There is no doubt that each of us is a product of our past. Our life stories and narratives shape our current behaviors. The events and experiences in our life deeply influence who we are and how we view the world.
Having said this, whatever your life experience, you also have the ability to be the author of your future. Once you are aware of the life stories and narratives (positive and negative) rattling around in your head, how do you move beyond this to write the script for your future? How do you think about what you hope to achieve, the impact you would like to have and the type of person you want to become?
To do this, I would suggest considering a few critical questions/steps.
First, can you accurately assess your strengths and weaknesses? Can you write them down? Most of us struggle to do this. Why? Because we tend to have blind spots. We may not see ourselves accurately. Worse, we may not want to acknowledge and face our weaknesses.
Further, accurately assessing your strengths and weaknesses entails being proactive in getting advice from those who observe you. How do they experience you? What skills would they suggest you need to develop? How would they advise that you improve on these skills? To find this out, you need to take ownership of seeking advice. Most people won't volunteer constructive criticism for fear of offending you - it's not worth it. They fear their advice is unwelcome. As a result, you must ASK and be open to what you hear. If you make a habit of seeking advice, you will get better at it and will telegraph to others that you are open to suggestions and advice. In my experience, seeking advice is a huge step in increasing your awareness and improving your skills.
Second step. Do you know your passions? Think of a time when you were at your best. What tasks were you performing? What were the environmental factors? Why were you at your best and what does this experience tell you about what you enjoy and have a passion for? Do you look for jobs and careers that might call on one or more of these tasks and other factors? Experience has shown that you will be far more likely to "shine" if you are doing something you enjoy. Money and other extrinsic motivations are great but usually come as a result of enjoying and excelling at what you do!
In this regard, beware of "conventional wisdom" and peer pressure. Friends may turn up their noses when you describe your passions - don't pay much attention. The popular craze is seldom the way to go - particularly if it doesn't fit YOU! People give you a knee jerk reaction without giving it a lot of thought. Beware of following the crowd. Focus on understanding yourself first.
Lastly, develop a support group. Do you have relationships with people who care enough about you to tell you the brutal truth? All of us need these types of people in our lives - they are hard to find! In this age of networking, twitter, Facebook and myriad ways of being "connected," people can become isolated. Live conversations that go deeply are critical to human beings reaching their potential. Focus on creating a small support group who you can confide in and speak with candidly. Also, be open to playing this role for others - you'll learn a lot about yourself.
Take ownership of knowing your strengths and weaknesses, seek advice, think about your passions/likes/dislikes and develop a support group. All these approaches can help you build on who you are and start authoring the script of who you truly want to be.
Robert Steven Kaplan is a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School and co-chairman of Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, a global venture philanthropy firm. He is the author of What to Ask the Person in the Mirror", , a book published by Harvard Business Press (August 2011).