One day everything’s normal, the next we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. Not since 1918 has the world mobilized to fight such a common invisible foe. And back then as now many would-be leaders were compelled for the first time to dig deep, step up, and lead with the strength of an intrepid warrior.
“A nobleman compares and estimates himself by an idea that is higher than himself; and a mean man, by one lower than himself.” This quote from Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher is relevant now more than ever.
Today, whether you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or CEO of your home and family we’re all in the same fight against this Great Virus. And given the uncertainties of our decisions, we will undoubtedly question ourselves, doubt ourselves, and search for ways to manage our daily affairs better. But we may also recognize that in troubled times we can also learn important things about ourselves, and in turn use this challenging opportunity to reflect, adjust and emerge a better, more insightful person and leader. And the best way to see the forest through the trees and help improve upon your personal performance in a crisis according to experts is to get in touch with your inner self-expression by keeping a Personal Journal.
Outward self-expression is nothing new. There are many forms from art to science. Personal self-expression via clothing, jewelry, footwear and body-art have been a hallmark of mankind since the dawn of human existence. But what of the mind of the creators of written self-expressive forms? Do creators of personal literary artifacts learn from their creations? How does it matter really? Have you ever wondered what people who self-express in written form truly gain from it? You be the judge.
By the time of his death in 180 AD Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius had long learned and appreciated the benefits of writing down his personal thoughts as a conscientious leader, soldier and philosopher of his day. His posthumous 12 books of the Meditations are well studied for their keen observational insights the introverted emperor pondered and recorded over the many campaigns he waged during his 20 year reign. Perhaps like many great leaders today Aurelius was a complex blend of deep influences. As a Stoic Philosopher common of the day he imbued as an acute and persistent inner quest a rare yearning for self-development. And he learned that finding quiet time to journal his thoughts provided a therapeutic activity of mind and hand to reflect and to take note of his most poignant perspectives, even when they conflicted. Far ahead of his time the Roman conqueror saw the benefits to inscribing his thoughts as an essential part of understanding and developing who he was as a man and a leader. To Marcus Aurelius admittedly keeping a personal diary (or journal) was his way to perpetually self-evaluate and improve himself, a form of hand-written meditation.
Of course, the earliest known written personal form of self-expression is still the ubiquitous Diary. Historically, the diary by definition is a simple daily scribing of chronological events. Over time as personal observations were naturally added as narrative to the text a diary became a personal diary, and from there a Personal Journal which is less about chronology and more about jotting down personal feelings to accompany observations of a particular event or subject.
The earliest known personal diaries with commentary narrative tended to be travelogues. The first written travelogue ever identified and to have survived as such came from the Chinese philosopher and writer Li Ao in the year 809 AD while on a trip through southern China with his then pregnant wife, a detailed account which survives today.
However, in western culture the earliest English written account as a chronological personal record is from Thomas Beckington in 1442 as King’s emissary documenting his 6-month journey from England to France to help arrange the marriage of King Henry VI to the niece of King Charles VII of France. A dreadful endeavor we now know from extraneous personal letters. Flipping through the text you immediately take note of its chronological nature and limited personal reflections. That made this personal diary an effort hardly the self-reflective learning tool it could have been. While Beckington was keeping his personal diary, he was also composing letters wherein he struggled to express and alleviate his truer deeper frustrations during the trip. Given the chance to self-address and work through persistent personal and political ambiguities his keeping of a diary missed the golden opportunity to settle his mind and arbitrate his opposing views.
Enter contemporary times… wherein the best of both diaries and journals have combined into one blended form. Of the most notable accounts in modern history we benefit from today include the written words, drawings, figures and formulas of Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Lewis & Clark, Madame Curie, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Nelson Mandela, Richard Branson, and of course, Oprah Winfrey who started journaling when she was 15 years old and claims “Keeping a journal will absolutely change your life in ways you’ve never imagined.”
The Personal Journal as a Personal Learning Coach
Despite its rich history and promising rewards, however, journaling seems to be a lost art for most people. But not for everyone. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson has long been journaling and carries a little notebook with him as he goes about his day to make regular hand notes of his thoughts and feelings as they occur to him. The idea is to learn from your own thoughts. “Don’t just take notes for the sake of taking notes,” he says, “go through your ideas and turn them into actionable and measurable goals.” Good advice.
Dan Ciampa a former CEO of his own consulting firm kept a 12-year personal journal and has authored 5 books on CEO leadership. He advises CEOs today on how important it is to replay events in your day. Because “while the brain records and holds what takes place in the moment…the learning happens after the fact during periods of quiet reflection.” And Marcus Aurelius would agree if only more people everywhere kept a personal journal and referred to it frequently, perhaps we’d have a higher understanding of the importance and positive effect this form of self-expression provides to advancing personal development and enabling better decisions across all of humanity, especially in times of crisis.
So why is keeping a personal journal so effective?
According to research there are many tangible benefits to journaling as mentioned, but other benefits while less tangible are more significantly ethereal. Experts cite three such benefits commonly overlooked to journaling:
- It provides a chance to slow things down, meditate and be contemplative.
- It provides a chance to ask yourself insightful questions like: What biases might be influencing my actions and decisions?
- It provides a chance to allow the connection between mind, body, and spirit to add voice to your introspective opinions.
Once you commit to keeping a personal journal the steps to getting started are super easy:
- Buy a paper journal. While digital-online journals are handy. They are not always better.
- Create a Personal Quote on your title page that summarizes your reason for keeping a journal eg) I write this journal to myself and no-one else with the intent to document and explore my observations as…
- Find a quiet place to settle your mind regardless of where you are.
- Start with the basics of your observations – who, what, where, when, and add the ‘why.’
- Try to get in the habit of journaling as often as possible and within 24hrs of an observation.
How to approach your writing
- Be self-reflective – consider how you feel emotionally & why.
- Be balanced in your evaluation of people, and projects, not too critical not too kind.
- Discuss how things are developing good vs bad, pro vs con.
- And finally ask yourself — How can I get better at this?
In summary, what I’m trying to communicate to you is that keeping a journal or personal diary is a proven self-awareness, self-evaluation tool any person can adopt and benefit from. The chance to organize your thoughts into a written narrative that pulls together all aspects of experience and expression is a key best practice these days. The thinking is that while the stresses of a Covid-19 world create lingering unknowns, keeping a personal journal provides a way to not only quietly reflect, but also blow off steam and help relieve the stresses of the day. It’s helped me. Keeping a personal journal allows me to summarize my observances more cerebrally from many points of view, un-edited. And by doing so I can develop new points of view, and often discover new paths through critical problems and that has made me a more confident and actionable leader in my view.
Lastly, when you think about it… now is when the people who count on you the most need the most from you. And so, when you think of the bright side what better time than a global crisis is there to learn another way to reach deep inside yourself and pull your inner voices together and down onto a waiting page. Or as Emperor Marcus Aurelius put it “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” And journaling is our thoughts. So, grab your pen… and let’s journal-down on this crisis.
Written by Rick Andrade. Here’s what you’ve missed?
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