual disciplines.

Strategy 2: Monthly Resets 

Each month I have carved sacred time for me to retreat for at least six to eight hours of absolutely uninterrupted time. I used to justify not doing this by claiming there wasn’t enough time in my schedule. However, when I came to the brink of personal burnout a year and half ago it really changed my perspective to I could not afford to miss the opportunity for a monthly reset. These monthly resets are a chunk of unscheduled time with myself and my thoughts. This personal communion allows me to recenter myself on the values I hold dear and where I see myself in the larger canvas of life around me.

The monthly reset also clarifies perspective for myself. At times I can become so absorbed by what is in the immediate future that I lose track of the longer game. I had a Chess coach who watched me play a few rounds and critiqued my style when I was younger and the advice he shared has stuck with me ever since…”pause and step back even for a moment to look at the entire board. The best players see the whole board and play out several moves ahead with all the pieces available…now what do you see?” Monthly resets allow me to take stock of the entire board of my life and cultivate a better sense of self-awareness in what role I am playing on the board.

Strategy 3: Journaling Daily

This has been the game changer…period! Daily journaling is the ultimate tool I use for enhancing my sense of self-awareness. I keep my journals raw, real and truthful. Even when the truth hurts to say. Am I afraid of what others may find in my journals later on in my life if they are read…possibly…yet I hope what others may find (if they ever believe my journals ever prove to be remotely of interest for deeper reading…yeah right get ready for snore fest) is a progression into maturity and confidence in who I am as a person and human being.

There are lots of strategies I could suggest for developing a habit of daily journaling (this is an entire other blog post in of itself), but what I would leave us with is this: conduct a 30 day journal theme challenge. How it works is to write for 30 days on a specific journal topic. It could be 30 days of capturing something you were grateful about each day. Or maybe it is the Proactivity Journal Challenge, my mentee and I are currently completing, where we capture instances over the next 30 days where we practiced being proactive or areas where we could have been more proactive. After completing the 30 day journal challenge, go back through and look at your writing and the insights you gleaned. You may surprise yourself at how much you grew in that short period of time. Then, hopefully, journaling will get you hooked into it becoming a long-lasting habit.

At the end of the day it is crucial we have spent the time to cultivate true self-awareness. Without it we become empty vessels on a journey, where when we arrive to port we will question what was the purpose of our journey to begin with. Let’s not have life find us there…and especially let’s not let life find us playing tennis with a badminton racket anymore!

Writer’s Note: This post has been a work in progress for some time…almost a serious month’s worth of time. Knew the message I wished to convey, but the approach kept varying! Thank you friends for your patience with my previous pace of writing, but the log jam of my thoughts is loosening, so be prepared! 😉 As always thanks for reading and sharing it is a great pleasure to grow with you!

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