Growing Our Human Potential

Part 3. A Framework – The “Self-Discovery” Stage

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There are multiple levels or layers to self. The outermost layer is what we are most aware of. This is what we know about ourselves, or typically this is limited to what we see. Similar to the analogy of an iceberg (see image), we are conscious (portion of iceberg above the water), of only about 10% of who and what we really are. What lies beneath the surface represents our subconscious, or largely unaware of, which represents our beliefs, values, biases, prejudices, etc. This accounts for 90% of self, which is largely hidden from us, and requires a conscious effort to learn about our hidden self. It is what lies beneath the surface, our subconscious, that plays a major role in our behaviors and consequences. Hence the value of self-discovery is to undertand this connection so that we can change our unhealthy patterns, negative consequences, into more healthy beliefs and positive consequences. We are the cause of our own unhappiness which is so difficult to initially grasp!

The process of self-discovery begins as we are motivated to begin peeling away the layers and delve into our subconscious. This is no easy task, which is why I stated that one must be motivated to do so. It is about taking that hard look within so that you can understand our behaviors and actions along with why we choose them. The key word here is choice (see my Post on the topic of Choice) We come to realize our tendency to react to situations and why this is. The outcome of this work is that we become more conscious and self-aware, thereby learning to make better choices that are more consistent with our goals and desires. We shift from being a victim to a victor, thereby taking charge of our life! These are both aspects of self that one would develop during the “Personal Growth” stage as I outline in the image below.

Developed by Michael McGinnis

With a stronger self-esteem and image there are those that choose to embark deeper within which is characteristic of “Self-Discovery”. The motivation is to figure out who and what we are so that we can be better aligned with what we choose to do in our life. The quest is to be happy, which itself comes under scrutiny as we redefine what happiness and success means to us. We want to discover more of our potential and become this potential in order to feel greater levels of meaning and purpose in our life. There are a couple of quotes and a movie that express the motivation behind pursuing our Self-Discovery.

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, the being a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch, which I’ve got held up for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

George Bernard Shaw

For many life is characterized by the grind, rut, routine that develop into feelings of unhappiness, anger, frustration, and stress. We have come to settle with what is expected from us in life. We fall prey to becoming a victim “complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” The routines feel like a ball and chains we come to wear. Yes, aspects of our life such as our job, raising a family do become routines and can feel like a chore, but with a shift in values, beliefs, and attitude, we not only learn to accept what we must do, but we also redefine these aspects into something meaningful, something that we are grateful for, and find ways to challenge ourselves to be the best we can be in each of these areas. Let me share personal examples of this transition.

Rather than feeling that work was a chore, I changed how I viewed work and then sought ways to make the most of it. In my case as a training leader, I wanted to learn everything I could about this trade. I wanted to be the best manager along with changing the perception towards training as a strategic resource versus something employees had to do. I created annual development plans to learn new competencies to help me perform more effectively and efficiently. I challenged my team to do the same and to turn every problem into an opportunity for innovation and success. The results led to being nationally recognized for my contributions along with promotions within my company. But it was the feeling within me that was the greatest reward, that I was living up to my full potential and improving upon this every year.

My role as a parent also felt like a chore and routine. When I came to realize that being a great Dad and raising my children was one of my core values, I sought out ways to make the most out of this time. I came to see the sacrifice so often needed as a parent not as something that depleted the helium in my balloon, but instead as the most powerful investment I can make with my children, a choice that I made to have.

“Throughout your life, there is a voice only you can hear. A voice which mythologists label “the call.” A call to the value of your life. The choice of risk and individual bliss over the known and secure. You may choose not to hear your spirit. You may prefer to build a life within the compound, to avoid risk. It is possible to find happiness within a familiar box, a life of comfort and control. Or, you may choose to be open to new experiences, to leave the limits of your conditioning, to hear the call. Then you must act.​ If you never hear it perhaps nothing is lost. If you hear it and ignore it, your life is lost.”

Jennifer James

A strong self-esteem & self-confidence were developed during the Personal Growth stage. Here we learn to develop greater levels of courage and taking risk, essential to the stage of Self-Discovery. Characteristic of this stage is an innate desire to find greater meaning and purpose within your life. Although we all feel this way at times, these individuals take action, often requiring risk and adventure. It is easy to accept our unhappiness, realizing that we are just like so many others we know. It is difficult to blaze a new path.

It was in my thirties that I first felt this call. A colleague placed Jennifer’s quote (above) on my desk. I was in tears when I read this since this revealed to me what I was struggling with inside. Following a series of events and encounters, I hung up my corporate title and role for a backpack to volunteer and travel around the world. It went against everything I was taught was important and that which made sense. The result was that my life had changed forever as I discovered so much about myself and of life itself on my many journeys. The quote from Michael Crichton best sums up this experience.

“Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am. There is no mystery about why this should be so. Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of your food, your closet full of your clothes — with all this taken away, you are forced into direct experience. Such direct experience inevitably makes you aware of who it is that is having the experience. That’s not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating.”

