“To Thine Own Self Be True.”
In the Leadership class I teach at school we are currently working our way through the classic “7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens” by Sean Covey, the son of Stephen Covey.
(As an aside, having read both Sean’s teen-focused volume and Stephen’s original “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, I prefer the teen version with its focus on personal growth and relationships. The adult version also talks about such things, but does so with more of an eye to productivity and the bottom-line which has always been of less interest to me than personal growth and building community. Maybe I prefer the teen version because while I am an adult, I have spent 32 years of my life in high school - but I digress).
One of the first key concepts explained in both books is that of the “Personal Bank Account.” The notion behind the Personal Bank Account is that we each have a bank account or balance sheet with ourselves. And like a real-life bank account we make both deposits and withdrawals, with the account balance reflecting which of those are done more frequently.
Examples of deposits include keeping promises to yourself (wake up at 6 am, mow the lawn before it rains, write a new blog entry, study for an upcoming test, etc.), forgiving yourself, taking time to refresh or renew yourself, or using your talents. Withdrawals would be the opposite; breaking promises, beating yourself up, burning out, being who others want you to be.
A positive balance in the Personal Bank Account builds confidence, allows momentum to be established for future endeavours, and provides a wellspring from which to give to others. A negative balance then shakes confidence, establishes a pattern of falling short, and in turn can lead to isolation or despair.
There is much talk today about concepts like anxiety, resilience, and grit. Experts proclaim that today’s teens experience high levels of anxiety and low levels of resilience and grit. They talk about what can be done systemically to address these concerns, whether it be how we parent, coach minor sports, how we teach, how employers deal with teens, and so on.
Perhaps one answer lies in something as simple as being aware of one’s own personal bank account and taking the necessary steps to make those valuable deposits.
Set simple landmarks for each day and experience the boost that comes from keeping this word to yourself. Use this momentum to tackle larger tasks. Forgive yourself if you break such a promise and start again. When feeling overwhelmed, press pause and do something for yourself (read a book, take a walk, or my favourite - take a nap). Use what you’re good at and enjoy for something bigger than yourself; don’t be button-holed into doing certain things or acting a certain way based on the expectations of others.
Shakespeare’s original line “To Thine Own Self Be True” is spoken by Polonius in Act I Scene III of Hamlet as advice to his son who is setting off to Paris. Polonius was not privy to the concept of the Personal Bank Account and in the context of Shakespeare’s time the words can also be taken to mean “put your own interests or benefit first.” Our modern take on the quotation is more in line with Covey’s exhortations. Keep promises to yourself, take care of yourself, be yourself, and express yourself.
Whether a teen struggling with anxiety and overwhelmed by expectations (both external and internal) or an adult languishing in an unfulfilling career or relationship, Polonius’ advice and Covey’s concept can be a lifesaver.
Before every airplane flight passengers are informed that should the cabin lose pressure the oxygen masks will fall in front of you. They are then admonished to put on their own mask before assisting others. This isn’t selfish - it is logical. You won’t be able to help anyone with their mask if you are not getting oxygen yourself.
“To Thine Own Self Be True.” Make a promise to yourself and keep it. Repeat. If you take one step back, forgive yourself, regroup, renew, and take two steps forward. Build momentum surely and slowly for bigger objectives. Build up a positive balance in your personal bank account and use it as a springboard to explore what matters to you and how to bring that out to the world. Don’t be afraid to put your own interests to the forefront for your own well-being. You will feel the difference, and over time those around you will feel it too.