Be Who You Want to Be—Faster

Written by Davis Nguyen 

When I first started playing violin, my teacher would criticize us every time we played even a bit off-key, sat a few centimeters from ideal posture, or lost focus even for a slight second. She was a hard teacher to please, and many students quit.

Each time I played, I was nervous I would be the next one to be corrected in front of the class. But I looked forward to playing for her every day, because I knew she was only harsh to us because she wanted us to be better. Though I disliked being called out in the middle of everyone, the result always led to me being a better player. I knew the moment she stopped caring and calling out my mistakes was the moment my progress would stop.

It has been more than 10 years since I picked up my violin, but the lessons I learned from Ms. Allegood still remain fresh in my mind each time I am working with others, from school projects to business projects.   

Who do you want to be?

None of us are perfect. We have our strengths and weaknesses. And these strengths and weaknesses can be sorted into four categories:

  • Things you know you are good at (known-strengths)
  • Things you know you are not good at (known-weaknesses)
  • Things you don’t know you’re good at (unknown-strengths)
  • Things you don’t know you’re not good at (unknown-weaknesses)

Playing the violin, you quickly learn your knowns – which pieces of music you are good at, which pieces you are not, which positions you are comfortable playing, and which ones you are not. But it is hard to know your unknowns, and that is why a good teacher matters. A good teacher points out your unknowns and challenges you so you can discover your own unknowns. The result is that you become a better player.

Each time I work with others on a team, one of my goals is to further understand my strengths and weaknesses. I want to develop my knowns while discovering my unknowns to make them knowns.

It is easy to go from activity to activity at work, doing enough to get by, and not worrying about your personal development. Doing so would be wasting an opportunity to learn and grow, to be doing the work that you want, to be making the impact you want on the world, and to be paid what you want to be paid. By caring about your personal development, you ensure that every task you do, no matter how meaningless it might seem, will benefit you and help you become the person you want to be. 

Begin each task with a goal of how you want to develop by the end, even if it is just to be better at what you’re already doing.

Supercharge Your Personal Development

One of the fastest ways I’ve learned to develop myself is to ask for feedback from people who see me in action. I’ll ask for feedback as we’re working together as well as at the end.

Getting feedback can be hard since no one likes being told they’re not good at something, but it is the process of being vulnerable and allowing others to be candid with you that helps you develop your knowns and uncover your unknowns.

Over the years, I learned that when people I respect give me feedback, it is because they want me to be better, much like Ms. Allegood 10 years earlier. Over time, I developed three questions I would ask people I worked with.

  1. What should I stop doing?
  2. What should I start doing?
  3. What should I keep doing?

The answer to each helps me become a better leader, a better teammate, and a better person. Each time I ask these questions, I move closer to being the person I want to become.

Making the space safe

When I ask for feedback from people I’ve worked with, people I’ve managed, and people who have managed me, I provide the 3 questions ahead of time so they have time to think about the answer. I make it known that I want to know the answer to these questions so I can better myself as a person to give people the OK to be completely honest with me. 

Depending on the relationship we have and what I know about the person, if they are comfortable, I’ll set up one-one-one time to go over their answers. During this session, all I am doing is listening, taking notes of their answers, and asking for examples when I feel the answer is too vague. This is not the time to uphold my ego; arguing or defending myself would defeat the purpose of why we are having this session.

If the person is not comfortable telling me in person, I will send out a mass anonymous email (usually to at least 5 people I’ve worked with recently) with a survey form with the same questions and get my feedback anonymously.

Putting feedback into actionable steps

No matter how I collect my answers, I aggregate them into themes. Since no one person gets to see me all the time, one person might say I am great at X, while another might say I am not. Unless that person works with me a large amount of the time, I am not looking for specific comments but for themes across different people.

Once I have my themes identified, I highlight the ones that represent strengths and ones that represent areas for improvement so that when I work on my next team I continue to demonstrate my strengths and work on my weaknesses.

Once the project concludes, I ask for more feedback and the cycle of personal improvement continues.

About Davis

Davis (@IamDavisNguyen) graduated from Yale University in 2015. He currently lives in San Francisco and works at Bain & Company. When he’s not helping CEOs transform their companies, he is helping recent graduates figure out the type of life they want for themselves and helping them get there.