Feedback please: How others really see us

HENRY OLIVER
Last updated 05:00 16/03/2014
Dr Kerry Spackman

INTER-THINKER: Neuroscientist, performance consultant and author Dr Kerry Spackman, the man behind Anonymous Online Audit.

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A web-based service lets us see ourselves as others see us. With some trepidation, our reporter signs up for an audit by the ones who know him best.

It could be the opening scene of the next Spike Jonze film: an ambivalent thirty-something in a minimalist meeting room discusses his forthcoming personal audit with a performance enhancement consultant. Except, that thirty-something is not Joaquin Phoenix or John Cusack. It's me. And Dr Kerry Spackman (neuroscientist, performance consultant and author ofThe Winner's Bible: Rewire Your Brain For Permanent Change) is explaining how receiving anonymous feedback about my personality from friends and family could help transform me into the winner I could and should be.

"We all go through life looking from the inside out," Dr Spackman explains when we meet at Auckland University of Technology's Millenium Institute of Sport and Health, where he works with New Zealand's elite athletes, helping them to maximise their mental performance. He says we construct our identities, in part, through our own interpretation of the opinions of others, which we collect as we go through life. "We've been given a whole pile of information, some of which we construct ourselves, some of which is really ill-considered but nevertheless may be hugely powerful."

According to Dr Spackman, this information can put us into an "accidental hypnosis", in which we come to believe inaccurate or outdated conceptions of ourselves that may be holding us back - both personally and professionally. To help us take a look from the outside in, to reconsider that information and "see ourselves as we really are", he has developed Anonymous Online Audit, a web-based personal auditing service recently launched to the public.

To be audited, you (the 'winner', as Dr Spackman graciously calls his clients) invite friends, family members or colleagues (your 'auditors') to give feedback on your personality in five key areas: 'Strengths', 'Weaknesses', 'Skills', 'Repeated Mistakes', and 'Other'. When at least four auditors have responded, the winner - for nine dollars - can close the audit and access the report, which collates the feedback into neat, categorised bulletpoints. The feedback remains inthe exact words of the auditors and is presented in random order within each category to keep the feedback anonymous. Unless they choose to share with others, the winner is the only person to see the results.

I've never been one for self-help. Not that I've never needed help, or that I couldn't use some improving, but I like to think of myself as a relatively self-critical and self-aware person. Over the years, I've consoled myself with the notion I could probably be a winner if I let myself care just a little more about winning. At the same time, I can also see how a general 'healthy' scepticism can sometimes devolve into cynicism, which can lead to nihilism and, finally, to stasis. I both care and don't care at all about what people think of me, often in equal measure, switching between the two positions without logic or reason. While I doubt my loved ones will be able to offer any criticism I do not regularly level against myself, the idea of having that self-criticism confirmed by the people I care about still induces anxiety.

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"What takes people by surprise is usually a big, overall global personality thing like 'arrogant'," Dr Spackman says. "You may not realise the scale of it; you may just think, 'I'm confident, I'm assertive,' and people go, 'No, that comes across as arrogant.' You get that from seven people and you go, 'Okay, I need to modify my assertiveness.'" If he's trying to make me feel more comfortable with the process, it's not working. Socrates may have had a point when he said the "unexamined life" isn't worth living, but I always thought that meant we should examine our own lives, not pay for a website to ask our friends to do the hard work for us. On first blush, the cynic in me saw Anonymous Online Audit as just another self-help snake oil, carefully constructed to profit on those who take courses on how to network, rather than talking to people and being interested; who read books with titles like 'How to Get the Most out of Friendship', rather than engaging with their actual friends.

Despiteall this, I couldn't deny my increasing curiosity. Dr Spackman's earnest positivity and charisma was rubbing off, and I figured I may as well at least taste the Kool-Aid. I care deeply about winning at cards and sports, games where there are no real world consequences. Shouldn't I want to be a winner in life, too? Scepticism be damned.

Dr Spackman mentions that a recent 'winner' signed up 17 auditors, which is "a lot". The competitor in me wanted more. I sent the advised introductory email to 20 prospective auditors, adding a protective layer of self-referential snark to protect my ego from possible rejection. I then nervously entered the email addresses into the website. As soon as I clicked 'Send', I began to dread the oncoming narcissism. I started compulsively checking the website to see which of my auditors had responded. I went down the list and guessed what each would think my weaknesses were. I saw my future self reading the report, smiling through my teeth as I read truth after truth, all too accurate to bear. I feared that not only did my friends and family see through me, they now knew that I cared so much about what they thought that I had asked them to spend half an hour filling out an online form about me.

I held off closing the audit and receiving the report for as long as possible, in the hope that the longer I waited, the more auditors would respond. While I initially wanted to be audited just so I could write about it, once I was committed to the process, I genuinely wanted to get a return on my emotional investment. I had compelled people I care about to take time out of their busy lives to think and write about me. I asked them to take it seriously, to give to me straight. If nothing else, I owed them the same. I got eight responses (at short notice on a Friday afternoon). As soon as the report loaded, I nervously scrolled down, scanning for 'Weaknesses' and 'Repeated Mistakes'. I carefully read these sections twice before pausing to take a breath. I looked closely for clues as to who said what, running the list of auditors in my mind as I picked out certain words. As I expected, it was nothing I hadn't heard before or thought myself, but the transactional nature of asking for honest criticism and then receiving it doesn't soften the blow. What I didn't expect was how touched I felt that a handful of people had taken the time to point out my failures and offer me advice. Not because they had been waiting for an opportunity to do so, but because they cared.

Having full-heartedly absorbed the negatives (only some of which I'm willing to share: "Spends too much time thinking about things rather than acting on them"; "Can get distracted and bored"; "Not good at saving money"), I allowed myself to open up to the positives without cringing internally, without discounting or depreciating, without guarding myselfwith irony. It felt good. It didn't feel good like when your buddy drunkenly tells you at 3am how great you are. It didn't feel good like when someone retweets or 'likes' you. It felt good like Dr Spackman said it would. Like it meant something. Like it mattered.

I took it all on board and gave each and every comment the consideration it deserved, but I still don't know what I will ultimately take from all of this. I know I won't take from it what Dr Spackman would want me to: I won't devise a strategy to accentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives. That's not me. Under 'Repeated Mistakes', and contrary to the entire purpose of the process, one of my auditors wrote: "Don't ever change, Henry!" That's flattering, but I know it's the one response I can never live up to. I will continue to grow and change and please and disappoint. And maybe win a little, too. 

Dr Spackman is running a one-day course at AUT in Auckland on March 22. For full details visit winnersbible.com.

- Sunday Magazine

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