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The art of reflection

Posted on September 6, 2017
Image of fall trees along a lake with the image of the trees reflected on the water.

Fall is upon us, which means summer is slowly slipping away. I was up in Maine last week to drop my son off for his second year of college, and I couldn’t help but notice the leaves were beginning to change. I love Fall: cool mornings, sweater weather, football games, hot chocolate, and the rustling leaves. For me, in academia, Fall is not considered an ending, but rather a beginning. Therefore, it is a time to reflect. It is a time to think about what I have done, what I haven’t done, and what I want, or need, to do – both personally and professionally.

Reflection is a powerful tool in our EQ (Emotional Intelligence) toolbox. It is a skill that requires you to step outside of yourself to honestly examine your actions, thoughts, and goals. In other words, thinking critically about yourself by asking the tough questions:

  • What are my weaknesses?
  • What could I have done better?
  • Where have I failed?
  • Have I been supportive?
  • Has my attitude been positive?

Of course it is valuable to look at your strengths and successes as well, but not until you have thoroughly looked at your weaknesses and failures. In reality, we don’t learn much from our successes, we learn the most from our failures. Henry Ford said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” And we can’t learn from our mistakes if we can’t own them, and therefore, analyze them.

So, how does one begin to reflect? There are plenty of methods: writing, meditating, discussions with colleagues or career coaches, compiling lists, personal retreats, reading, and so forth. The method isn’t important, it is the process that matters. The process involves asking those tough questions, such as the ones listed above, and then answering them honestly, processing the response, and then analyzing it for opportunities to make changes.

There are two key elements at play: 1) a willingness to ask the questions, and 2) a willingness to answer them honestly. This is not an exercise to “pat yourself on the back.” This should be one in which you actively seek to identify experiences and skills that are weak or lacking, attitudes that are unproductive and unsupportive, and approaches to problems or issues that are ineffective. It should be an exercise that leaves you feeling a little sick, a little frustrated, and maybe even a little sad.

From this, you can then identify opportunities to build on those weaker skills, redirect attitudes that are unsupportive, and re-evaluate your problem-solving skills. These opportunities might include a class, discussions with a mentor, deep thought, or reading a book. The point is that without the reflective process, it is difficult to change, and change is a necessary agent of growth.

Fall is a great time to examine yourself, your work habits, your performance, and even your career. For many, it is the season of performance reviews, however, regardless of the circumstance, pull this powerful tool out of your toolbox and get to work. The reflective process is your path to self-discovery, empowerment, and advancement.


Anne Converse Willkomm
Director of Graduate Studies
Goodwin College
Drexel University

Posted in leadership-management-skills