It Just Ain’t So

We’re Less Self-Aware Than We Think

And How That Impacts Our Careers

The movie “The Big Short” has revived a popular quote from Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” As the movie unfolds, we receive a close up look at many widely held beliefs among investors that turned out to be wrong, and how those beliefs contributed to the financial meltdown of 2007-2009.

Standing Up to Hitler

After seeing that movie, I had two other experiences that deepened my belief in the importance of questioning what we think we know. The first experience was reading about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who stood up to Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was born into a brilliant family. His dad, a scientific genius, taught all his children that having a remarkable IQ was of no use unless one trained one’s mind to think clearly and logically. It’s not how smart we are. It’s how well we use the intelligence we have. That includes not embracing some of the illogical and/or flawed assumptions that many investors made before and during that financial meltdown.

Certainty Can Be a Form of Denial

Another related experience came in the form of an email from business guru Seth Godin. In a piece Godin titled, “Without a Doubt,” he chides people in power who think that when they’re confident about something they can be certain about it. Godin says that sometimes confidence or certainty in our beliefs can be a form of hiding or denial. We think we don’t need to learn or understand more because we’re confident we understand so well. Confidence can be mistaken for certainty, sometimes leading to disastrous results. Or as one of my VC clients and friends wryly observed: “Some executives are often wrong, but never in doubt.”

Fatally Biased

That brings me back to my work with SIMA, and the world of executive assessment, executive selection, and coaching. The most pervasive problem I see within the executives ranks, in both large and small organizations, is that most of us think we have the self-awareness to know our strengths and motivations, when in fact we lack the necessary objectivity and perspective. The fact is, we’re fatally biased.

SIMA data gathered from more than 100,000 executives across several decades reveals that even among the best educated, most successful executives, self-awareness can be relatively low. Questioning our assumptions, challenging our confidence, and putting our beliefs about ourselves to the test can be enlightening. More importantly, an accurate, detailed understanding of our motivations and strengths can lead directly to stronger job performance, more effective leadership, and better executive/organizational job fit.

Evaluate Only on Actual Experience

The false confidence we often have about our self-awareness is best overturned by closely examining our real-life behavior and experience. This is why SIMA is behaviorally based. We draw data about people only from their actual experiences, accomplishments, and achievements. The SIMA Process is a way to evaluate your talents, skills, and preferences not through interpretation but through observation. It’s based on the physical what not the theoretical why.

Get Beyond What You Believe

In my 25+ years of executive assessment, coaching, and advising leadership teams, I’ve observed that it’s the rare person – perhaps one in 50 – who can accurately analyze their discrete skills and abilities, and the work circumstances in which they thrive. Self-awareness— true, accurate, and actionable self-awareness —is about getting beyond what you believe and getting to what you have actually done. The truth about you is found in what you do, not what you say.

And that reminds me of one more cultural tidbit, this one from President Ronald Reagan. When speaking about relations between Russia and the United States, Reagan would often quote a Russian proverb, “Trust but verify.” Even if you are that rare, one in 50 executive and your self-awareness is exceptionally accurate, what are you risking by not verifying? Do you harbor assumptions or beliefs about yourself that ‘just ain’t so’?

Your comments, questions and feedback are always welcome at or visit

SIMA® International is a worldwide group of consultants who use the proprietary assessment technology, SIMA®, to help our clients make the best possible “people decisions.”

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