We are creatures of comfort and like routine, because it feels safe and comfortable, yet it is characteristic of all human beings to want to grow, which means being pushed out of our comfort zone. Earlier I referrenced the key word of “CHOICE”. In order to grow we must make the choice to grow or to live unhappily ever after. During my travels as mentioned above, I lived in an uncomfort zone confronting new languages, cultures, customs, food, death, dying, dwellings, crime, people, and events. The epitome of this was my rafting experience on the class 5 Zambeze River in Zimbabwe. After falling out of the raft I ran out of air as I was tossed and turned under the class 5 rapid. I was then caught in a whirlpool after surfacing and then confronted with a crocodile after I finally reached the shore. It was coming to grips with my own potential death that I had my own Near-Life Experience! Following a number of incredibly challenging experiences I had discovered so much about life, including how fortunate I was to remain alive. I came to value life along with the attitude of gratitude. These experiences had significant impacts on the choices I made once I returned back to my no longer “normal” life!

The movie, Dances with Wolves, provides a great story of Self-Discovery. Dunbar (Kevin Costner) leaves an unfullfilling life to venture out to the far reaches of what was known at that time. There he settled in to sparse surroundings and a journal where he began to reshape his life beginning with developing new values and beliefs. The result was that his values had changed. The mark of a great value and belief is that you are willing to die for this, which was the case for him. These people are more likely to confront death more easily knowing that they lived life on purpose and according their their values!

Self-Discovery is a conscious effort to understand who we are in terms of our personality and then venturing deeper to define and refine our attitude, core beliefs and values which drive our behaviors to achieve the consequences we want. It is the recognition that our outcomes (consequences) are a result of our attitude, beliefs and values all being in synch with what we want out of life, and to achieve our full potential. Self-discovery develops at the root our self-awareness, so that we live more consciously, which becomes our rudder directing where we want to go with our life. Life happens, including the good, bad and the ugly, but it is our beliefs, values and self-awareness that guides us proactively through these times. With these, we react based on our fears, unhealthy beliefs, bias, prejudice, etc.

Developed by Michael McGinnis

The image shown here provides an overview of the Journey of Self-Discovery. It uses the analogy of peeling away the many layers of the onion, or our consciousness. This was covered in the prior post on this Framework (see Post)

As I started my own journey of self-discovery, I realized that I was a victim of society, my family, education, etc., whom I allowed (my choice) to define who and what I should be, define what was important, what happiness and success is, my appearance, etc. Never was I encouraged to consider my own definition of success and happiness. I would be judged based on how well I lived up to society and my parents definitions. My perception of self was based on large part on how well I would live up to everyone else’s perceptions versus my own.

Self-Discovery is addressing the questions, “Who Am I?”, “Who Do I Want To Be?”, What Does Happiness & Success Mean To Me?”, “What Do I Stand For?”, “What Do I Value?”, “What Does Being My Full Potential Look Like?”

As I share in a post on the topic of “Key Concepts To Know and Apply To Your Journey of Self-Discovery”, one of these concepts is the ABC Model (see Post on this topic). It states that it is ultimately our beliefs and values that drive our behaviors which results in the consequences we experience in life. So if we are experiencing negative consequences, the first place to start is not by blaming others, but instead to take that hard look within and understand how I am contributing to these consequences.

So how do we begin to understand our values and determine what we want them to be? I share in my book an exercise I use to help people identify and prioritize their values. This is a very introspective and difficult activity. It can begin the discovery process of understanding what we currently value and ultimately what we want to value. The goal of self-discovery is to define what we truly value, not just in our heads as a thinking activity, but mostly how we feel which understands how these values are aligned with our hearts. Once discovered, these values and beliefs are motivating, engaging, and serve as a new rudder in our life, helping us to determine how best to navigate life’s exciting yet challenging waters. The trick is discovering those that are most aligned with who we are and want to be. Then the challenge is making them an active part of our life. A great example of doing this is Benjamin Franklin and his Thirteen Virtues. Benjamin would review these each evening to assess how he did and where he could improve.

I must state again that it is critical that one has done their foundational work, “Personal Growth” (see Tree of Life image above) with respect to their initial recovery and identifying the unhealthy beliefs that they had once formed. We must be aware of how our beliefs were tainted so not carry forward these issues. It is best to have a clear head and open heart. We must have the self-awareness to understand what our former beliefs were and why before we consider what we want to become. We have all been conditioned to some degree.

The development of new beliefs and values often requires experimentation. Some are born with a strong conviction to what their life is about. For most of us, it requires a process of discovery. We are often limited and bounded to some degree by our responsibilities (e.g. work and family). This search is more difficult because of these responsibilities. Traditional societies often provided a means for an individual to conduct their self-discovery. The American Indians used the “Vision Quest” where their sons would leave the tribe and not return until they understood who they were. An example of this was portrayed in the movie, Dances with Wolves, when the character Dunbar left the civilization that he was accustomed to due to his trauma and found solstice in isolation. There was a point of revelation which is where the Chief said to him, You are no longer Dunbar, you are now “Dances with Wolves”. Their Indian name often came from their experience (vision) that gave them this new clarity. My own journey of self-discovery is featured in the video, “A Modern Day Vision Quest – A Personal Search to Discover Self and the Meaning of Life”.

About Michael

Michael is an award winning author, speaker, facilitator and coach on the topics of Career Coaching, Leadership, Personal Growth & Self-Discovery. Check out “Discovering Michael: An Inspirational Guide to Personal Growth & Self-Discovery” You can also view my latest development book on Leadership, “Leadership From The Inside Out: Building Your Leadership Foundation” which utilizes the concepts covered in this Framework to develop great leaders. Visit my website for more information ( You can contact Michael at

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