Personal Development Through Reflecting on Work & Life Events


“It is not what happens to you that determines how far you go in life; it is what you do with what happens to you.” – Zig Ziglar

So, it’s the end of another day, the usual mix of good and perhaps a little bad. Or is it a mix of bad with only a little good? The question is, what am I going to do with what has happened to me?

A drink perhaps? No. Not good for me. Tried that. Doesn’t solve anything.

Meditation? Yes. Absolutely, but later. That focuses on the here and now. Brings me into the present. It’s good, but not quite what I’m looking for.

Write down three good things that happened today and express my gratitude for them? Sure. That sounds like a good idea, and I will do that; it’s good for me. But, how can I use what has happened to me to propel me forward?

I need to ask the right questions and use data. I need to reflect on my experiences.

Baking the Cake?

One of the first experiences I can remember vividly was the first time I made a cake, I would have been about 11 or 12. Mom had determined that I was not going to end up like my dad – who struggled to boil an egg. So, I set to with flower, eggs, sugar … you get the picture. I think it might have been a sponge cake? It was a long time ago mind.

The point is that I’ve made a lot of cakes and other food since then, and I’ve always asked the same questions, looking to improve:

  1. How was the food?

  2. What did I and particularly others think about it?

  3. Was it good or bad?

  4. Did it make sense to make that food?

  5. What else might I have done?

  6. Would I make the food again?

Now, I ask myself these questions, but so too do I ask others, usually the people eating the food. I also ask my wife, who is a better cook than me. I will also look at other recipes for the same or similar food.

I reflect on what has happened to me, to improve my performance next time.

Structured Reflection is Based on Data

So, if we want to use what has happened to us to better determine where we go in life, we need to put a little structure at the end of (or at some point during) our days, and that structure needs to reflect on data.

Data comes from four main places:

  1. Ourselves. Lots of people write diaries, recoding their own impressions of events. What we’re writing is our autobiography. This is a great place to start reflecting, but it’s subjective, and prone to bias and occasionally hubris. We need more.

  2. Our customers or clients (perhaps members of our family). One of the most elegant pieces of consumer research is the theory of ‘net promoter score.’ It asks a simple question: “How likely is it that you would recommend our company, product or service to a friend or colleague?” In reflective practice, we’re seeking the same sort of response, but using a few more questions. We want to see what our clients think, through their eyes.

  3. Our peers. Now other people won’t have the same experiences as we do. Everyone has a different view, even in the same situation. But, they will experience similar events and will have observations to make.

  4. Other people’s experiences. We should also draw on the experience of other people in similar situations. In this case, the data is either written down or presented in some medium or another (books, newspaper, magazine or journal articles, TV, radio or film).

Asking Good Questions

There are all sorts of things that we could ask ourselves and others. “What was I THINKING?!” is one that generally comes to mind when reflecting on events. But, we’re looking to learn, to move forward, to determine a better future. We need good questions.

I’ve hinted at them above, but the questions I use are well known:

  1.  What happened?

  2. What were you thinking and feeling?

  3. What was good and bad about the experience?

  4. What sense can you make of the situation

  5. What else could you have done?

  6. If something similar occurs again, what would you do?

We wrap these around the data, ask ourselves, our clients, our peers and others, and we seek progress.

It’s important to remember there are no perfect answers. In scientific terms, all data is indeterminate, which means that for any set of data, there is always more than one explanation.

Approaching Reflection

So, we’ve got questions and data. How do we use them?

For me, it’s part of a bigger process:

  1. Write down a personal vision, mission and values statement and commit to it.

  2. Get organised and plan for the future.

  3. Assess your character strengths, identify your character strengths and areas for growth

  4. Keep a journal: reflect on events using the process I’ve outlined. Record your thoughts, and feelings; look for emerging patterns.

  5. Write down three things to be grateful for each day and why you should be grateful.

  6. Do not take experiences personally. There are two (or more) sides to every experience. Instead:

  7.  Look at yourself from a distance with a sense of perspective and especially of humour

  8. Empathize – say out loud what you imagine the other person is experiencing

  9. Don’t work against yourself

  10. Plan changes in behaviour based on the patterns you identify and on your strengths.

Does It Work?

Yes, it does. If I don’t do it every day, I do it more than I don’t.

It acts as a release for tension. It acts to modify any hubris. It grounds me. It sets me up for meditation, in that it brings me back to the present. But most importantly, it provides a focus for deciding how to move forward. It adds to my map. I do something positive with what has happened to me, good, bad or indifferent.

You Want More?

This blog draw on the work of three scholars.

Stephen Brookfield write his piece on “Critically Reflective Practice” in 1998 and it was published in volume 18, part four (page 197-205) of the Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions.

In 1975, David Kolb and Ron Fry wrote a chapter (pages 33-58) “Towards an applied theory of experiential learning” in the book Theories of Group Processes, which was edited by Cary Cooper, and published by Wiley in New York.

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