Nothing will work unless you do…

…and yet we’re still not teaching kids how they work.

Having profiled hundreds of leaders as well as people from across a range of backgrounds, I have seen the clear patterns and links between life success, well-being and fulfilling potential with the psychological skills learnt in the teenage years. However, it’s not just what I have seen myself, this is backed by a huge amount of data and research. Literally hundreds of studies of what is often referred to as social and emotional learning (SEL) have documented the short-term benefits and more recent studies have shown the benefits lasting across time with both economic and societal return on investment for SEL in schools (e.g. Belfield et al., 2015).

One study analysed data from 82 schools involving nearly 100,000 students looking at the impacts of SEL across a time span of 6 months to 18 years and clearly demonstrated the benefits to students from all types of backgrounds, both underprivileged and wealthy. Social emotional learning was shown to prepare students to move successfully through school and college, and to be productive workers and good citizens with positive mental health. The only catch being that without ‘quality implementation’, not using people who really know what they’re talking about or using evidence based schemes, the potential positive impact of any learning is significantly reduced (Taylor et al., 2017).

From the other end of the spectrum, the impact of a lack of SEL in schools has a huge economic cost. A recent Cabinet Office report revealed that the government in England and Wales is spending nearly £17 billion on the short-term costs of ‘picking up the pieces from damaging social issues affecting young people, such as child abuse and neglect, unemployment and youth crime’ which extends further still when looking at the longer-term impact or the wider social or economic costs’. The report suggests that the solution is to ensure that ‘everyone is able to realise their full potential by developing the range of skills we all need to thrive’ namely the following social and emotional capabilities:

  • Self-perceptions, self-awareness and self-direction (including self-esteem and the belief that one’s own actions can make a difference);
  • Motivation;
  • Self-control/self-regulation (generally characterised as greater impulse control and fewer behavioural problems);
  • Social skills, including relationship skills and communication skills;
  • Resilience and coping.

The report found that teaching these skills led to ‘top’ job advantage, qualifications, adult mental health, life satisfaction, socio-economic benefits, labour market health and other health related outcomes. It concluded that their findings provide a robust case for increased local and national commitment to supporting the social and emotional development of children and young people.  Further support was offered by the current education secretary in February 2019 setting out the vision for building character and resilience being ‘as important as academic achievement’. The question remains however, what is actually being done?

Added to all of this I would argue that it’s critical for children to understand how the brain works. Without this knowledge the picture is far from complete. Children need to learn how to work with their brain, optimise their performance and understand the fundamental mismatch between the brain and the world we live in. This provides the backdrop to why we do many of the things which feel odd or work against common sense. For example how even a strong willed independent person can end up conforming to a group, why our emotions don’t always make sense, why analysing things in the outside world helps to create resolution but analysing things in our own head can cause massive issues.

I don’t believe it should be just leaders who learn these skills i.e. those who already have a pretty good grasp of their social and emotional capabilities.  So, I am starting a school tour where giving free talks to sixth formers. The aim is to help them understand some of the basics and provide them with access to tools and materials to support this in a more ongoing context. If you know a school that may be interested, please do let us know.



Cabinet Office report, Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2015 ‘SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL LEARNING: SKILLS FOR LIFE AND WORK’ edited by Leon Feinstein, Director of Evidence, Early Intervention Foundation

Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school‐based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta‐analysis of follow‐up effects. Child development, 88(4), 1156-1171.

“Nothing will work unless you do” Maya Angelou


Knowing You, Knowing Me

‘How well do you really know yourself?’ A hugely significant 95% of us think that we’re self-aware, but the reality bears a stark contrast with 10% to 15% actually knowing who we really are (Eurich 2017). Although we believe that we know the image we see starting back at us from the mirror, the way we position our story on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat, what our co-workers and friends think of us, in reality we spend very little time actually reflecting on who we are or asking people for honest opinions about the impact we’re having on them.

Self-awareness isn’t a new concept – another faddy notion claiming to be the route of all happiness. Plato said, ‘Know thyself’ more than two thousand years ago. Today, the understanding that knowing ourselves is the cornerstone to realising our potential is backed by the experience of generations and robust scientific evidence. In fact, as psychologists we even believe that this skill is the foundation of human survival and advancement (Eurich 2017).

Why Does Self-Awareness Matter?

The lack in self-insight that most of us unwittingly have, means we are wandering around with an equivalent of a blindfold on. We may be making it from one place to another but along the way we’re bumping into things, stumbling over obstacles and taking a really inefficient route to our destination. When it comes to behaviour that means unintentionally annoying people and making a myriad of unnecessary mistakes along the way. On the other hand taking that blind fold off would enable us to:

  • Work out what we actually want from life – without working out what we want there is no way of getting closer to it.
  • Understand our strengths in order to start-making proper use of them.
  • Work on our weaknesses and at the very least mitigate the negative impact they have.

Having better self-insight also improves our social skills, decision making capabilities, ability to deal with pressure, resolve conflict and deal with stress.

Given all of this it’s unsurprising that knowing ourselves allows us to fulfil our potential. Indeed, eminent Psychologist Daniel Goleman explains that self-awareness is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence and success. In his book Emotional Intelligence, Goleman explains how in an organisational setting, once someone has an IQ of 120 or above, it’s emotional intelligence that becomes the most significant predictor of successful leaders.

And it’s not just soft skills that benefit, Dr. Richard Boyatzis a Professor of Organisational Behaviour looked at the profits produced by partners in a number of financial services companies measuring the 4 areas of emotional intelligence defined by Goleman. He found three of the facets had a massively significant effect on bottom line results with good self-awareness adding 78 per cent to incremental profit.

Most importantly of all having good self-awareness allows us to thrive. Knowing how to operate at our optimum but also being tuned into our mental and physical needs allows us to know when we need to refuel our body and our mind – leading to better physical and mental health.

How Can You Improve Your Self-Awareness?

Knowing how your brain works – it’s useful to first understand a bit more about how our brain works before delving into introspection. What’s normal and what’s not but also what’s helpful and what’s not. For example if you approach self-reflection in a way that’s hyper vigilant of everything that runs through your mind it will become counter-productive. When it comes to the brain analysis literally is paralysis. Instead try to be curious about yourself and your story but try not to ‘judge’, just observe.

Knowing about the world around you – a core component of self-awareness is understanding how our actions impact the world around us, not just looking inward. This is known as ‘external self-awareness’ and can be developed by:

Being curious  – observing how your actions change and impact things. Also take note of how other people alter interpersonal dynamics. This is critical because external self-awareness is as important as internal self-awareness.

Knowing what you don’t know – approaching a situation accepting of your own inexperience. Not presuming you know the answer, rather asking questions with an open mind and really considering the answers.

Asking people what they think – ask for feedback from people who know you well and who you trust. Ask them to help you think through ‘What is really important to me? What am I really good at? What makes me unique?’

 Knowing about you – it may seem a bit counterintuitive to put this one last but self-awareness is not pursely about self-absorption, it is about knowing about our passions and feelings but in terms of how they influence and are influenced by the context of the world we exist in. Ways in which to improve ‘internal self awareness’ include:

Writing lists or brainstorming – your strengths, weaknesses, what motivates you, what you stand for, what makes you happiest, what makes you mad.

Keeping a journal – not only does the process of writing itself allow the time and space for reflection, but also the capability to look back and learn from mistakes, at patterns of behaviour and their outcomes, to capture what makes you happy and what takes that away.

Making reflection a habit – this could be in the form of a journal or it could be meditation, mindfulness, going for a walk or a run, saying a prayer – whatever gives you the space to focus on what you’re feeling, how you are, what’s going on for you. Having the space to reflect on what makes us who we are, our own personal life story, is crucial to raising self-awareness.

Self awareness and learning about who we are is a continual journey – although the very core of us remains stable throughout life, our preferences, strengths, goals and passions modify and change as we grow and add to our story. If you make the effort to pay attention to that journey it can and will lead you to a far more fulfilled life.

Defining You: Discover telling insights into your behaviour, motives and results to unlock your full potential by Fiona Murden, will be out in April 2018 (UK) and July 2018 (USA, Canada, Australia and rest of the world). To pre-order a copy go to, or Waterstones. It will also be available in WHSmith’s UK from April 2018.

The book gives you unique access to an online psychometric test providing a full individualised professional report.

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References and links:

For more on how to approach self-reflection in a constructive rather than destructive way go to:

Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life by Tasha Eurich Published May 2nd 2017 by Crown Business

Immordino-Yang, M. H., Christodoulou, J. A., & Singh, V. (2012). Rest is not idleness: Implications of the brain’s default mode for human development and education. Perspectives on Psychological Science7(4), 352-364.

Tanner, J. L., & Arnett, J. J. (2011). Presenting “emerging adulthood”: What makes it developmentally distinctive. Debating emerging adulthood: Stage or process, 13-30.

Boyatzis, R. (1999). The financial impact of competencies in leadership and management of consulting firms. Department of Organizational Behavior Working Paper, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland

Beyond social capital: How social skills can enhance entrepreneurs’ success. Robert A Baron; Gideon D Markman The Academy of Management Executive; Feb 2000

Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., Shiffman, S., Lerner, N., & Salovey, P. (2006). Relating emotional abilities to social functioning: a comparison of self-report and performance measures of emotional intelligence. Journal of personality and social psychology91(4), 780.

Ciarrochi, J., Deane, F. P., & Anderson, S. (2002). Emotional intelligence moderates the relationship between stress and mental health. Personality and individual differences32(2), 197-209.